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62. Playing football with our freedoms
12 July 2021
A big day in sport but real life goes on and the problems are not going away
“We win together and we lose together. No ifs or buts. The whole country should stand firm behind every player in this heroic team”.
“The standard of leaders in this country over the last couple of years has been poor but looking at that man there he is everything a leader should be. Respectful, humble, tells the truth, genuine. He’s fantastic, Gareth Southgate, and he’s done a great job.” “Honestly, Gareth Southgate and Boris Johnson are poles apart. You can be a leader and be a gentleman. You can be ruthless and have empathy and compassion”
“I know my voice carries weight, not because of who I am but because of the position that I hold. At home, I’m below the kids and the dogs in the pecking order but publicly I am the England men’s football team manager. I have a responsibility to the wider community to use my voice, and so do the players. It’s their duty to continue to interact with the public on matters such as equality, inclusivity and racial injustice, while using the power of their voices to help put debates on the table, raise awareness and educate.
…It’s about how we conduct ourselves on and off the pitch, how we bring people together, how we inspire and unite, how we create memories that last beyond the 90 minutes. That lasts beyond the summer. That lasts forever.”
“The world is looking at us with disbelief — a country with some of the best universities and minds acting with arrogance, yet again underestimating our adversary,”
Ravi Gupta, professor of clinical microbiology, Cambridge.
“Why in the middle of an air raid are we being told to switch all the lights on?”
Football’s coming home to Rome
People up and down this country woke up this morning feeling groggy if not hung over, gradually taking in the disappointment of last night. It is difficult to put the loss to one side and focus instead at what has been gained. The team has managed not only to bring people together but also to set a superb example to the country and the world. Gareth Southgate showed magnanimity in success and dignity in defeat, and immediate willingness to take responsibility for the result, something which our political masters have conspicuously failed to do. He has inspired his team not only in footballing skill but in showing what cohesion, personality and multiculturalism can look like. And he has written clearly to his team and supporters about his vision.
Remarks like those of Gary Neville have gone viral for a reason, and when politicians complain that sports people should stick to sport, they need reminding that they themselves have tried to capitalise on the country’s sports teams when they are doing well – often after undermining them when they were not.
When I say “this country”, I should perhaps have been more specific and said “England”. In other parts of the United Kingdom, especially Scotland, there are significant minorities (?) whose footballing allegiance can be summarised as ABE, ie Anyone But England. While personally I find this wrong and regrettable, I would say to those who condemn it, please reflect for a moment on the reasons why this might be so. I will mention just two now, but I’m sure there are others. Firstly many Scots are looking south at a Westminster Government which, in the words of no less a person than Lord Neuberger, former president of the Supreme Court, is legislating to take us on a slippery slope towards dictatorship. Secondly there is the attitude of some of the fans, typified by the louts who broke into Wembley last night through the disabled entrance, and those who spouted racist abuse after the match. Yes, they are a minority, but sadly their activities are amplified and serve to bring their country into disrepute. And if we have a Prime Minister and a Home Secretary who refuse to condemn fans who boo their own team for taking the knee, perhaps we can be forgiven for thinking it comes from the top.
A Colossal Natural Experiment
Despite the result last night there is a lot to celebrate. Nonetheless, and I don’t want to be a party pooper, as a doctor I could not help looking at the crowds and wondering how many avoidable cases of Covid, how many people with long term disability, and even how many deaths, will result from the complete lack of social distancing and the almost complete lack of masks which we witnessed. Estimates are that Trump’s rallies last year caused 700 deaths. The total number consequent on the Euros will be less but it will not be zero. You will hear it said that vaccination will reduce the toll. However, while vaccination protects it does not provide any guarantees. Even if the vaccine were 100% effective we have nothing like high enough rates to give – dread term – herd immunity. Young football fans are more likely to be incompletely immunised and, while relatively safe from the risk of death, are still vulnerable to long Covid: perhaps 10% of those infected will have symptoms 3 months on, and in many cases the effects may well be permanent. We rightly condemned Matt Hancock for breaking his own rules at a time when Covid risks were lower than they are now, and when the ‘Johnson virus’ was not yet a thing, so why do we turn a blind eye to some 60,000 fans being packed into Wembley at a time when the virus is on the rise? This is not even to mention the 2000 “VIPs” who were allowed into the country for the event without any quarantine requirement. Even worse is the knock on effect of putting out the message that the pandemic is over and precautions are no longer needed.
This indeed is apparently the Government’s view, with today’s announcement that mandatory safeguards are to be dropped. In Sajjid Javid we have a health secretary who is much more comfortable than his predecessor was with this libertarian approach. We may perhaps speculate that this is precisely one of the reasons why he is in post, and of course if so he is there to be in a position to take the blame if and when things go pear shaped. This PM has form.
There are few if any reputable experts in the field of medicine or science who believe that this is the right time for an abrupt release of lockdown. Alarming predictions have been made by 122 experts in a letter to The Lancet, by the BMA and by the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges, not to mention Dr Mike Ryan and Maria Van Kerkhove of WHO. At press conferences the Government’s scientific advisors invariably look uncomfortable while obviously under instructions to avoid rocking the boat (Stockholm Syndrome?). I can only be reminded of Anthony Fauci standing beside Donald Trump. While there may be some debate about gradual release of restrictions on businesses and travel, there really seems to be little or no argument among experts about the value of face masks, the wearing of which after all carries little or no economic cost and which we now know serves to protect not only the wearers but those around them. So why make it optional on public transport?
The consequences of premature unlocking are many. not only direct but indirect. One example is increased demand on hospital resources combined with increased absence from work by NHS workers, leading to a doubling in NHS waiting lists to 13,000,000, and this is the prediction of the health secretary himself.
The consequences of premature unlocking are many. not only direct but indirect. One example is increased demand on hospital resources combined with increased absence from work by NHS workers, leading to a doubling in NHS waiting lists to 13,000,000, and this is the prediction of the health secretary himself.
The consequences of premature unlocking are many. For example, the most effective way to cultivate resistant strains is to allow proliferation in a partially-vaccinated population. There are indirect effects, such as increased demand on hospital resources combined with increased absence from work by NHS workers, leading to a doubling in NHS waiting lists to 13,000,000, and this is the prediction of the health secretary himself.
