Sunday, 13 October 2019

Blame game put on hold - for now

The most encouraging development in the Brexit negotiations since, well the start really, has been the refusal of key players to provide details or engage in direct communications with audiences outside the negotiation since the meeting between Johnson and Varadkar. Varadkar's press conference after the meeting, which I heard live on the radio, was the first time I think I've ever heard him say anything sensible, because he declined to say anything very much. This sort of communications embargo is essential to allow any negotiations the space to operate. In that regard the timing of Boris Johnson's lawful second attempt at prorogation has proved to be well timed as you can bet mischievous elements in the Commons would have continued their determined attempts to undermine any prospect of a deal. The fact that this prorogation is presumably lawful as no-one took the PM to court, rather than because it follows any explicit "law" just shows how farcical the plot has become.

I've been particularly ascerbic about Junker and Varadkar but Donald Tusk has probably been the worst culprit for talking out instead of keeping shtum. Wolfgang Munchau noted a few days ago* that his tweets have been unhelpful: "You cannot simultaneously complain about politicians resorting to a blame game, and then blame the other side". He also believes that Tusk's persistent moralistic interventions has strengthened the Brexit camp in the UK. "The more you push, the bigger the push-back".

Meanwhile Christopher Meyer, a former ambassador to the US and Germany, argues strongly that the concept of "red lines" has been unhelpful in the negotiation, saying it's imprecise and not clear whether they represent a bottom line, a fall back position, or something in between**. He favours the simple modus operandi of having an opening position, fallback positions and a bottom line you won't go beyond, after which no deal is always better than a bad deal. But he notes that the last part of that has become politically toxic, even though without it the other side will assume you will do a deal at any price, giving them a huge advantage. He tells of how walking out of a negotiation with the Russians in the 1980s led to their team coming to Moscow airport to re-open negotiations as ultimately they didn't want no deal but the Brits were prepared for it. "From a purely negotiating point of view, the Benn Act is folly on stilts" he says, though he is hoping that the damage no deal would do to some EU regions will mean that Brussels can't, in the limit, afford no deal either.

My observation would be that, almost without exception, everyone who says no deal should be taken off the table actually wants to remain and it is, almost without exception, simply a ruse to to to prevent us leaving under any circumstances. Wanting to remain is a legitimate desire, but I just wish people would come clean about their motives. After all, can anyone name me a single prominent leave supporter who would not, under any circumstances, accept no deal?

Ironically then Munchau thinks the Benn extension bill makes the prospect of a majority in favour of a second referendum less likely because it takes the pressure is off. "This is the trouble with extensions. They resolve nothing".
It's going to be a long week in politics leading up to the unusual, outside of war, sitting of the Commons on a Saturday, the 19th of October, the date by which the Benn Act requires the PM to send his surrender letter, sorry extension request, to Brussels if there is no Parliamentary approval for a deal or no deal. After which we might all be in a tunnel but not of love - one with potential for resumption of litigation and court cases on a grand scale.

Alternatively there could be a breakthrough that leads to a deal which can also command a majority in the Commons. The odds must be against that as I can't quite see how Johnson gets enough of the Spartans, the DUP, the ex-Tory rebels and a handful of Labour MPs to vote with the rump of Tory MPs to win a vote. But first he has to get something from Brussels. May's red lines proved unhelpful because they weren't red or lines but the Brussels position has been totally inflexible and has paid no regard to the need for new and therefore unproven solutions to solve the Irish border issue. Even if Johnosn can keep no deal on the table Munchau isn't certain the EU will respond, saying the tragedy of the EU is that it will only offer real concessions in the Brexit negotiations when a no-deal Brexit looks certain. "At that point, it might be too late".

But at least they could then all resume the blame game.

There will be plenty of blame to place. Not just whether we've remained or left - and if left on what terms - but potentially a resumption of the Irish troubles and the break up of the United Kingdom. Would such a break up be a bad thing? a thought for another day.

*Eurointelligence blog 9 October

** "Swap red lines for no deal and, hey presto, a deal" Sunday Times 13 October

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