Hard Brexiters (which increasingly looks like it will be “disorderly Brexit”) are now openly making a spectacle of Theresa May. After May made a move towards realism in her September speech in Florence, where she offered to make a payment to the EU during a rather vaguely described “transition period,” the rabid Brexit wing has been even harder after her than usual. Last week, she was apparently muscled into supporting having Parliament set a specific Brexit date in its Great Repeal Bill, as opposed to having the flexibility to firm that up later, as the legislation currently stipulates. Oh, and the dates and time she proposed appears to be 23 hours later than the EU’s idea of when Brexit is now set to happen
Like many others, Matthew Parris in the Times tore into the idiocy of this idea and used it as a point of departure to describe the leadership vacuum in the UK. But the headline (which may not be his doing) described the situation as May humiliating herself. I don’t think that is quite right. May is tolerating being used and abused by the likes of Boris Johnson and Michael Gove. Look at their latest stunt: a letter expressing “no confidence” in May signed by 40 Conservatives.
This is a nasty stunt. Its purpose is simply to browbeat May. You need 48 votes to put a no confidence vote before Parliament, and even if things were to get that far, it probably would not pass. The Tories are deeply divided and it isn’t clear whether Labour wants the poisoned chalice of taking up the Brexit negotiations and aftermath (they could easily excuse unenthusiastic support of May as putting country before party, that having snap elections now would be disastrous for Brexit execution). One British politics watcher volunteered that Johnson and Gove are unlikely to have pulled that trick on a bloke.
What on earth is going on when a prime minister (in name only) has to write a newspaper column promising to bind her own hands by act of parliament? And when she does so purely to calm jangled nerves in a Brexit movement whose followers do not themselves know what they want or who leads them, while an equally leaderless former-Remain movement stares at its shoes, bereft of a response, an agenda or anyone to command them?
Theresa May, we learn, has promised to introduce a new clause in the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill stating that references to “exit” mean “exit on March 29 2019 at 23:00:00”. We will therefore, apparently, automatically leave the EU, or turn into pumpkins, or both, as the clock strikes, er, 11…
Behind an appearance of resolve, such a clause is a testament of weakness: an implicit recognition that people don’t trust you to keep to your promise — like saying “cross my heart and hope to die”. Mrs May knows she’s a one-woman hostage situation, in office at the pleasure of a relatively small but fanatical wing of her parliamentary party: the hard Brexiteers, gripped by a jihadist willingness to blow up the government along with themselves if they don’t get their way…
…she knows she will soon be breaking difficult news to them: news of how much Britain is prepared to pay, and what we may have to concede, for the deal we’re negotiating. Some Brexiteers won’t like this: hence the need now to throw them red meat.
Parris confirms what even US observers have likely already figured out: it unlikely that Johnson or Gove could become the leader of the Tory party. Not only is the party deeply split, but Johnson is not well liked personally and is correctly seen as the most reckless sort of opportunitist. Moreover, it is still possible that the hard Brexiters did manage to force yet another round of elections, polls now show that only a pretty small minority, IIRC 26%, think the UK is managing Brexit well. So confidence in Tory competence has dropped like a stone. Moreover, the Tories poor performance in May’s misguided snap election was widely seen as a vote against a hard Brexit. So there is every reason to think Labour would win if there were elections now.
Yet like the NRA in the US, the Brexit ultras keep wielding influence out of proportion to their apparent popularity. The less irrational wing of the Conservatives appeared to be getting the upper hand after the disastrous snap election. But their most influential minister, Philip Hammond, has been on the defensive for the last couple of months.
The ability of the hard line Brexiters to punch well above their weight is due to having the strong and vocal support of the press barons. But it is also due to their success in pushing May around, or at least being able to check her. The appearance of power alone can be self-reinforcing.
But how long will May stand for this treatment? She might rationalize it as doing her best to prevent worse outcomes. But the difference between catastrophic and cataclysmic is unlikely to be calibrated well by the public or historians.