How is it that we are in a position, unique in the world, where such decisions are being made against a background of rising infection? We might be forgiven for thinking that the parliamentary pressure is coming from the same small vocal group who have been pushing for a no deal Brexit. Hardliners such as Steve Baker and Andrew Bridgen, members of the misleadingly named ERG (European Research Group) and the even more misleadingly named CRG (Covid Recovery Group), together with their enablers in the popular press, seem to be comfortable dismissing evidence and espousing magical thinking. Hence the attraction to them of the twin fantasies of Brexit and of “Freedom Day”. And don’t forget Andrew Bridgen was the man who told us that because he was British he would automatically be entitled to an Irish passport. When corrected on this major gaffe, he never bothered to apologise or retract it. Nor did his supporters see any need – their faith in him remained undented. ‘Alternative facts’ rule. The motto appears to be “optimism will set you free”. [Incidentally if Bridgen could get an Irish passport the loss of Freedom of Movement would not matter to him – perhaps he voted for Brexit on false premises, and if he, an MP, could do so, how many others would he now have to admit did the same?].
And we have a Prime Minister whom we are being asked to trust, despite his own open record of building castles in the air, not only over Brexit, but over things like the Garden Bridge, the Thames Estuary Airport and the Bridge over the Irish Sea. Not only are we dealing with a serial liar but a fantasist. And one who has made the same mistake at least twice before and has learned nothing. Doing the same thing again and again, according to Einstein, while expecting a different result, is the definition of insanity.
Freedom’s Just Another Word…
Why does this matter to Oxford for Europe?
Over the past week or two, Oxford has become a hotspot, one of the 10 most seriously affected in the country, and today Oxford residents are being urged to avoid unnecessary travel outside the city. We also have a lower than average vaccination rate, possibly linked to the large number of students in the city. We have as much at stake as anybody. And now we are being asked to welcome ‘Freedom’
People like us have spent the last five years reflecting on what the word ‘freedom’ means. We have a government which has simultaneously tried (and I would say failed) to make the case that freedom from European Union constraints is a good in itself, and to tell us that a massive loss of freedom of movement for British citizens, together with a slight loss of freedom of movement for their EU fellows, is also a good. This same government is trying to tell us that freedom from mask wearing is somehow a gain, even though it restricts the freedom of others, especially those who feel vulnerable, to go outdoors, to enter shops or use public transport. It should not need to be said that for every freedom there are obligations, that is what it means to live in a society. If it is good enough, as we are now told, to leave it to the discretion of individuals how to behave over public health, then why is it necessary to have laws against speeding, drunk driving or even assault?
Do our leaders not see any irony and the fact that “Freedom Day”, 19th July, comes two weeks to the day after the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill passed its third reading in the House of Commons? This was rushed through without the kind of opportunity for debate which such complex legislation deserves, and predictably all attempted modifying amendments were lost. The government, equally predictably, tries to sell it as being about the protection of victims of crime, while trying to distract the public from clauses which could result in 10 year prison terms for peaceful protesters. Peaceful protest is something which for generations has been considered a very basic freedom. Does nobody remember learning about the Peterloo massacre? Bear in mind that there is already adequate legislation in place to deal with non peaceful protesters. This draconian legislation is about to be followed by something even more extreme, the criminalization of people who pull asylum seekers out of the sea. Can we be surprised that Lord Neuberger used the word “dictatorship”?
If this is such a freedom loving government, then how can it defend such steps? Perhaps the best answer comes from Humpty Dumpty:
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.” “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.” (Lewis Carroll, Through The Looking Glass).
The question is, in my opinion, which would you rather, Humpty Dumpty or Gareth Southgate?
Please also keep an eye out for our regular series of meetings featuring brilliant speakers. Details here.
The views stated here are those of the author, and not necessarily those of Oxford For Europe
61. Not A Sausage
20 June 2021
After he finished in Cornwall, the Prime Minister came campaigning in Chesham and Amersham. Perhaps he might as well have stayed home
This is a pretty sophisticated electorate that knows what a fraudulent prospectus is, & they have a very low opinion of Boris Johnson… they consider him to be a charlatan
We thought we could win in Chesham and Amersham. Labour didn’t campaign very much. In Batley and Spen, we will have a presence – we’ve got councillors there. But we’re not going to be able to, frankly, pour in the resources that we put into Chesham and Amersham. Voters are far smarter than people give them credit for. Liberal Democrat voters may well notice that this is a Labour-held seat with the Tories in a close second, and they’ll draw their own conclusions. But that shouldn’t be stitched up in a back room by party leaders.
There is growing, extensive and incontrovertible evidence that the government is disrespecting parliament, telling untruths to parliament and bypassing parliament. That is wrong. Period.
Bargains at C&A?
In a week of big news perhaps the highlight was the pasting the Tories had in Chesham and Amersham. Sarah Green’s stunning victory owed much to local issues, to threatened changes in planning law and to the disappointment over the non-ending of lockdown. However I would like to think that it is first and foremost an awakening to the reality of just what our government stands for. In their blind pursuit of Leave voters in the Red Wall, the Tories have learned that they should not forget those people whom Theresa May chose to dismiss as “citizens of nowhere”. I can speak with feeling, having met some of them while canvassing in the constituency.
Labour’s poor showing has sometimes been put down to dissatisfaction with the leadership. I would like to think that this is not the case, and we shall see shortly. The bargain between Lib Dems and Labour was perhaps more in the form of a nod and a wink than anything more formal, but if there was one, all credit to both sides. Credit also to Sir Ed Davey for his now openly permissive attitude to tactical voting next time round, on 1 July. Then perhaps Batley and Spen will give the Tories their second lesson in humility in the space of a month.
And just in case we had any doubts as to how toxic the Tory brand has come, John Bercow has joined the voters of Chesham and Amersham in turning his back on it. This will of course be portrayed by party as an act of betrayal, or as a ‘Woke’ individual showing his true colours. The truth is he is following in the footsteps of many courageous and principled former Tories such as Sam Gymah, Dominic Grieve and Philip Lee. All have made their decision at personal cost, demonstrating that these really are not normal times.
