Monday, 6 August 2018

Brexit blues

This blog is concerned with planning law and practice, but there is no escaping the fact that there is a far more important subject that is hanging over all of us, and I make no apology for returning to it now.

In these dog days of August, I cannot help brooding on the utter mess that the government has got itself into over Brexit. This prompted me to re-read the items I have previously written on this subject. The first two of these, dated 7 March and 17 June 2016, were on planning and environmental issues, but in view of the importance of the subject, I have allowed myself to stray into the general political arena on a further five occasions so far, on 1 July and 31 December 2016, and on 4 and 30 May and 30 December 2017. Nothing that has occurred in the interim has led me to change any of the views that I expressed in those brief articles.

As I observed in the immediate aftermath of the referendum, After last Thursday’s result, there is a great deal of head scratching going on, in an effort to understand the mind-boggling ramifications of the decision to leave the EU. As many of us were well aware, this is going to be far more complicated than the Brexiteers pretended, and the effects will include more than a few unintended consequences. The task of unravelling all these complexities is daunting, and I suspect may even prove to be impossible. Don’t be surprised if the government (of whatever composition or complexion) eventually decides that the only practical solution is for the UK to remain a full member of the European Union after all!

In May 2017, I observed that Theresa May seemed to have no idea of what negotiation actually involves, nor any realistic understanding of the relative strengths and weaknesses on both sides (a fundamental prerequisite for anyone entering into any form of negotiation). One has to understand that Brexit potentially presents an existential threat to the European Union. If Britain is seen to get an advantageous deal enabling us to keep significant benefits that derive from our current membership of the EU, this could conceivably encourage similar moves in some of the other member countries. The EU (and its collective membership) cannot countenance such a risk, and so they are bound to resist any such settlement. This is not an unreasonable stance. If a member of a Golf Club no longer wishes to pay the subscription and be bound by the club’s rules, then they must simply leave; they cannot expect to have continued access to the bar and restaurant, or to be allowed to retain any of the other benefits that they have previously enjoyed as members.

It is daft to complain that the EU is being ‘intransigent’ or ‘inflexible’ in taking this stance, and it is even more ridiculous to suggest that they should be seeking ‘imaginative solutions’ to allow Britain to retain many of the advantages we currently enjoy as members of the EU. As Theresa May has observed on more than one occasion, “Brexit means Brexit.” But it will bring with it all the consequences that flow from our no longer being members. This is why the recent peregrinations of Mrs May and other members of her cabinet around Europe in a futile effort to beg and cajole national leaders such as Merkel and Macron to change the collective position of the EU on this issue have been so pathetic. These efforts were obviously doomed to failure from the start, and they only serve to emphasise the weakness of the UK’s negotiating position.

It is even more unrealistic for ministers such as Dr Liability Fox or the rookie Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, to seek to warn or threaten the EU that they may be forcing us to leave without a deal. It’s rather like a bank robber rushing into a bank, holding a gun to his head, and shouting “Hand over the money, or I’ll shoot myself”. It is not likely to be very persuasive. The argument goes that the UK’s crashing out of the EU without a deal would be damaging to the EU as well as to us. This is true, but the economic damage for the EU would be limited, and would be spread among 27 nations, whereas the damage to the UK is likely to be catastrophic. The argument that German car manufacturers won’t want to lose their British market is unlikely to sway them, when they export so much more to the rest of the world. You may recall that Boris Johnson tried the same argument with regard to Prosecco, until the Italians pointed out that they cannot even meet existing demand, and so could face the potential loss of their British market with equanimity.

Incidentally, while we are on the subject of international trade, various EU members do a vast amount of trade with the rest of the world outside the EU, under advantageous trade agreements which the EU has negotiated on behalf of its members. This makes a complete nonsense of the Brexiteers’ parrot cry that they want Britain to be free to make its own trade deals, and to trade freely throughout the world. Britain as an EU member is already free to trade around the world on very advantageous terms. It is improbable that the UK could negotiate better terms individually with other countries than we currently enjoy by virtue of our membership of the EU. Any replacement trade agreements will take years to negotiate, and are very unlikely to be on terms as good as those that the EU has already negotiated on our behalf as members. (And no; we couldn’t just expect to carry on trading with other nations on the same terms. It would be back to the negotiating table to start talks with those other nations from scratch). The same applies to the suggestion that we could “just trade on WTO terms”. The clue is in the name (“World Trade Organisation). We are not currently members, and would have to apply to join; membership is not automatic. And we would have to abide by a fairly detailed rule book, in much the same way as we do with the EU. So much for “recovering our sovereignty” and “taking back control”!

