Brexit: MPs Sink to a New Collective Low of Incompetent Acquiescence

Yves here. I’m glad to see someone call out Parliament after having seen May successfully play it again and again. How many time has she moved back the date of the required Meaningful Vote? Ignored Cabinet resignations and even an unheard of censure?

Let us understand all that happened: May made some pretty promises as to what she’ll do in March. The postcard version:


Her Withdrawal Agreement being voted down again by large margins is a near certainty.

But, pray tell, what does “extend Article 50” mean? That is unlikely to be well specified; in fact, since the Government is pretty certain to draft any March 14 motion, that is also a near certainty if things get that far.

Recall that the EU Council meeting at which the approval of any extension is expected to take place falls on March 21-22. May could make that fail, either by design or continuing in her May-ness. And the perverse beauty of that would be that no one would be able to tell the difference!

For instance, new polls say that popular support for an extension falls off dramatically if it were to go longer than 3 months. A shorter deal is easier to sell since it doesn’t raise hairy questions of the extension impinging on the seating of a new European Parliament on July 2.

But even though the comments of a lot of EU leaders indicate they grudgingly accept that they probably should give the UK an extension if it asks, at the same time, quite a few express skepticism that a few months will make any difference. They are concerned the UK will try this stunt again when it runs out of rope. (Note I see the idea of a 21 month extension as a non-starter, and appetite for it on the UK and EU side seems low. Plus I can’t imagine businesses being left in limbo so long. This may have been a ploy by Tusk rather than a serious idea, but either way, it looks not well thought out).

That means even if the UK asks for a “short” extension, and May was earlier signaling mere weeks, there will be some who will want to impose conditions. This means the EU leaders would need to negotiate among themselves and then with the UK. That takes time and there is hardly any left. Of course, the EU specializes in brinksmanship, but recent crises have been financial crises, and with a central bank at your side, you can fudge timing, which is not on here.

Another possibility is that May sabotages the extension, either by design or continued UK obtuseness. The EU has said that the UK needs to give a reason for an extension. “Further faffing around” doesn’t cut it. May could deliver diplo-speak that clearly means “further faffing around” or alternatively, ask for such a short extension the EU regards the request as nonsensical.

Why might May do that?

Wellie, if she emerges from the EU Council meeting with no extension, she could put her deal once again to Parliament and have blame for a crash out rest at their feet. History won’t remember as well that her pact was loathed. She would still presumably be trying to cinch an extension, but not being able to get all the EU leaders in a room increases the odds of what Barnier has taken to worrying about, an “accidental no deal.”

Remember that May is the creation of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, which makes it vastly harder to dislodge a PM. But he has also been exceptionally lucky in her enemies. The ritual Tory loathing of Labour is intensified by the fear of a Corbyn in power. And as we’ve discussed at length elsewhere (although mainly in comments), Corbyn has failed to take advantage of the Tories’ spectacular weakness.

And as David has pointed out several times, the paralysis over Brexit is a symptom of erosion in the foundations of the UK political order: the hollowing out of civil service, the fissures in each party between (as Chris Grey puts it) between cosmopolitans and locals, the damage done to communities by austerity. Weak leadership has exposed how pervasive the rot has become.

Update: I posted before reading May’s statement. Let me pull out some key bits. May is explicit that she is not ruling out “No Deal”:

I believe that if we have to, we will ultimately make a success of a No Deal…

But I know Members across the House are genuinely worried that time is running out…

So today I want to reassure the House by making three further commitments.

First, we will hold a second Meaningful Vote by Tuesday 12 March at the latest.

Second, if the Government has not won a Meaningful Vote by Tuesday 12 March then it will – in addition to its obligations to table a neutral, amendable motion under section 13 of the EU Withdrawal Act – table a motion to be voted on by Wednesday 13 March at the latest, asking this House if it supports leaving the EU without a Withdrawal Agreement and a framework for a future relationship on 29 March. So the United Kingdom will only leave without a deal on 29 March if there is explicit consent in this House for that outcome.

Third, if the House, having rejected leaving with the deal negotiated with the EU, then rejects leaving on 29 March without a withdrawal agreement and future framework, the Government will, on 14 March, bring forward a motion on whether Parliament wants to seek a short limited extension to Article 50 – and if the House votes for an extension, seek to agree that extension approved by the House with the EU, and bring forward the necessary legislation to change the exit date commensurate with that extension.

Lordie….

May has only committed to offering up more motions.

She is proposing only a “short limited extension to Article 50.

The House will then approve that (when, pray tell? Not many days between March 14 and the start of the EU Council meetings on March 21-22. And the sherpas usually get their briefing books a few days in advance).

If this all works out, the Brexit date will be re-hard wired in the Withdrawal Act.

By Richard Murphy, a chartered accountant and a political economist. He has been described by the Guardian newspaper as an “anti-poverty campaigner and tax expert”. He is Professor of Practice in International Political Economy at City University, London and Director of Tax Research UK. He is a non-executive director of Cambridge Econometrics. He is a member of the Progressive Economy Forum. Originally published at Tax Research UK

I sat, open-mouthed and incredulous when watching the news that MPs welcomed Theresa May’s announcement of new votes on Brexit on March 12, 13 and 14 as if these were to be welcomed and were, in some way, a major step forward.

May is offering another vote on her deal. It has already been resoundingly rejected.