This video manages to look kind compared to what is actually going on. After all, May merely looks silly:
But Brexit looks like an entire country engaged in deliberate mutilation, like cutting, which is antiseptically described as “non=suicidal self harm“. Personally, a disorderly Brexit looks plenty suicidal. However, the discomfort of looking at Brexit reminds me more and more of the movie Black Swan, in which a newly promoted prima ballerina who is already tightly wound and practices cutting, comes apart under the stress. The movie starts mixing her delusions with her activities, and it becomes harder and harder to tell them apart.
And the beliefs of the Brexiteers are simply incomprehensible to everyone else. It’s like dealing with cultists. This tweetstorm gives a terrific short-form treatment. Key observation:
Been conversing (on and offline) with grassroots Brexitists again. Really struck by their intense lack of interest in the details of how to make it happen – verging on hostility to it, as if the search for practical steps to make it work is a trap (1/9)
— Alan Finlayson (@ProfAFinlayson) November 9, 2017
I think that’s one more piece of evidence for the fact that Brexitism is a species of Utopian ideology, for which the belief in its happening is more important than its actually happening (2/9)
— Alan Finlayson (@ProfAFinlayson) November 9, 2017
Its wish is to become/embody an archetype – an ideal sort of (English) person, cleansed of Un-English things and with the power to make anything happen (like English Gods of old) (5/9)
— Alan Finlayson (@ProfAFinlayson) November 9, 2017
This utopianiasm is interacting in a nasty way with the ugly side of British management, such as it is. The US has tendencies along these lines, but nowhere near as fully advanced as the syndrome Clive described recently:
What’s struck me most about the UK government’s approach to the practical day-to-day aspects of Brexit is that it is exemplifying a typically British form of managerialism which bedevilles both public sector and private sector organisations. It manifests itself in all manner of guises but the main characteristic is that some “leader” issues impractical, unworkable, unachievable or contradictory instructions (or a “strategy”) to the lower ranks. These lower ranks have been encouraged to adopt the demeanour of yes-men (or yes-women). So you’re not allowed to question the merits of the ask. Everyone keeps quiet and takes the paycheck while waiting for the roof to fall in on them. It’s not like you’re on the breadline, so getting another year or so in isn’t a bad survival attitude. If you make a fuss now, you’ll likely be replaced by someone who, in the leadership’s eyes is a lot more can-do (but is in fact just either more naive or a better huckster…
To the big cheeses, the problem is with the underlings not being sufficiently clever or inventive. The real problem is the dynamic they’ve created and their inability to perceive the changes (in the same way as swinging a wrecking ball is a “change”) they’ve wrought on an organisation.
May, Davies, Fox, the whole lousy lot of ’em are like the pilot in the Airplane movie — they’re pulling on the levers of power only to find they’re not actually connected to anything. Wait until they pull a little harder and the whole bloody thing comes off in their hands.
Here is an vignette, of a “You aren’t imaginative enough” Glorious Brexiteer versus someone trying to minimize the damage of Brexit, courtesy bizmath, hoisted from the Guardian’s comment section (I’d provide a link except the comments are not indexed in Google, oddly):
‘Employers agree. Unions agree. The City agrees. An overwhelming majority of parliament agrees. All wants a frictionless, tariff-free, open relationship with the EU, negotiated outside its political framework – however “asymmetrical” that might be. Even within the leave camp, majority opinion is for the retention of single market freedoms, provided there are restrictions on EU immigrants accessing public services. This is the sensible view May should be harnessing and cohering.’
This option is simply not available – the UK retains a tariff-free open relationship with the EU by either paying for Associate Membership (Norway/Switzerland model) or by remaining in the EU. The EU cannot allow ‘retention of single market freedoms’ without a country committing to the four freedoms, so ‘restrictions on EU immigrants accessing public services’ is out of the question. Of course, the UK currently has the option to do what all of the 27 EU countries do, which is to apply the 3-month rule to EU citizens.
Meanwhile in the real world outside of Westminster, I have just spent the autumn at the annual Trade Fairs and Exhibitions in Europe as my company trades almost exclusively with customers in the EU. We received some clear messages;
1) EU customers would love to continue to do business with UK companies, but with no certainty regarding access to the market, certifications, tariffs, prices and delivery times, they are very reluctant to place any orders beyond next summer. They cannot order parts or components from British companies (to be used in the assembly of their own final products) as this creates huge complications when they want to sell on if these parts are not of EU origin.
