Thursday, 17 January 2019

Brexit impasse

So, as expected, Theresa May's deal was heavily voted down in the Commons. And, as expected, the resulting no confidence motion failed. After all turkeys (i.e. the Tories and the DUP) don't vote for Christmas. So, where do all these conniptions (thank you Alex Brummer, City Editor of the Daily Mail for that word which means 'fit of hysterics') leave us? The Speaker, after breaking with normal procedure and allowing amendments on the government motion to be tabled, did not call any of them. Eh? (He must have thought if he did it would make life easier for the government, I suppose). Whatever the reason we are none the wiser about what, if anything, could command a majority. But I think I can hazard a guess - nothing does.

Many commentators - and perhaps the financial markets given the behaviour of sterling in the aftermath of the vote - seem to think that this heralds a softer Brexit. I can't imagine why. Having lost by 230, May has to turn around at least 116 MPs, let's say 120 to get a guaranteed majority. Where are they going to come from?

That's nearly half of the 256 Labour MPs in the House, so it's unlikely to happen without party support. As Labour seem determined to sit on the fence, try to force a general election and blame the government for whatever happens or doesn't happen, I think real co-operation between the big parties is very unlikely, especially after Jeremy Corbyn's churlish refusal to take up the offer of a meeting.

For what it's worth I think May is right and Corbyn is wrong on the issue of ruling out no deal at this stage. While the EU is unlikely to concede much, it does not want no deal. I'm not entirely with David Davis when he says that we were always going to have to take it to the wire to get the EU to play ball, but it seems absolutely wrong to limit our negotiating position by ruling out no deal now, even if it's really not where we want to end up. And especially since, according to Wolfgang Munchau* the EU always expected there would be a deal and really isn't prepared for no deal. After all, it's what happens in the EU: there's always a deal at the end of the day.

Munchau also notes that, while the EU position has been totally united so far, cracks could now start to show between the 27 countries. While the BBC showed the tweets from Juncker, Tusk and various heads of state and said they showed co-ordination and a common front, Munchau thought it showed the EU was "clearly not prepared for this stand off" and the initial reactions were "all over the place".

Meanwhile, on the Tory side, 118 voted against, of which 16 are Remainers. And there's the 10 DUP MPs. Anything which would appeal to the hardline Tory Brexiteers won't appeal to Clarke, Soubry and Grieve. So if May goes towards a harder Brexit that's still only 102 of the 116 she needs; 112 if she also turns round the DUP.

So the numbers don't easily add up but it seems more likely to me that May would tack towards her Brexiteers than towards a softer plan B. After all, softening her approach will increase Tory divisions, not reduce them - and the whole "process" has been about keeping the Tory party together. Some commentators see portents of the end of the Conservative party as we know it. But it hasn't been the most successful political force in the world over the last 200 years without knowing how to stick it out.

I expect May will try to get more out of Brussels on the Irish issues. Not just the backstop - though the clarifications she got seemed worthwhile, they could be much more definite. But it's important to remember the DUP don't like the way Northern Ireland is treated differently from the mainland in the backstop. The differences seem small to us but these are matters of principle. I've always thought that, if May could get the DUP onside most of her Brexiteers will follow. But she may need to get some more red meat for them, even if it's in what the Political Declaration says about the future trade agreement.

It's not clear all that would be enough to get her over the line, but it would then need only a few more Labour waverers. 3 Labour MPs voted for the deal this week, she might get the handful more needed to get there.

And if not? Then reluctantly I suppose, if Parliament really cannot deliver on its promise, it's back to the people. It's not clear that there would be a majority in the House for including Remain on the ballot paper, or indeed any agreement on the question. But the likeliest way to get agreement from MPs would be to remind them that they agreed to the original referendum by a large majority, that it was entirely premised on the vote being accepted and acted on and that they agreed to Article 50 being triggered by a large majority. So the only logical question is to ask which Brexit option.

But I accept that, if Remain were to be on the ballot paper, Brexit could well be overturned. Danny Finkelstein wrote persuasively yesterday** that, while he had voted Remain but had accepted the referendum result meant that we should leave, his patience was being tried by the hardline Brexiteers. He said that, just as psychological experiments had recorded in other groups, the Brexiteers have talked themselves into an ever harder position and now reject out of hand solutions that they canvassed as acceptable a few short years ago. Like Norway. (Which isn't acceptable by the way, at least not as a long term solution, see my post of 18 December). So, if the Brexiteers won't go for May's pragmatic compromise, why should he hold to leave when he didn't vote for it?