I have no doubt that the Prime Minister will be pleased with the G7 summit, because it delivered everything that he wanted: some good headlines; some nice photos; and even a row with the French over sausages. That just shows how narrow the Prime Minister’s ambition for Britain really is. It is why this was never going to be a Gleneagles-style success, and why the Prime Minister played the role of host but not leader, of tour guide but not statesman. On those terms, this G7 was a success, but on any other, it was a failure.
We recognise the particular responsibility of the largest countries and economies in upholding the rules-based international system and international law.
“An international agreement is not an a la carte menu from which you can choose what you like and ignore the rest. Once you sign off on it you have to implement it properly and fully. Global Britain is not going to work unless we are seen to live up to our commitments.”
Kim Darroch, former UK Ambassador to the US.
No surprises in Cornwall
Last week I was in Cornwall and had the dubious pleasure of getting caught up in the security surrounding G7. However one of the best things about the G7 conference was that at least the security was successful, there were no unpleasant surprises and as many delegates left Cornwall intact as had arrived. In addition it has to be said that there was an agreed communiqué, unlike the 2018 G7 in Canada where President Trump managed to sabotage any attempt at consensus. However, as might have been predicted, on most of the key areas including climate change, allocation of vaccines, China and the Middle East, what was agreed went nowhere near what was being called for by those in the know.
From the UK government’s point of view there can have been only disappointment. Boris Johnson saw this as a one off opportunity to play at being magnanimous host to all the key leaders of the democratic world. Frankly, he blew it. He could not resist the temptation to grandstand about his growing manufactured dispute with his EU neighbours. At the end of the day this is what finished up making the headlines. It most certainly did not have to be so.
The turning point was perhaps when Johnson asked Emanuel Macron, apropos of the Northern Ireland protocol, “How would you like it if the French courts stopped you moving Toulouse sausages to Paris?”. Perhaps he was remembering only too well the sausage wars from the TV series Yes Minister. As any event, he got the response he should really have expected, i.e. that this was a poor analogy, there is after all Paris and Toulouse are in the same country and there is no sea between them. This perfectly reasonable riposte was interpreted both by Johnson and Raab as offensive, in effect saying that Northern Ireland was not part of the United Kingdom. That was never said. Would Johnson have become cross if someone had said that London and Glasgow are in different countries? I think not – ask any football fan, especially this week. And whatever we might think about it, Belfast is not Birmingham or Glasgow. Johnson himself has recognised and copper-fastened that by signing a treaty which places it in a different customs territory from the rest of the UK, i.e. from the island of Great Britain. Macron was stating a simple geographic fact.
So is Johnson being naive or was he deliberately planting this question in order to give him an opportunity for some vacuous grandstanding and flag-waving, and to please readers of the Daily Express? If he was doing this he was obviously placing short-term gratification of a domestic audience ahead of his place on the world stage, because he was immediately demeaning himself in the eyes of the world. Rafael Behr and Chris Grey speculate that his only wish is to play to the domestic audience, and the rest of the world comes a poor second.
Eight against one
Johnson should perhaps have looked at the photograph taken at the start of the summit, showing him with his eight principal guests. Of these, five were representing EU countries or institutions, and two of the others, namely Biden and Trudeau, had already expressed deep concern about the U.K.’s breaches of international law in relation to the Northern Ireland Protocol (Did Johnson not feel the slightest pang of guilt signing that communiqué, with its reference to upholding the rules-based international system and international law?). Biden had seen to it that a demarche was sent to the UK government in advance of the summit, something which is normally done only in relation to hostile or untrustworthy states (Johnson’s ‘Suez Moment’). It is perhaps a surprise that Trudeau added his voice, as the only other leader present from a Commonwealth country, but that in itself speaks amply of the indignation which Johnson has caused around the world.
The one person among the eight who may possibly have been neutral on the Northern Ireland question was Mr Suga of Japan. However, before Johnson is tempted to take any consolation from that fact, consider how much anger successive Japanese leaders have expressed about what they see as the betrayal of their motor industry through Brexit. The fact that Honda is now about to leave Swindon because Brexit made it unviable, and Nissan and others may well follow suit, has not been lost on the Japanese. Unsurprisingly the trade deal which Japan offered the UK is in some ways less generous than that which the UK had previously enjoyed as an EU member. So yes, 8 out of 8.
On the face of it, given the circumstances, the company he was in, and how much was at stake, Johnson placing the Brexit dispute in the limelight, when it did not even appear on the G7 agenda, seems like an insane act of self-harm. Does he really believe that his threats to torpedo the Northern Ireland protocol, which he himself signed and quoted as a triumph, could possibly be helpful? There has to be a border somewhere between Great Britain and the European single market, and Johnson himself has acknowledged that it cannot be on the island of Ireland. The Irish border is 310 miles long and its ends are about 80 miles apart, so it is incredibly tortuous, with more crossing points than the entire eastern border of the EU. There are even people living in houses which straddle it. Johnson was left no choice but to agree a border in the Irish Sea, which is what he did in late 2019. This remains the case however many times he said beforehand he would not do it and however many times he now tries to deny it.
Perhaps he is holding out hope that if he creates a situation where the only alternative is violence, then the European Union, afraid of being held to blame, will decide to draw the single market border between Ireland and the mainland EU, and it has been rumoured that this has been discussed in Brussels. This rumour may well have been started by the Tories themselves, in the hope that it would grow legs. BJ and all other stakeholders need to know that this is simply not going to happen. EU officials have said that it would be rewarding the UK for bad behaviour (“EU leaders are quite simple: they will not allow the former coloniser to force Ireland out of the internal market”). Such a step would undermine the whole ethos of the single market. It is in nobody’s interest for such rumours to be taken seriously. Going a step further, and totally in the realms of fantasy, are those like Kate Hoey, who see Ireland leaving the EU, despite the mounting evidence of what a catastrophic move that has been for the UK. Such predictions are damaging for both Ireland and the EU, they discourage UK government adherence to international law, and they create false hope in the minds of extremists on the Leave side.
However many times Tory spokesmen talk about “reforming” or “renegotiating” the Northern Ireland protocol, it remains that it is a binding treaty and that if Johnson didn’t think it was fit for purpose he should not have signed it. Nor should Parliament have voted firstly to approve it and secondly to deny itself any time to consider it.
