02 August 2018
The Man On The Mountain
May’s holiday task.
By John Watson
Peace at last! The focus of the newspapers moves to features and out-of-date news as all those noisy brattish politicians go away for their summer holidays. Time for everyone to relax and recharge. Almost everyone, that is. Much though Mrs May may enjoy her walks across the Austrian countryside it seems unlikely that she ever banishes the Brexit negotiations completely from her mind. That isn’t just because of the red boxes which summon her back to her desk each evening but because of the opportunity a walking holiday gives to think things out. There is no way better way to clear the mind of irrelevancy and to focus on the essentials of something complex than to turn the matter over reflectively as one strides across the countryside. So let us intrude on her thoughts for a moment and view the Brexit knot from a long perspective. What do we see as the salient points?
Well, to begin with, there is a war on two fronts. In putting proposals together, Mrs May has to look at them from two points of view. Do they contribute to her negotiation with Brussels? That isn’t the same as asking whether they are attractive to Brussels. Not every suggestion made in a negotiation is intended to be acceptable to the other side. The question is whether the proposals will make it more likely that a satisfactory solution will be reached. Then she has to look over her shoulder at the enemy behind, at the various groups of Brexiteers, neo-Remainers and assorted nutters whose votes may be needed to keep her at the head of her party and to keep the governmental show on the road.
There is nothing new about the need to look both ways. If you read the early part of Lord Sumption’s great work on the Hundred Years War, you see Edward III and his French counterpart Philip of Valois in just that position. For each of them the objective is to deliver punishing strokes against the other but to do that you need soldiers and funds. You will get neither if you do not maintain the consent and support of your Parliament and nobles at home. Everything has to be done, therefore, with two different objects in mind. Add in the importance of cultivating allies among the other side’s supporters and making (and breaking) treaties and you have something not entirely dissimilar from the Brexit negotiations. Truly, there is no new thing under the sun.
However, the fact that other people have been in the same position does not solve anything and leaves the question of how Mrs May should handle her dilemma. Should she trie to agree a position with Parliament and then put it to Brussels, or should she play it the other way round and, having reached an accommodation with Brussels, submit it to Parliament in a “take it or leave it” manner?
The first route is clearly impracticable because Parliamentary decision-making is just not fast enough to keep up with complex negotiations. The most that can be expected from Parliament are red lines and statements of principle which will normally be out of date as soon as they are uttered. Let us try the second route then. How would you do it, if you were Mrs May?
The trick would be to run the negotiations with as little interference as possible and to feed the Cabinet and Parliament with enough encouraging propaganda to keep them onside. Then, once the deal has been struck, you might turn to Parliament seeking their endorsement on the basis that the terms are the best that can be achieved. Mr Barnier would be doing precisely the same with the member states of the EU.
The effect of this is to make the choice for Parliament a binary one. Do Tory MPs accept the proposal put to them or do they vote it down, those who do so picking up a personal responsibility for the chaos caused by leaving without an agreement? That would be a brave decision to make and, if there was a reasonable level of public support for the proposal, only a few Tory members would have the nerve for it. Still, there would be some of them, wouldn’t there – a Mogg or two, perhaps. Maybe a Johnson or a David Davis. How would you ensure that there were not enough of them to upset the apple cart?
Until now, the Government has survived crucial votes despite some of its MPs voting against it because opposition MPs, generally Remainers, have given it support. The trouble is that the numbers have been very close and, despite the best effort of the Whips, tough deal terms could result in the vote going wrong. So, what to do?
One possibility would be focus on known Remainer MPs in the Labour or Liberal Democrat parties. If they believe strongly that a deal should be done, they will be reluctant to bring it down for party political reasons. Ideally, though, one would go beyond isolated cases and get the opposition as a whole to vote in favour of the ultimate deal, or at least to abstain. If that was the strategy, the best plan would be to talk to them and keep them briefed as the negotiations develop.
Imagine it is a stormy day and a middle-aged English couple are slightly out of breath as they approached the col. There is a hut which initially appears deserted but, no, as they get closer, they realise that there is a grey-haired man planting vegetables. He has a grey beard. English people are always diffident about disturbing the locals and making a nuisance of themselves and this couple are no exception. The man looks very busy with his planting. Still, they have come a long way and do not want to be caught in the open if the weather turns rough. The woman steps forward resolutely. “Mr Corbyn, I presume” she says, holding out her hand.
Okay, maybe it isn’t exactly like that and the Prime Minister merely talks to the other party leaders on the telephone, or in the bar, or in a meeting room. It doesn’t matter where it is done, but it seems likely that bringing them onside with her proposals is a significant part of Mrs May’s holiday homework.