It's a persuasive argument and one that, as an extremely reluctant, nose-holding remain voter who thinks we voted to leave so we should leave whatever,  I am struggling to rebut.

* EuroIntelligence blog 16 January
** Finkelstein's excellent column was in the Times on 16 January

Monday, 14 January 2019

Brexit - the crunch?

So now we see the shabby machinations by which MPs will try to over-ride the will of the people and thwart Brexit, aided and abetted by a Speaker apparently prepared to set aside centuries of Commons practice to deny the elected government its usual control over the Commons agenda.

It's been clear for some time that the reason Speaker Bercow has hung on in office past his self-imposed retirement deadline was because he saw a role for himself in the Brexit denoument. And also that the Remain-sympathising majority of MPs in Parliament saw fit to keep him there despite the bullying and harassment allegations as they thought he could be useful to them, notwithstanding the fact that, in the MeToo era it seems unbelievable that he was able to survive the smoke that looked and smelt of fire to the rest of us.

This Speaker is the only biased and politically motivated holder of that office in my lifetime. If you don't believe he is biased, as well as far too full of himself, please tell me why, in round one of the Commons Brexit debate in December it took him over an hour to call an MP who had any sympathy for Theresa May's deal. He wanted it to sound as if the whole House was against the deal while the media attention was greatest. I still don't understand why Bercow was retained after the last two General Elections and I think it's a great shame the voters in his constituency didn't get the chance to throw him out as the MPs should have done. For the Speaker of the House to drive a car with a "Bollocks to Brexit" sticker (he says it's his wife's car; well he would wouldn't he?) says it all. Not only biased, he doesn't care who sees it!

But will it work?

May's strategy has depended on the choice being between her deal and no deal. As soon as it becomes a three way (or greater) choice the outcome becomes much less certain. Or does it? The hard deadline of 29 March in the existing legislation will stay in place unless and until different legislation is passed. We already know that there isn't a majority in the Commons for any specific solution. Not even Remain, despite the majority of MPs having originally being in that camp at the time of the referendum.

The House might cop out and decide it can't decide so there should be a second referendum, but what chance they will agree on a question?

The only thing I can currently see them getting a majority for is delay: extending the Article 50 deadline. Which would be pointless as there is no sign that more time would help reach a consensus.

Interestingly, Wolfgang Munchau* reports that the EU could be prepared to go further than issuing clarification outside the Agreement that the notorious Irish backstop is intended to be temporary.  He also thinks that, having opened up the Withdrawal Agreement , even though they had said they wouldn't, the EU might amend the Agreement itself. But there's a sting - only if it is clear what the Commons wants. And a bigger sting - the EU might formalise its informal position that Article 50 could only be extended for the purposes of ratifying a deal approved in principle.

In that case Bercow, Grieve and chums don't have the time they think they have and can't get the control over events they think they can. The only choices available would be to withdraw Article 50 and Remain (possibly with a further referendum promised), or to exit with May's deal or no deal.

So there's a lot of water to flow under bridges quite quickly now. Like just about all commentators I hesitate to predict what will happen between now and 29 March.

But I don't think it's hard to predict what will happen afterwards if Brexit does not go ahead: the political atmosphere will become totally toxic.

If Brexit does not happen in March future voting patterns will be radically different. A serious anti-EU party, not contaminated with extremists (so not UKIP), would immediately become a major electoral player. Such a party would thrive whether or not there is a second referendum. And it would do so even if a second referendum voted to Remain. After all. you don't need 50% of the vote to win a General Election. So expect such a party to campaign on the premise that, if you give us a majority, this time we won't fail. We will use the first 18 months to prepare for exit, then issue Article 50, and we'll have been out for 18 months by the time of the next election. One could easily imagine a lot of people voting for that.

So Bercow, Grieve and even all the King's horses and all the King's men won't make Euro-scepticism go away.

MPs might be able to thwart Brexit. But if they do, they shouldn't expect normality to resume.

P.S. Munchau also notes that the major centre-right German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung reports that Germany is woefully under-prepared for a no deal Brexit. The EU has discounted this possibility from the outset, and so has not devoted any serious energy and funding to solving the problem. Germany has only just created financial room for 900 new jobs to deal with extra customs modalities that would be required to handle the massive amount of German exports to the UK. But this is not enough to avoid complete chaos....

P.P.S. The most risible thing I've read about Brexit in the last few days was John Major, advocating a second referendum, insisting that it would be a "definitive decision" by persuading each party leader to make a public statement that the result would be honoured. Er, didn't they do this last time, John?