Then she is offering MPs the chance to vote on No Deal, which the government estimates will cost 9% of GDP per annum in the long run, and cause social and economic mayhem in the short term, as if this is something MPs might actually want.

Finally, she is offering a three-month Brexit extension, which is not within her gift. The EU has to decide whether Article 50 can be extended. All we can do is revoke it without their consent. And the chance that the EU will offer a three-month extension is very low indeed, for three reasons.

First, there is no logic to three months: nothing can be resolved in that period. There could not, for example, be another referendum and there is no sign that parliament has any way of resolving Brexit without one.  The EU is discussing 21 months to allow appropriate time to resolve matters. That would make sense.

Second, extending to June ignores the fact that the EU moves into limbo in April until a new Commission is appointed and a new parliament is elected. There is no EU to negotiate with during these three months, in effect. May must know that. Some MPs are apparently daft enough not to do so.

And third, the EU will say no because May asked for it. Why should they let her dictate terms right now? I am sure they will not. A counter-proposal is inevitable. But many MPs also seem unaware of that.

I despair.

I have despaired before, I know. But the impression that we now have active connivance from those supposed to be opposing Brexit in the process that delivers No Deal by default seems very high, simply because they have no ability to appraise risks, seems extraordinarily high.

How did we reach this point?

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96 comments

  1. vidimi

    i don’t get what’s going on. the pound has skyrocketed this week gaining 4% against the euro. i wonder if mr. market knows something we don’t, but shouldn’t it be going in the other direction as the likelihood of a no-deal brexit increases?

    Reply
    1. Yves Smith Post author

      There was also a rally in subprime mortgage instruments from March to May 2007 before the market collapsed for good. And speaking of subprime, Bloomberg reported tonight that famed subprime short Steve Eisman just increased his short bet on 3 UK banks. So not everyone is reading the tea leaves the same way.

      Mr. Market does not understand that, as we pointed out, MPs saying “no no deal” does not mean “no deal”. It means “no no deal at the end of March and of course we’ll sort something out.” The fallacy is that if they could sort something out, they would have by now. And the only way to assure “no no deal” is to revoke Article 50, which is and will likely remain a third rail issue.

      Having said that, The Sun (which heretofore has no track record in breaking important Brexit stories but even a blind pig can occasionally find a truffle) is claiming the EU will make a legally binding concession to May on the backstop. So if that were real, it would be huge. But I think this is all about May’s apparent reversal.

      Reply
      1. PlutoniumKun

        There is nothing on the backstop in the main Irish news sources this morning. If it were true that the EU was preparing a concession, it would be an epic humiliation of Varadkar by the EU, I can’t see that as being realistic without some sort of pre-warning to allow him to prepare for it.

        All the reliable sources say that all the behind-the-scene work is going into revised wording to ‘reassure’ the UK, not to change the backstop itself.

        Reply
        1. Yves Smith Post author

          FWIW, I am reading BexitCentral. I usually skip past all of the introductory propaganda to get to the pretty complete digest of Brexit news stories (much like the men who said they read Playboy for its articles ;-) ) and happened upon this (from the editor:

          Attorney General Geoffrey Cox was over in Brussels for meetings yesterday and one source close to the process told me yesterday that they were “relatively optimistic” that Cox would be able to secure a satisfactory codicil to the Agreement. Watch this space…

          But the UK has been drinking its own Kool-Aid for a while, and has been particularly inclined to misread diplomatic politeness for agreement. Quoting Talleyrand:

          A diplomat who says “yes” means “maybe”, a diplomat who says “maybe” means “no”, and a diplomat who says “no” is no diplomat.

          Reply
          1. PlutoniumKun

            Ah, I can’t bring myself to look at Brexit Central recently.

            Tony Connolly wrote last week that the Irish and EU have identified Cox as the key player in getting the deal over the line, as he is respected by the softer Brexiteers. So I’d imagine they’d be trying to play on his ego to give him something that he could declare an acceptable legal guarantee that the Backstop isn’t a trap. Presumably he is aware of this.

            ‘relatively optimistic’ I assume is diplomat speak for ‘snowballs chance in hell’.

            Reply
        1. Yves Smith Post author

          The phrase the UK has been using as code for the border vaporware is “alternative arrangements.” The EU has rejected that repeatedly.

          There is apparently nothing even close to production to do what the UK claims a magic tech border solution could do. It’s pretty close to the classic economists’ “Assume a can opener” joke, except the UK is serious.

          Reply
          1. vlade

            There was a nice statement somewhere. If the Brexiters believed there was a REAL solution to Irish border that could be implemented in the next couple of years, why be bothered with backstop?

            They can be only bothered with backstop if they KNOW there is no solution to the border except hard border or sea border. Anything else means they don’t even eat their own dogfood.

            Reply
            1. ChrisPacific

              “We have wonderful technological solutions that could solve the border problem but the mean old EU won’t let us” plays better to the crowd than “the Good Friday Agreement is expendable if it means we get what we want.”

              Reply
      2. vidimi

        thanks. that was my thinking as well since i see no reason for mr market’s exuberance re the GBP. there is a lot of pain on the way and some pretty words with no action will not be enough to prevent it. the euro may well suffer too, but the pound will get smoked. i’m just trying to understand why the pound is having such a great week. maybe the euro shorts are getting called.

        Reply
        1. fajensen

          In the words of Sir Humphrey: “One has to first stand behind someone in order to stab them in the back”.