Even May and most her cabinet recognise that crashing out of the EU with no deal would be disastrous for us. What lay behind the half-baked Chequers ‘agreement’ was the government’s slow motion collision with reality, as they gradually realised that a Hard Brexit would be too awful to contemplate. Only the Loony Right – the Brextremists on the Tory backbenches - are still maintaining the pretence that everything would be fine in these circumstances.

The fact remains, however, that the possibility of our crashing out of the EU with no deal at all is now becoming a real risk, and the government seems to be a hostage to political forces which it is in no position to resist or control. The Moggites of the ERG realise that, whilst they could probably muster enough letters to the Chairman of the 1922 Committee to force a Tory Party confidence vote in the Prime Minister, they wouldn’t get enough votes in the resulting ballot to unseat her. However, they do have enough votes in the Commons to defeat or amend government legislation more or less at will, and we saw this in the votes on the Trade and Customs bills last month, where the government was forced to accept damaging amendments to this legislation which significantly undermined the Chequers agreement (as the ERG intended it should), as well as significantly weakening the UK’s negotiating position in continuing discussions on a ‘post-Chequers’ deal with the EU. In September, it is to be hoped that the House of Lords will remove these amendments, and insert the amendments seeking membership of the Single Market and Customs Union which were defeated in the Commons in July, and battle will once again be joined this Autumn when the bills return to the Commons from the Lords.

I had hoped by now that enough Tory MPs would finally have woken up to the damage that a ‘No deal’ Brexit would do to the national economy, that they would at last take their political courage in their hands and force the government to accept a more sensible approach to Brexit; but the 12 or 15 Tory ‘rebels’ have repeatedly been pusillanimous in the face of threats and blandishments from the whips, and have failed to follow up their stated opposition to the government’s approach to Brexit by votes in the lobby. Whether they will do so in the coming months must be doubtful on past performance, unless the looming disaster finally impresses itself on them and on enough of their more conformist colleagues to persuade them to defy the government whips, and put a stop to the headlong rush towards the edge of the cliff.

I very much fear that we are in fact in a complete impasse, with the government unable to go forward or back, and with the official opposition equally conflicted in the absence of any proper leadership from Jeremey Corbyn. The Labour Party is self-absorbed in its own internal struggle, of which the current crisis over alleged anti-semitism in the party is only a symptom. It is, in effect, a proxy war in which the extreme Left is fighting to consolidate its complete hold over the party. If they succeed, it does not bode well for the electoral prospects of the party in a future General Election. Nor does it offer much hope of opposing a Hard Brexit. The Labour Left has always been Eurosceptic, seeing the EU as a capitalist plot against the workers, continued membership of which would prevent the “Socialism in One Country” of which they dream.

The Left is in fact wrong on both of these points. Workers’ rights are more effectively protected by the EU than they would be in a post-Brexit Britain, and there is nothing whatsoever in EU rules that would prevent Labour from carrying out the programme proposed in its last election manifesto if we were to remain members of the EU. There is every possibility, on the other hand, that a car-crash Brexit would have such a dire effect on our economy that it would be financially impossible for Labour to carry out its planned programme. Labour’s true interests lie in opposing Brexit, if only the party’s present leadership had the gumption to see this.

All of which leaves me profoundly depressed over Brexit and over the political position in this country generally. I have absolutely no idea how things will work out in the coming months, but I fear that the summer recess is merely the calm before the gathering storm. Whether this will lead to an early General Election, or even to a second referendum, is anybody’s guess. The only prediction that I would hazard is that if there were to be a General Election this Autumn, the result would very likely be another hung parliament, the arithmetic of which would be utterly unpredictable. But I don’t hold out much hope for the mooted ‘Government of National Unity’. Its acronym inevitably reminds me of the old Flanders & Swann song (“…….And I wish I could g-nash my teeth at you……..”)

Ah well, it’s back to the boring business of town and country planning, and maybe if the heat were to subside a little we could enjoy what’s left of the Summer.