Sausage and other chilled meats may be unimportant in themselves – after all the island of Ireland is more than self-sufficient in such products – but they could set a precedent for a great deal more, which is why the EU is sticking to its ground. It would be possible for the UK to end this crisis by the simple expedient of accepting alignment with EU SPS (sanitary / phytosanitary) standards. After all, it keeps claiming it has no wish to lower standards.
As if the problems of transit across the Irish Sea were not sufficient, the implosion of the DUP and the potential collapse of the Northern Ireland administration have made the situation there even more volatile. It is a time when we need above all a wise and level-headed government with diplomatic skills. Why do we have the opposite?
But it gets worse.
In Cornwall we had the pitiable sight of the UK as a lonely nation, excluded from what may well become a progressively stronger US-EU alliance. Instead of working to emerge from the hole which he has chosen for himself, Johnson just keeps on digging. Biden has made it entirely clear that the so-called “special relationship” with the UK will come in third place to protection of the Good Friday agreement and good relations with the EU, a much more economically powerful ally and one which has not gone out of its way to defy international law.
So what friends are left? Australia? The trade deal just agreed with Scott Morrison brings nothing but disadvantage for the UK and is being celebrated in Canberra as something exceptional. The UK government has trumpeted it as an achievement but been so secretive about the details that we have to learn about them through the Australian press. It seems now that even the 15 year adjustment period Johnson boasts about is not going to happen.
Can this country fall any further from grace? Sadly I fear our Prime Minister is just about to show us how it can.
It is not too late for a change in direction. It is time for our leaders to live in the world as it is, not the world as they would wish it to be. Perhaps the fate of the Tory candidate in C&A has helped teach them that.
Please also keep an eye out for our regular series of meetings featuring brilliant speakers. Details here.
The views stated here are those of the author, and not necessarily those of Oxford For Europe
60. As the Dust Settles
24 May 2021
Were you up for Chipping Norton?
“Our duty is clear: every one of us who has sworn the oath must act to prevent the unravelling of our democracy. This is not about policy. This is not about partisanship. This is about our duty as Americans. Remaining silent and ignoring the lie emboldens the liar.”
Liz Cheney, just before her Republican colleagues removed her last week from the chairmanship of the US House Republican Conference for telling the truth about Trump..
“I am very sorry for the events of 25 years ago and I believe leadership means taking responsibility.”
Lord Hall, resigning from his role as chairman of the National Gallery over the Bashir scandal
The dust is settling on the May elections. Should Oxford For Europe take a view? We are emphatically not a party political organisation. We are proud to accept members from any party, and indeed to speak up for any party, provided that they share our basic values. These are the values of democracy, honesty, openness, true (as opposed to bogus) internationalism, respect for the law, and evidence based decision making. Sadly the Tory party of today – or more precisely its leadership – is seriously lacking on all these counts. Indeed I wonder how many current ministers could recite the elements of the ministerial code if challenged (For what its worth they are Selflessness, Integrity, Objectivity, Accountability, Openness, Honesty and Leadership). Such a challenge is, of course, unlikely under the current regime. This Tory party is a very different one from that of even five years ago. One of the great achievements of our current Prime Minister is to make almost all of his predecessors look competent and principled by comparison. We could be forgiven for feeling just a twinge of nostalgia even for Margaret Thatcher or for David Cameron, despite the recent evidence of DC’s venal and self seeking behaviour.
And if you still believe that all this talk about the dishonesty of Johnson and, by extension , the ministers who cover up for him, is overblown, I suggest that you listen to Peter Oborne, Fintan O’Toole, Peter Stefanovic, or even former Johnson fangirl Laura Kuenssberg. Sadly we are saddled with a Prime Minister who tells the truth only when it is expedient to do so. In previous years a politician caught out deliberately lying in parliament would be expected to walk. Alas, no more. Taking responsibility, as Tony Hall did, or standing up for the truth, like Liz Cheney – these are alien concepts to those now in power.
A bogus bounce?
Against this background it comes perhaps as no surprise that the Tory party has used the pandemic for its own purposes. It has profited from a ‘vaccine bounce’, taking the credit for something which was very largely down to the hard work of others. The prime minister waited until after the local elections to give his “I have to level with you” speech. The feelgood factor of believing that foreign holidays were around the corner was powerful. What would have happened if this bubble had been burst two weeks earlier? The disappointment of today might possibly have been avoided. Would the elections have gone differently? As we now know, the decision to put India on the Red List was delayed by three weeks at a time when Johnson was planning a trade visit and wanted to ingratiate himself with Modi – himself a coronavirus denier. Pakistan and Bangladesh were already on the red list despite having fewer cases of coronavirus. 20,000 travellers entered the UK from India during the crucial three weeks and did not have to go into hotel quarantine. No amount of local action would have been enough to prevent the coronavirus variant originating in India from taking hold. This is only one of the many things for which our Prime Minister must take responsibility .
We now hear yet again from Dominic Cummings that in Spring 2020 Boris Johnson deliberately delayed taking action, based on a policy of herd immunity. Has he learned nothing in the meantime? It will be good to believe that there will be some official acknowledgement once the forthcoming inquiry reports. It will not however start its work for another year and we most certainly will see nothing emerging from it until after the next election.
A trade deal to die for?
Meanwhile of course the knock on effects of Brexit continue. The Labour Party seems to have taken a vow of silence on the subject and leave it to the nationalist parties to call the government out on its planned Australian trade deal. This deal promises to bring virtually zero economic benefits, yet will pose an existential threat to British agriculture through cheap competition and will harm the consumer through lower food standards. Can we be surprised that UK farmers are angry when their products are required to meet higher standards than imports from the far side of the world? Even more importantly, the deal creates a precedent for others, in particular the USA. And of course going forward it will further harm the UK’s ability to see to the EU. It is being rushed through by what the Express, without a trace of irony, calls “Wonder Woman Liz Truss”, because this government wants to see something in place before the forthcoming G7 summit, and of course the Australian negotiators know that they can exact a high price from a negotiating partner who is both desperate and in a hurry. They are after all not fools. Would that the same thing applied do their opposite numbers in this country.