*Wolfgang Munchau wrote in the FT and in his EuroIntelligence blog on 14

Saturday, 5 January 2019

Lucky City?

Manchester City's 2-1 win in their clash with Liverpool on Thursday gave us the right result to keep the title race tight at this stage. Now this is a game that I find very hard as a neutral. City and Liverpool are my least favourite teams (in that order, interestingly, there's a reason!). So my natural reaction would be to hope for a no-score draw, several red cards and a couple of broken legs but that would be immature, wouldn't it? (Quite, I hear you say). So I watched the game riveted as City played a high tempo, physical game - indeed a classic Premier League style game, with almost a derby match feel. Not what you might have expected from a Guardiola team. They prevented Liverpool from getting their high pressing game going and, as a result, Liverpool only showed flashes of their recent imperious form.

As Liverpool were  a bit under par arguably the result was right, but I thought City were fortunate to win, as they got the rub of the green with the present state of technology support to referees, in particular with two decisions early in the game while the score was still goal-less.

John Stones's remarkable goal-line clearance, after smashing the ball against his own goalkeeper in panic, might perhaps have been given a goal in the past. As the Sky pundits said, by the naked eye in real time "it looked in". The now well established goal line technology showed Stones was successful by 11mm:

Not only that, as you can see he knocked the ball down as much as out and, in mis-hitting hit, he avoided Mo Salah scoring on the rebound. It was a great bit of play but still fortunate and the currently approved technology ensured the right decision.

However, when Stones hit a poor pass to Vincent Kompany just inside City's half with the score at 0-0 this challenge by Kompany on Salah was so far outside the rules it should have been an automatic red card:

Now keen readers will know I've never been a fan of Kompany's. I've always felt he doesn't actually know how to tackle and this was a fairly typical Kompany challenge such as we have seen many times over the years. Kompany is always a red card waiting to happen and that is exactly what should have happened here as he launched himself off the ground with a straight leading leg and studs showing. It was worthy of the yellow card it received even if he hadn't caught Salah - but he did catch Salah. Former Premier League ref Mark Clattenburg, writing in the Daily Mail, said the lunge was worthy of a red card but excused referee on the night Anthony Taylor noting he did not have the benefit of reviewing the action and "in moments such as this that is sometimes what you need to be 100% sure".

So Clattenburg clearly thinks, as I do, that had VAR been available to the referee Kompany would certainly have walked for the proverbial early bath. The fact that we have goal-line technology but not VAR worked in City's favour.

But it shouldn't have come down to that as, surprisingly, Taylor and Clattenburg both seem to have overlooked another point. Kompany should have been sent off for the foul even if it hadn't been a reckless challenge as Salah would have been clean through on goal and a clear goal scoring opportunity was denied. It's the case that Salah was still 45 yards from the City goal but he's a speed merchant and City defenders Kompany, who had gone to ground, Stones and Laporte would have had no more chance of catching Salah than I would of matching Usain Bolt over 100 metres.

As Liverpool had weathered City's early storm and were on top at that point it is highly unlikely that City would have won with three-quarters of the game still to go. As Martin Samuel put it in the Daily Mail "Was the match better for it? Of course. Was justice done? Probably not".

City were also perhaps fortunate that, also at 0-0, Sadio Mane's shot hit their post full on, while Leroy Sane's shot for City's second found the inside of one post and skidded across the goal and in off the other.

So it was a game of fine margins decided, as so many tight games are, by an inconsistent refereeing decision. "We go once a fortnight and watch 22 men kick a ball around for 90 minutes only for the result to be decided by a random decision by the referee" a Derby season ticket holding chum once said to me at a point 10 years ago when I nearly stopped watching games because of exactly that sort of thing seeming to happening to my team week after week.

Where referee Taylor also went wrong on Thursday was in letting the game flow too much early on after foul tackles. On more than one occasion this led to angry follow on challenges which the referee didn't sanction, bringing play back for the first foul. Referees at all levels have to judge exactly that risk when games look as if they are getting heated. Perhaps Taylor was expecting a contest of silky skills and had gone into the game with a mindset that he would try to let it flow. As a result, in the context of his decisions up to the point of Kompany's challenge, he might have felt a red card was out of keeping with the way he had been reffing the game. But a red card offence is a red card offence at any stage of any game. Like most Premier League refs on the current roster, Taylor showed he isn't up to the level required for a big game. But I accept the level of entertainment provided was high, which probably wouldn't have been the case if he'd got the Kompany decision right.

How important will these tainted three points be for City at the end if the season, I wonder?