So much pain for so little gain

Published by The ipaper (24th July, 2017)

Jacob Rees-Mogg has six children, has never changed a nappy and happily admits to making no pretence at modernity. Yet such is the state of crisis engulfing the Conservative Party that some people are placing money on this throwback MP to be the nation’s next prime minister. His odds have fallen sharply, leaving him just behind Boris Johnson and Phillip Hammond at 10-1 for the top job with one firm of bookies.

The idea this ultra-conservative is the person to reconnect Tories with disenchanted younger voters is incredible. His fans argue that, while he might be antiquated, he is at least authentic. Rees-Mogg himself says he is ‘flattered’ by the idea but ‘calm reflection over the summer will encourage people to think we want Mrs May to stay.’ Meanwhile he told fellow MPs he is looking forward to ‘aestivating’ in Somerset over the next six weeks – which, for the rest of us, means lazing away the summer.

It must be nice for politicians to have this long summer break even as they grumble about British productivity. But would it be too much to ask if they could use the time off to ponder their public duty? May clings on in Downing Street, an impotent Prime Minister saved in her job only by the weakness of internal rivals. Bickering cabinet ministers fight for the spotlight. Backbenchers search in desperation for a saviour in their ranks. And the country’s problems – health, housing, prisons, social care – are left to stagnate as a beleaguered government avoids anything controversial.

Such stasis will do little to tackle the public’s loss of faith in Westminster. Overshadowing everything is Brexit, fervently supported by Rees-Mogg, which threatens to torpedo trust in political classes still further as dreams of nirvana dissolve. Even now – four months after the triggering of Article 50 – there is no clear vision on the shape of the country sought from this disruptive process. Instead we hear clichés about control and openness as we exile ourselves from the world’s biggest trading block, and arrogant taunts towards neighbours from those such as Boris Johnson.

This gets more depressing by the day. Jeremy Corbyn climbed back into contention by persuading young voters he was best person to thwart Brexit. Yet Labour is feeble and split on this issue, its leadership merely hoping to hold together long enough for the Government to collapse. Shadow Business Secretary Rebecca Long-Bailey was reduced to stealing one of Johnson’s more ludicrous lines when saying Labour policy on the most important issue facing our nation was to ‘have our cake and eat it too’. No crumbs of comfort here for those resisting Brexit.

Meanwhile reality is biting hard. Those charlatans who sold voters snake oil are changing tune on pretty much everything from immigration to the single market. Britain looks diminished already. Bankers lead the jobs exodus. Business confidence has fallen along with the pound. And ministers privately say they feel overwhelmed by the fiendish complexity of extracting the country from a 44-year union that has tentacles trailing though every corner of national life.

Government talk of hard Brexit and casual chatter about cliff-edge departure has morphed into discussion of ‘pragmatic’ Brexit. Once Michael Gove claimed we held all the cards after voting for Brexit. Now he says ministers are united over need for a transitional deal after we depart in March 2019. Even Liam Fox has softened his stance. Realists around the cabinet table led by Chancellor Philip Hammond seem confident of consensus emerging around an ‘off the shelf’ deal of the type already existing for other nations.

This would be a very British fudge: we talk of taking back control then accept a transitional arrangement that ends up lasting for decades. At best this might mean the Norwegian model, with membership of the European Economic Area, which includes single market access along with payment of budget contributions and acceptance of free movement. It is worth noting Norway’s ‘temporary’ membership has so far lasted 23 years after its voters rejected full EU participation.

This is a superior solution to the insanity of hard Brexit. Yet as one Norwegian MP in Olso told me: ‘It’s a stupid arrangement.’ They enact EU trade measures into law but have no say on making rules, while relying on diplomats from other Scandinavian nations to represent their interests. A Norwegian former minister for Europe even told me he used to fly to meetings of the United Nations in New York simply to speak with his colleagues from Europe.

Meanwhile, Britain obstinately rejects any role for the European Court of Justice, which resolves rows on cross-border issues, while suggesting a new judicial body to settle disputes. Similar solutions may have to be found for scores more regulatory bodies. Is this taking back control, or saving face? Brexit may end up meaning little more than sitting limply on the sidelines, still subject to European rules while losing global authority and perhaps shaving a bit off the annual bill.

So much pain, so little gain. Where is the morality in pursuing a stupid, senseless and self-harming course of action when corrosive to national interests? Privately, many MPs believe this will damage the country. Perhaps they could show some bottle when returning after the recess by working out how to derail the whole daft process? After all, it was Brexit minister David Davis who said, when debating the EU, that: ‘If a democracy cannot change its mind, it ceases to be a democracy.’ Our politicians should ponder this carefully while aestivating on their sun loungers.

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