          1) If “they” are ramping the GBP, the robots will pile in on the trend, amplifying it, and the eventual sudden reversal will be more spectacular. And profitable.

          2) Brexit happens so far out in the future measured in machine time that it doesn’t even exist in the robots word-models.

          I think maybe mid March there will be an air-pocket in “the market”.

          Reply
        2. Yves Smith Post author

          Oh, duh, some of the reason for the spike would be short covering. Even if you are still confident in your thesis, better to close out your position and attempt to reset at a higher level.

          Reply
          1. vlade

            Dislaimers: not an investment advice. I may hold similar positions. Am naturally long sterling.

            1.30 cable put, expiring July. If you feel optimistic, straddle 1.30(P)+1.35(C), July expiry.

            Reply
    2. Jon Cloke

      Pump-and-dump? Pushing the pound as high as it will go in the expectation of a very sharp (and very profitable) drop as March 29 arrives..?

      Reply
  2. Ataraxite

    There is the important point to note about a 3 month extension: if the UK does not participate in the EU elections in May, then there can be no further extension after that.

    If parliament is silly enough to accept May’s offer – and indications are that they indeed are – then she has cornered them even more tightly to ‘her deal or no deal’, albeit in June.

    No wonder the Brexiters are looking happy.

    I have said before, the EU has lost control of this process (which is not to say the UK parliament has taken it – a slowly accelerating runaway train is a useful mental picture here). If they are wise, they will start to assert control again, as much as it will be seen as bullying by the rabid press of the UK.

    (See this useful Twitter thread: https://twitter.com/syrpis/status/1100538161699139586)

    Reply
    1. Yves Smith Post author

      I was remiss in not having looked at May’s statement. I’ve hoisted the key bits into the post right above where Richard Murphy’s cross post starts and added a few comments. You might have a look. It’s not pretty.

      Reply
      1. icancho

        Right. May’s statement is at: https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/pm-statement-to-the-house-of-commons-26-february-2019

        Down towards the bottom she adds:

        “… an extension cannot take no deal off the table. The only way to do that is to revoke Article 50, which I shall not do, or agree a deal. … This House voted to trigger Article 50, and this House has a responsibility to deliver on the result.”

        She also observed that the credibility of UK democracy is at stake … make of that what you will.

        Reply
  3. Avidremainer

    How did we get here? One of the reasons is the set of myths the UK accepts as facts. I have just listened to an idiot Brexiteer say that no deal is no big deal because we -the UK-will just invoke Article 24 of the GATT and everything will be hunky dory. My problem is not with the MP in question, I’m used to sheer stupidity from Tory MPs, my problem is that no-one, not the presenter, not the fellow panelists nor the audience had the knowledge to shoot her down in flames.
    Sure article 24 of the GATT????? is useful if the counter party agrees. Does anyone think that the EU would agree to the invocation of article 24 of the GATT in the circumstances of a no deal Brexit? The answer is yes, the presenter, panelists, audience in the studio and viewers believe the MP because no one challenged her and pointed out the her painful idiocy.
    Richard North produces a series of magnificent rants against the MSM which to my mind explain perfectly how we got here. The UK will pay a heavy price for the ignorance on display.

    Reply
    1. Frenchguy

      To be fair, the level of ignorance on the subject is very high amongst everyone. I was flabbergasted when a friend of mine who works as an economist in finance gave me the exact same line (on article 24). I usually have a high respect for his opinions so if he is so wrong, I don’t have much hope for the rest. This is quite general, in finance but even in industry, all the (mainly French) people I talked to are very relaxed, no-deal won’t happen, if it does it won’t be that bad (English are pragmatic, they’ll find a way)… I usually end up feeling like Cassandra, screaming that yes, it will be bad but, like her, I don’t think people believe me…

      Reply
      1. Avidremainer

        My problem is that I’m British and can’t really afford to be fair or relaxed about Brexit. The chaos will happen to me.
        I can understand your French colleagues being relaxed. You live in a relatively well run country ( yellow high viz jackets aside.) Not so long ago my wife and I were having a very very nice meal in a smashing restaurant. The couple at the next table were having a good old moan about the SNCF. I had to interrupt and point out that the SNCF was wonderful compared to our dogsbreakfast of a railway. They were surprised to find out that the best parts of our system were run by the French, Dutch and German nationalised railways.
        I’d love to know what recent examples of British pragmatism your colleagues can cite because there is precious little that I can see.

        Reply
        1. vlade

          Yesterday, I was having a few drinks with a few people, and one of them commented that the British go for extremes. They either run things reasonably well (all things considered), or go totally mad. This seems to be the totally mad period, when even Blair/Cameron years look decent by comparison (and that’s a bloody low bar)

          Reply
          1. PlutoniumKun

            I’m reminded of a comment a historian made about Japan, that it was a society that lacked brakes. It may be that future historians will say that the crucial weakness in the UK system – specifically its lack of countervailing power of the executive along with no written constitution, means that it too lacks a brake – its just been fortunate up to now that it hasn’t really needed them.

            Reply
            1. Jerry B

              Thanks for the PK! I hope Lambert reads this post today. I think he would enjoy the brakes comment as well.

              ===that it was a society that lacked brakes – specifically its lack of countervailing power of the executive along with no written constitution.====

              I would say the same thing about the US. Even with a written Constitution the US seems to lack brakes. As many academics have pointed out the oligarchy have taken over the “US government locomotive” and disabled the brakes!

