Brexit has not gone away; far from it
Gavin Williamson is a lucky man. In any ordinary government he would have been sacked over the exams fiasco this month, ex-Chief Whip’s book or not. This, however, is not a normal government. It’s not normal in part because it simply doesn’t play by the conventions of the game and is happy to brazen out scandals or tolerate failure that generally wouldn’t have been accepted in the past. It also has the advantage of a Labour Party that under Starmer is actually worse at the politics of opposition than it was under Corbyn (albeit that Labour’s made big steps forward in ability and credibility). But mainly, Williamson is politically lucky because it’s impossible to keep education centre stage amid the Covid-19 crisis.
The pandemic, and the social and economic disruption it’s caused, have inevitably, and rightly, dominated the news for almost the entire year. The country has gone through its deepest recession since before it was a country. During April, excess deaths were occurring at six times the rate of UK casualties in World War II. Government borrowing is at record peace-time levels and its debt is five times what it was in 2005 (before inflation admittedly, though that’s been low through much of the period).
But other issues haven’t gone away; some by necessity, others by choice. One such issue that the government chose to come to a head this year was Brexit, when it opted not to extend the transition period in the summer and hence to ensure that the period ends on 31 December.
That choice not to extend was unsurprising given that this is very clearly a Tory-Leave government, elected on an explicit mandate to Get Brexit Done, and whose political tactics have consistently embraced brinkmanship. If the belief is that only the pressure of a deadline will produce results, what value is there to delaying it, no matter what else might be taking the attentions of governments? Indeed, Brexiteers might argue that such distractions might even be beneficial if they pressure the EU members to agree a deal they wouldn’t otherwise (though that’s dangerous thinking and probably wrong: the distractions are more likely to mean less EU flexibility as leaders have less time to revise Barnier’s instructions).
What it does mean though is that Brexit is about to return as a front-line political issue. The EU would like a deal done by October; the government, prior to the most recent round of talks this week, claimed it believed a deal was possible next month – but then misplaced optimism has been a feature of Brexiteers throughout.
In truth, of course, a deal can be done next month. As Johnson proved last year, his negotiating red lines are no more fixed than Theresa May’s were when it came down to it. Irish Sea border? No problem now.
On the other hand, the EU shouldn’t assume that the UK will eventually sign whatever the deal. Johnson has a much more Eurosceptic parliament behind him now; one which will accept No Deal should the EU’s terms be sufficiently unattractive – and in any case, unlike during Brexit Proper, even if parliament wanted to extend the transition, and had the procedure to do so, it still couldn’t: the end-of-transition is defined in the Withdrawal Agreement and cannot now be amended.
The timing is also worth noting. The EU Council summit in October takes place only a little over a week after the Conservative Party conference. That conference will be a virtual event this year due to Covid-19 but even so, a deal that breaks the government’s red lines will create an almighty row. The pressure on the PM will be to hold firm, at least on those points most easily understood. There may be scope to compromise on the technicalities of state aid and Level Playing field provisions; fishing, on the other hand, will be seen as a no-go zone. Remember that the Tory MPs represent almost every mile of coastline in England outside Merseyside and between the Tyne and Tees, plus sizeable amounts of Welsh and Scottish coast too.
This isn’t just internal Tory / Leave politics either. If the Conservatives are to stand a reasonable chance in the Holyrood elections next year then ‘protecting Scottish fish’ will be a key plank of the Unionist case that the UK can bat for Scotland more effectively than an independent Scotland can. It might be a small matter in terms of GDP but it’s representative and visible in a way that invisible services are not.
Unfortunately, other countries have both fishermen and elections to fight too. Emmanuel Macron has enough domestic difficulties on his plate without riling France’s seafarers as well. Finding an agreement tolerable to both sides will require unusual levels of tact, restraint, goodwill and subtlety. I’m not overly hopeful.
And if there’s no deal in October, then what? Further talks can be held and summits arranged but without compromise on the fundamentals, to what point? Indeed, both Barnier and Frost implicitly made that point this week, albeit calling on the other to move – a stalemate entirely representative of the mutual misunderstanding of intentions not just throughout the whole of the Brexit process but arguably throughout the entire UK-EU relationship.
Perhaps there is a deal all but done bar the most contentious points. To the surprise of many, that was exactly what happened both in 2018, with May’s doomed attempt, and then later with Johnson. Perhaps the leaders will find it easier to agree when they’re all talking in conference rather than to their own countryfolk. Perhaps the mix of brinkmanship and the unconcern for consequences that so marks this administration will make itself felt on the continent and prompt the EU to move in a way it hasn’t before. Perhaps – but I don’t expect it.