Some local consolation
At a time when we need to lick our wounds over the Tories’ ill deserved national success, there was at least some consolation in looking closer to home. Oxfordshire is not unique in bucking the national trend, but what has happened here is significant nonetheless. Not only have the Tories lost control of the County Council, but their leader, Ian Hudspeth, has been unseated. The council is now run by a yellow/red/green coalition, under the leadership of the redoubtable Liz Leffman, who four years ago gave the Tories a run for their money in David Cameron’s old seat of Witney. And, wonder of wonders, Chipping Norton, made famous by Cameron, Rebekah Brooks and the other members of the “Chipping Norton set” has been taken from the Tories by Labour’s Geoff Saul. Even the Mail found this newsworthy. And where the Tories appeared to make an early gain from Labour, in Banbury Ruscote, the explanation was a clerical error. Bizarrely it will take legal action to correct this.
Congratulations to Oxford For Europe’s activists who won or retained seats in the elections, including Ian Middleton, Andrew Prosser and Tom Landell Mills, and good wishes to the many others who stood and put up a valiant fight.
Perhaps Oxfordshire is symbolic of a new national trend. Labour may hanker after the losses in its traditional norther working-class ‘heartlands’, but that is no longer where it is strongest. Perhaps its strategies should reflect this.
Much of the success of the Liberal Democrats and Greens in Oxfordshire, who raised their joint tenure on the County Council from 14 to 24 seats, is down to their ability to work together. In many seats the two parties stood down in favour of each other. Labour has taken no part in this, and yet it has benefited from the arrangement because it now has a seat at the high table. For the party nationally it is an article of faith that each seat must be contested. And yet the Labour Party has no route to government unless this changes.
This is about to be put to the test. There are opportunities in two forthcoming by elections to deprive this government of victory. In Chesham and Amersham on 17 June there is a potential challenge from the Liberal Democrats, and in Batley and Spen, prospectively in July, the Labour Party have a far better chance than they did in Hartlepool of retaining Jo Cox’s old seat. However, in both cases the Tories’ chances will be greatly enhanced if the opposition parties fail to work together. So far there has been little sign of collaboration, but it is not too late and the stakes are high. We badly need some common sense just now.
The views stated here are those of the author, and not necessarily those of Oxford For Europe
59. Election – What Election?
4 May 2021
Local Elections this week – do they matter?
This week sees what may well turn out to be the biggest election in British history, at least in numbers of candidates, if not in terms of voter turnout. Why? Some elections are due to be held now, e.g. Oxfordshire County Council, others, e.g. half of Oxford City and London Mayor, have been held over from last year because of the pandemic, and local elections are coinciding with those to the Scottish parliament, the Welsh Senedd, Police and Crime Commissioners posts and of course there will be the Hartlepool by-election. For us in Oxfordshire we will be filling all 63 seats in the County Council and all 48 in Oxford City Council.
Does it matter? Absolutely!
Firstly, local elections are one of the opportunities for our EU national friends to vote. In this respect they contrast with general elections and indeed, of course, with the referendum (if only!). If UK resident EU nationals feel angry about how they have been treated by this government, and frankly they have every right to be, then this is their one chance to show it.
Is it up to us in Oxford For Europe to tell people how to vote? No, it is not. However I would make no apologies for saying that voters really should exercise their democratic right. We are not Australia and people will not be fined for failing to vote, but this is not a good enough reason for sitting on your hands. I have come across many people who say they cannot spare the time (!), they couldn’t be bothered, or it will make no difference because politicians are all the same. Those attitudes are devoutly to be resisted. Boris Johnson and his friends would like you to believe that all politicians are equally corrupt. If voters cannot tell the difference between honest and dishonest politicians, the dishonest ones will thrive. Just remember the referendum. Proportionately more people who would have leaned towards remain stay at home, often because they were persuaded that the outcome was a done deal. Look what happened.
Although the elections here are local, they will certainly be seen as a straw in the wind. If the Tories do well, i.e. if they improve their holding from the last election, they will see this as evidence that blatant lying can go unpunished and that the public supports their current policies. And in these I would include taking a ‘hard line’ with our European neighbours, looking towards reducing alignment of laws and standards, imposing xenophobic immigration laws, reducing freedom of movement for British people and for the many indispensable EU nationals working in this country in the NHS and elsewhere. These are the kinds of policies which mark out the Tory government and the reasons why we, as a nonpolitical organisation, feel it is our duty as citizens to ensure that they are held to account.
And bear in mind, of course, that even though this is a local election we have a government which is seeking to benefit in these elections from public approval of the vaccine program, which is attributable mainly to the hard work of NHS workers, marginally to decisions made in central government and not at all to any actions taken by local authorities.
At a local level, please bear in mind that Oxford County Council is currently hung but Tory controlled. It is a council which is complicit with decisions by this government to undermine the power of local authorities. My own local council, South Oxford District Council (not currently up for re-election), has been ordered by Robert Jenrick, Communities Secretary, against its own judgement, to support a local plan which it had considered to be seriously harmful. The clearly stated government agenda is to take away planning responsibility from local councils, in the name of simplifying the process. As Oliver Wainwright puts it: ‘The proposed “planning revolution” bears all of the signs of policy advisers who don’t actually understand the complexity of the system they are so keen to destroy. It is disruptive ideology writ large, picking on an already weakened target for a hastily-devised experiment on a national scale’
Against this background a change of tenure at county level can only serve to promote local accountability. And for those who voted Tory four years ago and see no reason for a change, remember this: the party you voted for no longer exists. Just look at the news of the last few weeks.
Finally, ministers invariably make great show of being offended if accused of giving favourable treatment to Conservative voting areas. It may or may not surprise you, therefore, that Tory MPs are taking a different view. I wonder whether Sir David Amess recognises just what he was admitting when he sent the message you see here to his constituents. Perhaps he will claim it was a forgery. Don’t hold your breath.
Now, here’s the question: would this revelation make you more or less likely to vote Tory?
Every vote counts. Use it well.
Please also keep an eye out for our regular series of meetings featuring brilliant speakers. Details here.
The views stated here are those of the author, and not necessarily those of Oxford For Europe
58. A Vacuum Of Integrity
25 April 2021
It gives no pleasure to witness integrity and professionalism being treated as an optional extra by those in power
‘It is sad to see the PM and his office fall so far below the standards of competence and integrity the country deserves.’