              Not that the US government had any “brakes” before. I am not a Constitution expert but some have said that the US lack of brakes is the constitution working as intended i.e. favoring the elites.

              Reply
              1. vlade

                People (well, someone) likes to say how Athens were the democracy and we’re there too. Old Athenians would call what we have oligarchy. I think it was Aristotle who claimed that any system where a government is elected by the people will turn, sooner or later, into an oligarchy – the incentives and the lever are all there.

                Which is why Athens operated sortition for most of its offices. And where it did not (like generals and admirals, but magistrades in general) it made sure you didn’t really want to get that office in the first place (as it could have well ruined you). See euthyna.

                Reply
              2. Lee

                Brakes: a brief meditation

                Yikes! I just had a horrible thought: perhaps our whole species and perhaps all living things lack brakes. Nature has constantly provided examples of too much success by a particular species that leads to a reduction of its food source and other necessary environmental inputs. The limiting factors, the brakes if you will, on their biological success are imposed from without, not within: lack of prey, hosts, fodder, and competition for example. Typically, these despoliations are relatively localized.

                The only example of a a catastrophic global effect resulting in mass extinction that was caused by life forms that springs immediately to mind was the the Great Oxygenation Event some 2.45 billion years ago. I don’t know if our lack of internal brakes is going to wipe out our species but it is not too great a stretch to imagine it taking out our civilization and so many of us who are absolutely dependent upon it.

                In closing, as a wildlife enthusiast, I must admit to a deep appreciation for the practice of braking for hedgehogs as a modest but profound expression of our best human impulses.

                Reply
                1. Tony Wright

                  Sadly, yes- on the current trajectory we are headed for extinction, along with the majority of species which, like us , are unable to survive the toxic concoction we will leave behind, i.e a blend of Fukushima, Syria and the Manila Rubbish Tip.
                  Rather than lack of brakes I would characterise the human syndrome as Mass Epidemic Myopia.
                  We dont have hedgehogs here, but I do stop and shoo carpet pythons off the road when they sun themselves .

                  Reply
            2. vlade

              Yeah. The problem UK has is that it has no real power separations. Judicary is able to do something, but they can operate only within legal/illegal bit.

              Legislature is meant to be just a “sign this” vehicle for the government (as David writes below), and while it has theoretical power to jail anyone (bypassing the courts entirely), practically it ain’t gonna happen – and even if they did, it still would not solve the problem of the government controlling the legislative’s business.

              I remember Yves was really surprised when we told her that only bills sponsored by the government have any realistic chance of ever making it to law – no matter how wide a support for the private bill is in the Parliament. One single MP shouting “I object!” can kill any private bill, even if it has signatures of the remaining 640+ MPs. There are no ministers that aren’t MPs, and I can’t think if there ever was one.

              So you could say that the system has brakes, but all the wrong ones.

              Reply
  4. vlade

    One thing missing there is that a short extension pretty much guarantees no other extensions are possible, unless the extension is also used to prepare the UK for the EP elections (hahaha).

    Come late May (pun intended), there is pretty much no legal way to hold the EP elections in the UK. Which means that the A50 cannot be extended, as the EU parliament would be challenged (I’m sure that UKIP would love to do that, if no-one else would, just to spoil things up), and that’s too much of a price to pay [in theory, they could be an agreement between the EU and the UK to do the elections in the UK in say July, but it would make no sense unless a much longer extension was done]

    The problem is, even if May is looking to run down the clock, if there’s a re-vote for her deal in late March, there’s just no time at all to do the legislation that needs to be done. And the govt’s own documents relating to no-brexit preparations, released yesterday, show that the UK is not prepared at all to deal with it.

    Reply
  5. DaveH

    “Come late May (pun intended), there is pretty much no legal way to hold the EP elections in the UK.”

    Surely early May at the very latest? The elections take place in the third week of May, and need to be legislated for. Once they’ve been legislated for, parties need to decide on candidates, polling cards need to be created, hustings, polling booths etc.

    I’m assuming this is her plan. Once it’s not legally possible to hold elections to the European Parliament, further delay of A50 and revocation are no longer options. It literally becomes a choice between her deal or no deal, and that will almost certainly focus Labour minds when that is the genuine choice.

    She’s playing Parliament to get what she wants with a startling degree of competence. The vote-for-a-short-delay is a brilliant bit of sleight-of-hand on her part.

    Reply
    1. Pavel

      Excellent analysis here. But she is indeed playing with fire. I just watched a short interview with Rees-Mogg on this very question. He seems confident that even at the cliff edge of a no deal that May can’t get the votes for her deal. How many Labour MPs will hold their noses and support her? Last time she lost by 130 or so. She needs to flip a lot of votes.

      I’d give her 50-50 odds at best.

      As for a two or three month extension it seems pointless… Just more Chinese water torture for the poor UK businesses.

      Reply
      1. shtove

        Query for Clive: in the event of extension and a regulation to alter the exit day in the Withdrawal Act, does the statutory instrument have to go to a vote in parliament?

        Reply
        1. Clive

          Yes. This has been overlooked in the coverage of current developments. It’s just assumed that if there’s a majority for a vote to request an extension, there’s automatically a majority for a SI to tweak the date declared as Exit Date in EU (Withdrawal) Act 2018.