2) Competitors based within the EU are spending time and effort exploiting this uncertainty and are aggressively targeting our customers, offering all of the certainty that UK companies cannot. They are doing their 2018 and 2019 deals now. By the time the UK government reaches a decision, regardless of whether it is Brexit or Remain, lasting damage will have been done and hundreds of thousands of orders and jobs will have been lost.
3) National and Regional governments in the EU are very keen to attract jobs and investment to their areas. They recognise that a million job losses in the UK means the opportunity to attract a million jobs to their areas. E.g. Land Rover have already invested £1 billion in a new car factory in Slovakia. Companies such as mine really have to relocate in order to remain in business, and we have been met with positive advice and support everywhere that we have been. It makes the headlines when Nissan or Toyota threaten to leave, but nobody notices the thousands of small companies quietly moving away and taking their jobs and tax revenues with them.
Thanks. I wish this comment was circulating in Westminster.
It is. This is what the CBI, Institute of Directors, Motor Manufacturers, Federation of Small Businesses et al meant when they wrote to Davis two weeks ago and what they would have been telling May and Corbyn last week at the CBI conference.
Whether anyone is listening is another matter. Listening to Davis last week you could be excused for thinking that he’d misplaced the letter under his Daily Telegraph or put it in the bottom drawer along with the Sector Reports. If he has read the FT over the last 18 months, he will have been getting the same message.
If you cannot see opportunities in Brexit maybe you should try another line of work.
If the EU can see threats and opportunities, you can bet there will be the same for UK businesses, which you have interestingly left out of your unbiased analysis.
Tell us what great opportunities Brexit offers to those who are losing tarif free access to a market of almost 500m consumers.
We have looked at the opportunities that Brexit presents.
We have spent 15 years building up a successful business, a good team of staff, loyal customers and a good reputation. We have the world’s largest and most stable trading bloc located 25 miles away. Being located in the south-east of England, we can be in any European city within 2 hours. Our products can reach our customers overnight – we have even had couriers deliver samples to customers same day. We have a stable payments system with few problems with currency fluctuations, as all EU currencies are pretty much tied to the Euro. Only the Pound fluctuates, but we can manage that. We need very little in the way of customs paperwork, and what we do complete is standard for all 27 countries.
None of the post-Brexit opportunities come even close to this. Tariffs and distance to market will make our products uncompetitive. Our skilled staff, mainly from the EU due to their language skills and local knowledge, do not feel welcome and do not know if they can remain. Entering new markets will require new staff with new skills. Non-tariff barriers will delay our shipments. It costs time and money to employ someone to complete customs paperwork, both for imported materials and exported finished goods – all adding more to the price of our products. If we attempt to enter the US market, we risk our entire business coming under the jurisdiction of the US authorities. Even if we want to export to new countries, the government cannot tell us the rules and agreements under which we can trade – these might take another 2-5 years to agree.
Changing the business or looking at other markets means starting from scratch. Despite Johnson and Fox claiming that the world is queuing up to do business with the UK, there is no evidence of this. There are no new undiscovered markets – the entire developed world has well-established marketplaces that are extremely difficult to enter.
Meanwhile there are indeed opportunities and we have a simple solution to our problem – we will relocate to within the EU and join the thousands of other companies doing the same. We have been offered modern, clean facilities with excellent transport links, putting us even closer to our customers. We will have high-speed internet, even in a semi-rural location 20 miles from the nearest major town. We will re-organise our workforce – our staff can work remotely from their new locations in their home countries, improving their work/life balance and reducing our costs. Except for mining and agriculture, almost all businesses today are extremely portable and can relocate within weeks. Even car factories can be dismantled and relocated, or production outsourced to factories with spare capacity. As the CBI and others keep telling the government, they need clarity by Christmas or they will be leaving the UK.
It would be better if I were wrong, but I don’t see any way out of this mess. As ugly as things are with May at the helm (and I never thought I’d say this), having her quit or be deposed is likely to lead to even worse outcomes.