‘The level of toxicity and the disregard for the correct way of doing things is quite breathtaking’
Lord Kerslake, former head of civil service
‘If you are going to play the Dead Cat Strategy it is very important to be certain the cat actually is dead. This cat, Cummings, appears to be very much still alive.’
‘That’s just one illustration of the chaos that Mr Johnson seems to bring in his wake, and the reason for that is that he is a vacuum of integrity, and this has been apparent for a very long time, apparent to my colleagues who, I regret to say, … caused him to be elected as the leader of the Conservative Party. .. I think in the context of trying to ensure good governance, and people’s faith in democratic institutions, it’s really an extraordinary way in which to conduct oneself’.
Close, Cohen and Scaramucci
You may perhaps remember the bathroom scene in the film Fatal Attraction (Yes, I know it has not aged well). Glenn Close appears to be drowned in the bath, Michael Douglas looks relieved, and suddenly she emerges wild eyed and holding a long sharp knife. Maybe it is a film our Prime Minister never saw. Maybe he did not follow the saga of the Trump regime. A succession of disgruntled departed senior minions, people like Anthony Scaramucci and Michael Cohen, came back to haunt Trump by making no holds barred revelations about what went on in his White House. And it was not a pretty sight, every bit as chaotic and corrupt as the Downing Street of 2021.
Following the events of the last few days, pundits are asking how Johnson could have been so naive as to make an unnecessary and unprovable allegation of leaking against a man like Dominic Cummings. Did he not stop for a moment to think that he himself had little to gain and that Cummings had little to lose by what would follow? Did he really believe that he was dealing here with some kind of herbivore? He most certainly found out to his cost that he was not, but then it is difficult to overestimate this Prime Minister’s naivete. He has proven this time and again.
Of course there are conspiracy theorists who would have you believe that actually all this is part of an elaborate plan, and that Cummings and Johnson are really working hand in glove all this time. I find this very hard to believe. Cummings may well have this level of sophistication but Johnson does not.
Indeed, a much more plausible explanation of Cummings’ behaviour is that put forward by the Sunday Times (distancing itself ever further from BJ) and by Carole Cadwalladr. The theory is that in fact Cummings has well-founded fears that the law will catch up with him over criminal offences committed by Vole Leave following the referendum, when it appears that he was complicit in deleting key evidence after the electoral commission launched an investigation. That is something which would be tantamount to perversion of the course of justice, and would be investigated by the National Crime Agency, as opposed to the Met, who clearly at the time chose to tread softly over the admitted electoral offences of the campaign. The implication is that he may help his case by showing he still has teeth.
That box was not full of sandwiches
So Cummings tells us he will speak out and ‘will answer questions about any of these issues to Parliament on 26 May for as long as the MPs want’. That will, of course, be a first, as at his last opportunity to address a Select Committee he refused to answer questions and walked out, in blatant contempt of Parliament. This is a contempt which has yet to be purged. The accusation of leaking may have been unfounded, but as Johnson will learn to his cost it is the kind of accusation which is prone to be self-fulfilling. Furthermore, Cummings knows where the bodies are buried. That box he carried out on his departure from 10 Downing Street was not, as we all know, full of sandwiches.
Coming from Cummings, the statement that Johnson is unfit for office is simultaneously impactful and deeply ironic. It is true, even a stopped clock is right twice per day. It is not really news to those of us who have been following events closely, although some of Cummings’ other revelations are. When there is a clear conflict of evidence between these two significant figures, the world knows that one or both of them must be lying.
Given what we know about both men, I am not sure I believe Cummings’ virtue signalling when he says: ‘I refused to try to persuade the Cabinet Secretary to stop the inquiry and instead I encouraged the Cabinet Secretary to conduct the inquiry without any concern for political ramifications. I told the Cabinet Secretary that I would support him regardless of where the inquiry led. I warned some officials that the PM was thinking about cancelling the inquiry’.
And I find it even more difficult to believe that a Prime Minister who complained of being unable to survive financially without his £200,000 Daily Telegraph “salary”, would voluntarily shell out £58,000 for the refurbishment of a flat in which he must know his tenure may prove to be very short indeed.
There is every likelihood that these two men are lying against each other now, just as they lied with equal insouciance but in harmony when they led the Leave campaign. And remember that, along with Farage and Corbyn, these are two of the people without whose input Brexit absolutely would never have happened. To the many people who still believe that the country did not fall victim to a massive con trick, I can only say this: please please open your eyes.
How will that go down in Hartlepool?
All of this is happening within two weeks of what may prove to be very significant local elections, with even more potentially significant elections to the Scottish parliament and the psychologically important Hartlepool by-election. So not a time when the governing party wants to see its reputation dragged through the dirt. Many Tory MPs and activists must be seething, and yet, like the hapless Liz Truss on the Marr show today, they have to put on a show of unconditional loyalty. Just as they did, no doubt against their better judgement, a year ago, when they had to tell us implausibly that they believed Cummings had done not nothing wrong over the Barnard Castle affair. The same Cummings they are now being required to do all in the power to discredit. Irony of ironies.
At this sensitive time it is extraordinary that the Tories still appear to have a 10 point lead in the opinion polls over Labour, and that only 40% of the electorate believe they are untrustworthy. When the contents of that cardboard box emerge, I wonder if that will change.
Tory MPs, except perhaps those who are deaf and blind, must know that they have chosen an inept leader. They prioritise the fact that he was seen to have “star quality”. The question for them now is whether that is gone. One straw in the wind is that after quite a long time of being supine and not daring to challenge Johnson, the BBC in its news and current affairs coverage is starting to be more outspoken. Do they feel he is on the way out?
Schadenfreude? Frankly it gives no pleasure whatever to watch those at the centre of power tearing each other apart. After all, this is the only government this country has, and very possibly the only one will have several years to come. We might well wish them to do a good job but sadly this will remain a matter of hope rather than expectation.
Please also keep an eye out for our regular series of meetings featuring brilliant speakers. Dominic Grieve is just one of the many we have hosted in the past. Details here.