          But these are two decoupled (although intrinsically linked) events. May would ask for an extension and if that extension was granted, a SI would be tabled by a Minister. Keen-eyed viewers will spot an obvious potential snag here. The EU could impose conditions which some who voted to request an extension might not like and would therefore then vote against the SI, thereby leaving the Exit Date unaltered and the U.K. would still, by virtue of statute, leave on the 29th March.

          I’m sure there’s more than a few Leave MPs in Labour Remain constituencies who might be tempted to play a certain parliamentary game in all this. Voting for an extension (which will get the headlines and be what they can broadcast in the local media as having done) but then Sneak Out the Back, Jack and vote against the co-requisite change to the Withdrawal Act.

          Reply
          1. Ignacio

            The EU could impose conditions which some who voted to request an extension might not like and would therefore then vote against the SI, thereby leaving the Exit Date unaltered and the U.K. would still, by virtue of statute, leave on the 29th March.

            Almost certainly. How to grant an extension if a fixture is not foreseeable.

            Reply
          2. ChrisPacific

            What a good thing the UK isn’t leaving it until the last minute then, so that there will be time to sort it all out if there are any last minute shenanigans of this nature!

            Oh, wait.

            (I’m starting to agree with Barnier – there are a frightening number of scenarios involving No Deal by accident, none of which seem particularly improbable).

            Reply
    2. Anders K

      There’s always the possibility to make this mess even worse; how about doing an end-of-June extension and then having the UK Parliament retract the Withdrawal Act. What happens then? Who knows!

      Considering the path towards maximum perversity seems to be the one chosen at every step of this mess, such an act should not be discounted out of hand (as it would be in any reasonable universe).

      One silver lining of Brexit is that authors of fiction, when charged with their work not being “reasonable,” can just reply with “yeah, but compared with Brexit…”

      Reply
  6. Anonymous2

    Maybe the EU comes back with a counter offer so that UK holds EP elections and extension can be for longer than 3 months?

    Reply
  7. The Rev Kev

    To put it simply, what should happen between Parliament and Prime Minister May is that certain informal discussions must take place involving a full and frank exchange of views out of which there will arise a series of proposals, which on examination prove to indicate certain promising lines of inquiry, which, when pursued, lead to the realization that the alternative courses of action might, in fact, in certain circumstances, be susceptible of discreet modification, leading to a reappraisal of the original areas of difference and pointing the way to encouraging possibilities of compromise and cooperation, which, if bilaterally implemented with appropriate give and take on both sides might, if the climate were right, have a reasonable probability at the end of the day of leading, rightly or wrongly, to a mutually satisfactory resolution.
    In other words, they need to do a real deal.

    Reply
        1. David

          I have a rather longer comment stuck in the inner tube webs somewhere, but basically Sir Humphrey would never have allowed this situation to develop in the first place. But then the world of Yes Minister was one where the system actually worked – basically the 1960s. I always thought it was sadly ironic that the series satirised a system that was already starting to be smashed to pieces by Thatcher’s mob.

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          1. DaveH

            There’s one Sir Humphrey quote which I feel sums up this misadventure better than any other pithy one-liner:

            “Minister, if you have to do this damn silly thing, please don’t do it in this damn silly way”

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          2. ChrisPacific

            Sir Humphrey would have moved heaven and earth to prevent the referendum from happening in the first place. Bad enough that ministers are allowed to set policy – now you’re going to let voters to do it directly? Nothing good can come of that.

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      1. Sanxi

        No, it isn’t. A summation of what? Being rational? This isn’t at all how politics work. The Deal – WA the EU offered is the best deal anyone could have made. The EU isn’t change it’s terms for anyone. The only thing the EU will except is more union with it, thus undermining any notion of leaving.

        Reply
  8. David

    How did we get into this mess?
    Well, all political engineering reflects how the political system works. Once the system changes, or is subject to intolerable stresses, the engineering breaks down. This is what’s happening now.
    There are two major characteristics of the English (not necessarily UK) political system which are important here. One is the dominance of the Executive over Parliament. What is often described as a “separation of powers” is better understood as a separation of roles. The government controls Parliament, but Parliament does actually have to vote laws and approve expenditure so that the formalities are observed. Normally this is no problem, and it’s virtually impossible for Parliament to exert itself collectively against any government. In reality, almost all MPs of the government party will be trying to get themselves noticed for their loyalty, so as to be put on the list for Ministerial positions or honours and awards. In turn, this dominance requires strong and stable governments. What’s happened now is that we no longer have a government capable of controlling the Commons. But that doesn’t mean, as in some systems, that countervailing powers come into play, because there are no countervailing powers. All you have is a vacuum, with a Parliament that doesn’t have the machinery or the constitutional right to make policy. It’s this vacuum that is at the heart of the current crisis.
    Second, English politics has historically been structured around broad opposites: town and country, north and south, landowners and industrialists, London and the provinces, in shifting combinations. This has produced a system that was historically stable, and tended to resolve itself into two broad-tent parties at any one time. This meant that there was always an alternative government, and that General Elections usually produced stable governments. The British system at that point was brutally rapid and efficient: I remember in May 1997, when the system was still more or less functional, that the Labour Party won the election on a Thursday, the new government was in place on Friday and on Saturday a new Minister, already briefed, was filmed attending an EU meeting in Brussels. For a host of reasons dating from along ago as the 1960s, including Wilson’s failure to pass proper Trades Union legislation, the coup against Heath which brought Thatcher to power accidentally, the changing demographics of both Labour and Tory MPs, the formation of the SDP etc etc. we no longer have political parties reflecting broad convergences of interest.
    So a system which requires strong government and united parties has weak government and disunited parties, but there is no Plan B. The the current paralysis which cannot, so far as I can see, be solved within the current system because it’s the current system that’s the problem.

