01 March 2018
Off we go!
By John Watson
If you have ever shovelled mulch, you will know what I mean. You dig away at the bottom of the pile undermining its cliff-like edge. For ages. It sticks together and you begin to wonder whether it will ever collapse. Then, suddenly, one more spadeful from the base of the heap and down it comes, providing a nice soft pile for you to load easily into your bucket. You might describe that moment as “mulchfall”.
Well, British politics seems to have got to mulchfall at last. For ages the two sides have danced about, riven by indecision. Hard Brexit or soft? Part of the EU market or out of it? Free traders or within the Customs Union? Party leaders have avoided a clear position as the clock has ticked on. Now it seems that things are moving and that they will soon be coming to a head.
First, from the Labour side, the decision seems to be to pursue membership of the Customs Union so that there will be no tariffs on export or imports to and from the EU. That means giving up any dream of new trading relations with non EU countries as we would inevitably be bound to charge tariffs at the EU rates. You cannot, after all, have a tariff wall with a gaping hole in it. Bye bye, then, any advantage to the economy from a free trade approach. As Mr Rees-Mogg would say, our poor will continue to be overcharged for food; the world’s poorest nations will still be held back by their inability to sell across the tariff wall.
But it is not just the loss of a Moggite dream. The EU would want to prevent membership of the Customs Union being unfairly exploited by the British cuckoo; so they would inevitably seek protection against possible advantages for UK manufacturers. That would mean European standards, limits on state aid and competition policy, all enforced by the European Court of Justice. In fact, the Commission would be looking for most of the paraphernalia of the EU (save perhaps for free movement of workers), and once we had a government committed to membership of the Customs Union, it would be difficult to resist any of the conditions which the EU chose to attach to it. A Labour government committed to membership of the Customs Union would be walking naked into the conference chamber with a vengeance. If it had been elected on the basis (as would inevitably be the case) that it could secure membership of the union without becoming a mere “rule taker”, it would be in an exceedingly uncomfortable position. The electorate have accepted with reasonably good humour that they were lied to by both sides in the Referendum. They, and particularly the idealistic young who support Labour, might be less tolerant if it were to happen again.
On the other side of the House there is also movement. A group of Conservative MPs, led by Anne Soubry, seeks to make pursuit of continued membership of the Customs Union a condition of their support for the government’s Brexit strategy. That brings them into direct conflict with leading Brexiteers led by Rees-Mogg and Johnson to whom continued membership of the Customs Union, with its tariffs on imports from non-members, is anathema. They believe that we are on a journey towards global free trade and that to abort it at this stage would be a betrayal.
On Friday the Prime Minister is to make an important speech setting out her EU strategy. She has had some success recently in preserving a semblance of cabinet unity and it may be that she will be able to knit the two sides of her party together by pushing things out further into the long grass. That is unlikely, though, and it would not be a good thing if she did. The Customs Union dispute needs to be settled and it needs to be settled now.
So let us suppose that there is no fudge and that we end up with a group of neo-Remainer Tory MPs who publicly disagree with the government’s negotiating strategy and who could, if they combine with the Labour Party on a confidence motion, force a General Election. What happens then? The government cannot give in to them without losing the support of the Brexiteers, also crucial to its majority. One way or the other, the Conservative Party has to split, something which would probably be followed by a Labour motion that the House had lost confidence in it. Technically, the Soubry group could support a resolution to defeat the Government’s negotiating strategy but then support it on a confidence vote; but that is surely hardly tenable politics. If they stick to their guns on the Customs Union is hard to see how a general election can be avoided.
An election under these circumstances would be unusual because the domestic issues would be overlayed by the debate regarding our relationship with Europe. Let’s look at the line up. Labour would have a clear position arguing for membership of the Custom Union, but with uncertain and probably dishonest answers to how much EU baggage came with it. They would be opposed by Brexiteer Tories, whether led by May or Rees-Mogg or Johnson, saying that, having made our decision in the referendum, we need to follow it through. In the middle would be a collection of Soubryist Tories and Brexiteer labour members trying to find a home for themselves, rather like the “Useless Mouths” caught between the two sides at Chateau Gaillard in 1204.
The big question is what the public would make of it all. Who knows? The negotiations so far have demonstrated that we are not going to be able to have our cake and eat it, so either we have to return suppliant to the outer orbit of the EU on the basis that our experiment has failed, or we barge on through and take the consequences, which will no doubt be unpleasant, at least in the short term.
Which way will they go? It is hard to say but one thing is sure. People’s votes will not necessarily follow their votes in the referendum. There will be some who were originally Brexiteers who will now prefer to run for cover, using changes in the free movement of people rules as a fig leaf to cover their change of direction. On the other hand, some Remainers will remember the words of Macbeth: “I am in blood stepped in so far that should I wade no more, returning were as tedious as go o’er,” and vote for a full Brexit. Add an overlay of domestic issues and tribal loyalties to make the picture more complex still. Who knows how it will turn out, but it seems likely that we will shortly find out.
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