The views stated here are those of the author, and not necessarily those of Oxford For Europe
57. No Way To Start A Trade War
13 March 2021
Despite all the screamingly obvious evidence to the contrary, most of us hoped that by some miracle Brexit would turn out well. We still live in hope, but the chances are diminishing by the day. Some of what is happening was foreseeable, and some goes even further than the worst predictions of “project fear”
“Trading businesses are working through the various stages of grief: some are really angry, others are in denial hoping that the worst barriers can still be bargained away. The ones that are doing best are those that have accepted that slower, more expensive and less flexible trade is just how it’s going to have to be.”
“I hope they will shake off any remaining ill will towards us for leaving, and instead build a friendly relationship, between sovereign equals. Brussels needs to shake off its remaining ill-will and treat Brexit Britain as an equal. We are already seeing the benefits of gaining control of our own affairs”
“Everyone is saying, OK, hold it right here, as long as they are not even doing what they have committed to do we cannot dream of any more flexibility. We have already gone to the edge.”
Turning distrust into an art form
The accusation of vaccine nationalism which has been made against the UK by the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, now retracted, is just the latest episode in a catalogue of conflict and misfortune which we have had to live through since the 1st of January. The Prime Minister responded angrily, and the accusation may indeed be untrue. However it is yet another symptom of the atmosphere of distrust and competition which has existed between the UK and the EU since the signing of the Trade and Co-operation Agreement (TCA) in December.
The last weeks are not ones we will remember with great fondness. Within two days of Lord Frost joining the Cabinet, the UK announced its second flagrant breach in six months of international law. The pretext was that, predictably enough, the TCA had plunged Northern Ireland into chaos. Customs checks on products entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain were being neglected because of fairly unsubtle threats of violence. The DUP had in effect declared war on the Northern Ireland Protocol of the 2019 Withdrawal Agreement. The EU was already complaining that the British government was failing to fulfil its obligations in respect of the protocol which, warts and all, both sides had signed in apparent good faith.
Back to the ECJ – ouch!
And then to crown it all HMG announced unilaterally that it would extend the grace period for tighter implementation, scheduled to come into force on 1st April, by 6 months. The government did not know whether this was something which might have been conceded by the EU anyway, given time it should have known, however, what the response would be. The European side responded: ‘This also constitutes a clear departure from the constructive approach that has prevailed up until now, thereby undermining both the work of the Joint Committee and the mutual trust necessary for solution-oriented cooperation’, and has now confirmed that it will be taking legal action in response. And guess where that will be heard? In the European Court of Justice. Yes indeed, when this government turned leaving the jurisdiction of the ECJ as a guiding principle, and told its more rabid pro-Brexit supporters that it had succeeded, that was a lie. In matters pertaining to Northern Ireland the ECJ is still the final arbiter and the UK government is bound by its rulings. In what may well turn out to be just one of many bitter disputes between the UK and EU, this government will find itself without a valid defence in a court which it may well try to say it does not recognise – remember that that was normal practice for IRA members who found themselves in the dock. That will cut no ice in international opinion, it will alienate allies like the Americans, and it will make British condemnation of breaches of international law, such as by the Chinese, sound very hollow indeed.
The European Parliament and Masterly Inactivity
At the same time, and perhaps even more seriously, the European Parliament has postponed ratification of the TCA, without setting a date for doing so. Ultimately, if the agreement remains un-ratified beyond the deadline of end of April, then a possible consequence is a de facto no-deal outcome. And for those who think this means that there will be an escape from the painful trading conditions of the past three months, no it will not: what it will mean is that these would be compounded by tariffs of up to 40% on British exports, and the need for a trade border in the island of Ireland – with all that that implies for security. It certainly would not mitigate in any way the real harm which is being experienced by business, the cultural sector or the City. Just to give some examples, today’s figures from the ONS show a drop of 41% (£5.6 bn) in UK exports to the EU in January – only a small part of which is due to anticipatory activity. The haulage industry has estimated at 68% drop in the exports they handle, with two thirds of lorries crossing empty to the EU. The government response has been simply to say that there is only a 5% reduction in the number of lorries and to draw the mischievous conclusion that trade has hardly dropped, something for which it has been pulled up by the UK Statistics Authority. Another example: an estimated £1.3 trillion movement of financial services trade away from the City of London. Outside the UK, everybody sees what is happening, just look at the New York Times. Why doesn’t the British public?
There has been some speculation throughout that Johnson and Frost, like the ERG, would actually welcome a no deal outcome, even though by now they must realise that it would be not far removed from our return to an economic Stone Age. And that, of course, in the midst of a catastrophic pandemic.
These politicians seem to struggle to understand the EU approach. Do EU customs officials, they ask, really have to be such jobsworths about plant and vegetable products being brought into the Single Market, or indeed even clods of soil attached to vehicle wheels? Those same politicians understand what is meant by red lines and points of principle when they are on their own side, but not when they are in the other. They fail to see the connection between last year’s UK Agriculture Act, which deliberately opened the door to a lowering of agricultural standards, and the response of the EU. If you will make a point of principle out of divergence then that is the response that you must expect. And of course if you believe the UK government’s protestations, they want divergence solely for its own sake, as a way of asserting sovereignty, rather than as a means to bring in lower standards. Given the track record of honesty of this cabinet, those protestations are not plausible.
In the real world inhabited by people like you and me, and indeed by its many victims, Brexit is very much a live issue. However in the minds of Tory politicians it is “done”. Hence perhaps it is no surprise that in last week’s budget there was actually hardly any mention of Brexit. The nearest thing was the promise to establish free ports, which the government has wrongly said is possible only because of having left the European Union. Actually there have been free ports in the UK, and they were abandoned as unprofitable in 2012. Other EU countries still have them. There is no evidence that they bring greater prosperity to local communities. In reality, like many of the sequelae of Brexit, they exist at least in part to facilitate trade which you and I might find somewhat shady.
And this exemplifies the problem. It is that the Brexit philosophy makes a supposition that somehow UK PLC can be commercially more successful when “unshackled from the constraints of Brussels”. If in fact this were the case it would be by undercutting our erstwhile EU partners. It would be astonishing if they were to welcome that or see it as other than a hostile act, and they are bound to do everything in their power to make it difficult for the UK. As events of the last three months have shown all too clearly, their power to do so is considerable. Lord Frost recently wrote in the Telegraph an article that had fewer paragraphs than it had lies and contradictions. It is elegantly dissected by OfE’s good friend Prof Chris Grey. Frost talks about “sovereign equals”. We may debate the question of sovereignty, but equality is a fantasy. A community of 65 million people with a GDP of £2 trillion (and falling) is not equal to one of 450 million with a GDP of £11 trillion. We are witnessing a ratcheting up of rhetoric between the two, and a trade war seems to be coming. A trade war between the USA and China was unwise and mutually damaging, and that was one in which both sides were of roughly equal economic power. In any UK/EU trade war that most certainly is not the case. The catastrophic harm done to British businesses over the past few weeks demonstrates all too clearly our reliance on the EU, our much larger neighbour.