    Reply
    1. Avidremainer

      David, what an excellent piece.
      Aren’t we also suffering from the fact that even though these governments have been stable they’ve also been by and large failures.
      One example of the failure of successive governments is the state of the UK’s infrastructure. Tinkering with ownership and methods of payment for roads, rail and other necessary upgrades has been an unmitigated disaster.
      I worked for BT during its privatisation. Nationalised BT had plans to roll out fibre optic cable countrywide. Imagine that in the mid’80s. What an advantage this would have given the country. Privatised BT canned the investment. For the Limited Company the cost of this project was prohibitive. For the Nationalised company it was doable and absolutely in the long term interests of the country.
      You can accurately plan a car journey in most of the EU. Try that in the UK. Pot holes are of vast interest in Parliament for god’s sake. The last time I disembarked in Portsmouth the speed restrictions began on entering the motorway and continued for all of the journey.
      There are no East-West train communications to speak of and any train services in Cumbria would be appreciated.
      I wonder why we have a productivity problem?
      Successive governments have neglected too many of the basics to produce a first world economy.

      Reply
    2. Ape

      Yes – this seems precisely to be the issue. Part of the problem is that the common concept is propagandistic. English politics is an alternation of dictatorships to put it bluntly.

      You start to tweak the system but refuse to recognize reality and you break stuff. The US did this with primaries back in the 60s, refusing to recognize what the function of parties was in the US – to control the choices presented to the electorate.

      Reform under delusion without ever using dirty words rarely works.

      Reply
    3. Ignacio

      Some many in Spain believe that having a Government in minority is a feature, not a bug. Such is the confidence we have in our rulers.

      Reply
    4. Sanxi

      What has been stated is series of opinions, not a series of beliefs – that must be based on facts. If May is not in control of government then way are they voting on motions generated by her, according to her timeframe, and that will achieve her outcomes. All the ad hominem attacks on her aside, given that the EU controls the terms of any deal, where has May failed? No where, as will soon be demonstrated. Everything has lead up to this and is to be judged by it. Liking it is irrelevant.

      Reply
  9. Alex

    I cannot understand but given the subsequent Motions the Government plans to table in mid march, what if the Parliament doesn’t pass ANY of them? I.e.
    – May agreement on the 12th – NO majority means go to “no deal” motion
    – “No deal” motion on the 13th – No majority means go to “short extension” motion
    – “Short extension”motion on the 14th – NO majority…what happens then? Accidental crash out?
    Thank you

    Reply
    1. vlade

      The reality is, there are only three physical ways to stop the UK leaving on 29th with no deal
      – revoke A50.
      – approve May’s deal
      – ask for, and be GRANTED, the extension (which may come with strings attached, which may well be unacceptable).

      Anything else means no-deal regardless of what the parliament votes for.

      There’s one thing though. Which is, if May was minded that way, IF all above was rejected, then the only option to conform with all of that would be for May to revoke A50. Anything else, she goes against the expressed will of the Parliament :)

      See, it all still may be a super Remainer plot where May says in late March “you closed all options for me except to unilateraly revoke A50. Thank you and goodbye”. Wouldn’t that be fun? [be careful. Recently, I was trying to find super-ridiculous scenarios, and instead it turned me into sort of pretty good Cassandra]

      Reply
      1. Alex

        Thank you Vlade, very clear – and fun. But getting to “revoke” option would be going against the expressed will of the electorate, which May declared has to be respected (something like “we have to deliver on the referendum” if I remember the words) …so that would be going either against the will of the Parliament, OR against the will expressed in the referendum. It sound like between a rock and a hard place.

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        1. vlade

          She said she would not revoke A50 yesterday.

          But she said so many things already, that believing what May says should be limited to five year old and younger.

          She might for example resign saying that revocation is the only option left, and she would not do it, so the Parliament has to give it to someone else.

          Reply
          1. Which is worse - bankers or terrorists

            May will never revoke Article 50 because her raison d’etre for being Prime Minister will no longer exist.

            And like Putin said about Russia, why should the world even exist if Theresa May is not Prime Minister?

            :)

            Reply
        2. David

          At some point there will be a resolution to this ghastly mess, and it will almost certainly be an outcome that a considerable part – maybe the majority – of the public don’t support. But in the UK system the public gets a chance to intervene only every five years. At the moment it suits some people to cite the referendum results and opinion polls as though they were actual constraints rather than ammunition for debates. But in the end Parliament has votes in a way that the public don’t. When things get really rough you’ll start hearing that « things have changed. » The UK system is very Darwinian. If you haven’t got the power you get trodden on.

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        3. vidimi

          she also said she would definitely not call a general election days before she called a general election. with may, a formal denial is almost a confirmation.

          Reply
      2. ChrisPacific

        I don’t see how she would have any other option given this quote from her speech:

        So the United Kingdom will only leave without a deal on 29 March if there is explicit consent in this House for that outcome.

        Anything else would mean that she was outright lying to Parliament when she said that, and I can’t imagine that the Prime Minister of the UK would ever do such a thing.

        Reply
        1. Yves Smith Post author

          The problem is that (as Clive reminds us above) that Parliament has to pass not just the “no No Deal” motion but the statutory instrument effectuating that AND also amend the Withdrawal Act.

          And May has lied repeatedly, as vlade pointed out above and I did in the post.

          And as far as the EU is concerned, she told a huge lie in committing to the Withdrawal Agreement and then reneging by coming back to try to renegotiate it.

          Reply
          1. ChrisPacific

            Sorry, perhaps I should have made the sarcasm more explicit. That one struck me as particularly egregious when I read it (it was even contradicted by other parts of the speech).

            Reply
  10. David

    Interestingly the French media this morning is saying that May has « left a decision about extension to Parliament. » and « the ball is in parliament’s court. » The impression is that an extension is highly likely even if not certain.

    Reply
    1. PlutoniumKun

      Thats not how its been reported here. I wonder have they just misunderstood May’s three ‘steps’ as outlined – i.e. vote on the deal, then vote on blocking ‘no deal’ and then vote on an extension. I think they may be assuming Parliament has more power than it actually has in this.

      Reply
      1. David

        I think you are right, and I wonder how far the media are reflecting the official view. Quite a lot I suspect. In general I detect a certain complacency in the French media, suggesting that an extension is pretty much a done deal.

        Reply
  11. Pinhead

    How did we reach this point? “We” reached this point by accepting Ms May to lead Britain. She gave the game away on Day 1 by saying (and meaning) “Brexit means Brexit”.

    A leader worthy of the British people would have said “Let’s see what Brexit may mean in practice”. That leader would, today, command a large majority for starying in the EU. If that meant holding another referendum so be it. Polls show that Remain would win by a bigger margin than its loss in 2016.

    Can such a leader emerge at the last minute? Ask Ken Clarke. Ask Chuka Umunna. True leaders recognize when their moment has come. The majority of MPs know that staying in the EU is best for the country. But none of them appear willing to lead the charge. Sad.

    Reply
  12. Pookah Harvey

    Somebody should check to see if May has this H. L. Mencken quote hanging somewhere on her wall-

    ” Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want and deserve to get it good and hard.”

    Reply
  13. Joe Well

    Is the possible key to understanding all this that in fact that most people (at least in government and media) really do have a very poor grasp of simple logic and distinguishing facts from not-facts. In common language, stupid. Because that’s the only coherent global explanation for the Brexit debate. So much doesn’t make sense that many of the people saying it must not be very sensible. No no deal? Really?

    Reply
    1. Clive

      That is a factor in all this. But there’s also an awful lot of chuntering that “politics is broken”, “this doesn’t make any sense”, “(insert your choice of group here) are stupid” when the utterer is, if they were to express it more honestly, trying to make a point that, in their view “I disagree with what’s happening”.

      It’s not black and white. There are some stunningly dumb things afoot and not a little duplicity. But then there’s also some perfectly permissible things (which some would argue are entirely valid and reasonable) in motion which are characterised as “stupid” or “inexplicable” or whatever when they are, rather, merely “not what I want”.

      Or, as another expression, be very wary of saying “the system is broken”. You might then very well end up with a new, different system which delivers a particular outcome on a particular issue that’s much more to your liking. But with a risk that the new, improved, system then turns out to be not exactly all you’d wished it to be when working through other issues.

      Reply
      1. vlade

        Re your last para – it’s practically a given that any replacement system will be different from what people who spurred the replacement wished for (speaking from experience). It doesn’t mean that when a system is stretched beyond what it can bear it will not or should not break.

        That’s why I’m saying it’s a revolution, but so far it’s probably only ERG who’s taking it like that (which is funny, given that they are meant to be the ultra-conservatives).

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      2. David

        I have this conversation quite regularly about different countries including the UK. When I suggest that a given system is broken the response is « so what else do you suggest ? » as though these two ideas were connected which of course they are not. The judgment that a system is broken is a technical one, and the issue of what will replace it is a political one. If a garage mechanic tells you your car is unfit for the road you don’t refuse to accept his opinion unless he also offers you a financing scheme for a new one.

        Reply
        1. Clive

          The aforementioned garage mechanic would, however, be dealing with mechanical systems which can be inspected and observed. If they have suffered a failure, the point of failure is diagnosable. “It makes a funny noise when I pull away” — “your torque converter is leaking transmission fluid, see, look, the seam is weeping here”, “the check engine light is on and it won’t go off even when I’ve been driving for a while” — “the engine management system says your exhaust gas probe is open circuit, see, look, it’s corroded here”. Etc.

          Conceptual, non physical systems don’t lend themselves to this kind of certainty. “This Parliament is making silly and incorrect policy choices” — “Oh, it is really now? But that’s only what you say… it seems to be running just fine to me.”

          The ERG types think Parliament is making silly and incorrect policy choices because it doesn’t like May’s Deal so therefore “politics isn’t working”. Remain types think Parliament is making silly and incorrect policy choices because it isn’t rescinding Article 50 so therefore “politics isn’t working”. But I think that May’s Deal is kind-a crappy but the least-bad outcome taking everything into account. So politics (and the political institutions) seem to be working just fine to me.

          If even May can get them to trundle in a direction she can set, better minds than hers would be able to change outcomes. But they’re still going to have to come up with those better outcomes and work them through the political system. If the dim and dull as ditchwater May can operate the levers of power, they can’t be that difficult to use. So for those wanting something different than May is progressing but nevertheless who are demonstrably unable to progress it, there’s only two possibilities. Either their outcomes are rubbish. Or they’re useless politicians. But neither of these issues is the fault of the political system. No political system can turn rubbishey policies into good ones or useless politicians into effective ones.

          Reply
          1. David

            You can have both though. Yes, a lot of stupid people doing ridiculous things. But a system which is predicated on sensible behavior then cannot cope. If it’s easier we can say that the system  »has been broken «  but in any event it’s not in good shape however you look at it.

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          2. Avidremainer

            Every system needs the rules to be observed. There has been an Executive coup d’etat. Mrs May has no business being Prime Minister. She should have resigned when she lost by 230 votes on the centre piece of her legislative program. She should have sacked the three cabinet ministers who went public with their opposition to her policy or resigned because she couldn’t sack them. Yet she carries on.
            Christopher Grayling, Secretary of State for Transport-the one who gave a Ferry contract to a Ferry company with no ships and whose T & C’s were cut and pasted from a pizza delivery company has just wandered into the ” No ” lobby and therefore to vote against his own government. Someone pointed out his mistake and he exited toute suite. No one knows if he found his way to the correct lobby.
            This evening’s parliamentary sketch by John Crace in the Guardian is a hoot. I recommend it to all and sundry.

            Reply
            1. Anonymous2

              The UK has a dysfunctional newspaper industry which for the most part does not speak truth to power but falsehoods to the powerless. In addition it has a political class largely comprised of rogues, incompetents and lightweights. IMO opinion nothing will improve in the political sphere until we have a newspaper industry which discharges its responsibilities properly. However that will not happen until the politicians take the necessary steps to reform the newspaper industry. However given what happened to Leveson we can see that the chances of this happening approximate to zero.

              To my mind, this mutual and reinforcing failure amounts to a broken system.

              Reply
    2. Jerry B

      ==have a very poor grasp of simple logic and distinguishing facts from not-facts===
      ==so much doesn’t make sense that many of the people saying it must not be very sensible===

      As I have mentioned in other comments, the above sounds like a lack of personality development, a lack of maturity, lack of ego development (i.e. ego strength/sense of self), lack of emotional development, etc.

      We also assume the rich due to their access to better schooling, socialization, etc. have the character traits I mentioned above when that is far from the case and being wealthy sometimes can lead to poor character traits.

      Politics has become a popularity contest/most money contest and not a competence contest and maybe it always was that. But in today’s complex society we need better people running it. Unfortunately the best people usually stay away from politics. That has to change.

      We elect people from the credentialed, monied classes to political office and then we are shocked when they turn out to be incompetent or have character flaws. You mean the class president deep down is emotionally a child??? Nooo. The horror. BTW the increasing influence and size of the media in the last 50+ years has contributed to this and with cable, the internet, etc. it has only amplified the propagandizing of politicians.

      When we start committing energy and resources to not just job training but raising fully developed, mature, highly emotional intelligent personalities and remove money from politics then maybe we have a chance.

      Thanks for reading my rant.

      Reply
  14. flora

    No idea how UK Parliamentary politics in Westminster works. Keep wondering if May is either a) an ERG supporter, or b) she’s trying to hold off Andrea Leadsom from a future leadership challenge.

    Reply
    1. flora

      adding: I think it’s Cabinet member Leadsom who has insisted from the start that no deal stays on the table. I may be wrong about this.

      Reply
  15. kernel

    Re: (David) “…we no longer have political parties reflecting broad convergences of interest” – I see same problem here on the West side of the Pond, resulting from similar political evolution of last few decades.

    Around 1980, the conservative parties (GOP / Tory) took a hard right turn. Smart marketing & “strong” leaders (Reagan/Thatcher) enticed large chunks of working class voters away from their post-war home in center-left parties. (this flip was partly enabled by the very success of center-left policy which raised standard of living for much of the working class, and partly a result of cultural upheaval of the 1960’s).

    The collapse of union power dried up funding for the center-left parties, which moved rightward (on economics at least) to attract funding (Clinton/Blair). They acquiesced to de-regulation and privatization pushed by the Right, and failed (or didn’t bother?) to prevent the worsening concentration of wealth, which leaked back into the political sphere as campaign “donations” (read “purchases”). Positive feedback ensued.

    But now the conservative parties have been taken over by the Crazies they created. The Old Money which once controlled these Parties can still get their way on reducing their taxes, but they can’t prevent the Crazies from wrecking everything else. Their policies are not sustainable, and neither are their coalitions.

    “Liberal” parties have consoled themselves with social change, which has evolved into the Identity Trap. They are compelled to pander to successively smaller demographic chunks, which (with a strong push from smart Conservative propaganda) alienates working-class voters.

    Perhaps the best example of the broken “convergence of interest” is the stance of the parties on immigration issues. In the UK, anti-immigrant political pressure led the Tories to call the Brexit Referendum, hoping/expecting it to fail. Now, they’re stuck with it, afraid to piss off their Crazies. Labor – trying desperately to win back the working class – has to tiptoe around it.

    I guess we’re relatively luck, here in the USA. All we have to worry about is Trump.

    Reply

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