There has been a clear change in direction since the Gove-Frost switch on 1st March. What a sad day when Michael Gove can start to look like the voice of reason.
You ain’t seen nothing yet!
And in terms of economic harm, worse is to come. So far we have been witnessing the catastrophic effects of non-tariff barriers, but in practice they exist only on one side, UK to EU trade. The UK government has not yet enforced import restrictions and will not be doing so until July 1 at the earliest. This is not through principle or kindness, but solely because, unlike the EU side, the British government, the driver of Brexit, did not in fact make adequate preparations for it. This means that in the name of “sovereignty” UK manufacturers have been at a competitive disadvantage both at home and abroad vis-à-vis their European competitors, and the estimated loss of revenue to the UK exchequer from this alone is of the order of £1 billion. That is obviously unsustainable in the long term. Yet from the point of view of the person in the street in the UK, the arrival of import controls will feel like a double blow. There will be less choice and higher prices in the shops, while the taxpayer will need to stump up the cost of the estimated 50,000 extra customs officials who will be required. And of course the government is creating a smugglers’ charter. Lose-lose is to put it mildly.
Not really a trump card
Confronted with the reality that they have totally miscalculated and have tried to correct their error by behaving illegally, David Frost and his colleagues will inevitably pull out their trump card, namely that the EU threatened to implement article 16 of the Northern Ireland protocol on 29th January. That was indeed an error of judgement. But it remains that they didn’t do it and even if they had it would not have been illegal. More importantly, the EU commission was prepared to admit its error and apologise after the event. When was the last time you saw a British cabinet minister do the same?
Pigs might fly
Please also keep an eye out for our regular series of meetings featuring brilliant speakers. The next one, featuring Layla Moran MP and Ian Dunt, is on 24th March, please follow this link.
Footnote, 13 March 2021: Today, far from stepping back from the brink, the government has chosen to raise the stakes further by turning what was unilateral postponement into a permanent abrogation of some parts of the Northern Ireland Protocol. The only possible interpretation is that it did not know what it was signing in 2019. It seems very difficult to see now how the European Parliament can ratify the trade and cooperation agreement. Will any renegotiation or any meeting of minds be possible? Watch this space.
The views stated here are those of the author, and not necessarily those of Oxford For Europe
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56. A Touch of Frost
26 February 2021
“I am hugely honoured to have been appointed minister to take forward our relationship with the EU after Brexit. In doing so, I stand on the shoulders of giants and particularly those of Michael Gove, who did an extraordinary job for this country in talks with EU over the past year.”
“There is still an expectation of ‘well they can’t really have wanted that’ and ‘they can’t really have realised that this was the true implication for our sector so if we go and lobby them now and demonstrate to them what’s happening on the ground as a consequence of the deal they negotiated, they must want to rejig it, refine it, and reopen the negotiation in 2021’. I suppose in shorthand my advice is: don’t believe it guys. We are where we are. There’s no new negotiation to be had. There’s no appetite on either side of the table to reopen it. I don’t think that’s where David Frost or his boss will be or will want to be. I think that you should get on with life and face the shock.”
Sir Ivan Rogers
With effect from next Monday the newly-ennobled Lord David Frost is to step into the role of UK Chair of the Partnership Council. He therefore enters the cabinet, and becomes yet another ‘unelected bureaucrat’ – to coin a phrase – at the centre of power. He is there to preside over a difficult new round of negotiations at a time when ministers would have had you believe that negotiations on Brexit are complete.
What are we to make of that?
The Reverse Midas Touch
King Midas of Phrygia had the unusual talent that everything he touched turned into gold. There are some very special people who are equally talented, who can touch gold and watch it turn into ordure. You might be forgiven for thinking that this is exactly the Touch of Frost. Think back to the height of Cool Britannia, or say the Summer Olympics of 2012. See how UK of today is transformed. Huge cross-sections of the community, from musicians to pig farmers to fashion designers to dealers in European stocks and shares, are facing existential threat. That is even without mentioning the blighted fishing industry or the instability in Northern Ireland. I will not go into details because it is well documented elsewhere, including in the Davis Downside Dossier, and on Oxford for Europe’s Facts about Brexit Facebook page. There are some touching individual stories told by the European Movement.
Was all this entirely David Frost‘s fault? Of course not, he was negotiating within parameters laid down by his boss and sponsor, Boris Johnson, and under pressure from the likes of the ERG. However he did so with enthusiasm and if anything exceeded his brief. He indulged in sabre rattling about how the UK could cope with a no deal Brexit, totally in defiance of all the evidence. Massive amounts of time, energy, and negotiating capital were expended in the course of last year over sovereignty and fish, despite the fact that right now, February 2021, the UK is in a vastly worse place in both these areas than it was before. A focus on irrelevant detail left the broader picture severely neglected. The service sector, 80% of the economy, was deliberately thrown under the bus. The gross miscalculation over regulations covering shellfish – now admitted by government – is only one example among many of how negotiations were carried out without a clear understanding of the issues. And on matters like freedom of movement for creatives and mutual recognition of qualifications, either no thought at all was given or the position Frost took was deliberately perverse. At every opportunity his default position was to achieve maximal divergence from the EU, even at immeasurable cost to UK citizens and businesses. And yet we are left with an agreement which sets a high economic price if the freedom to diverge is exercised. Foreseeably the EU is left holding the whip hand. ‘This is not what we voted for!’ say most of the 17.4 million. And it most certainly was not what the rest of us voted for.
Because negotiations were entered into in a confrontational rather than a cooperative way, and Frost almost deliberately cultivated a distrust in his opposite numbers, they dragged on until the last minute, leaving no time between agreement and implementation. Not surprisingly we are now seeing what happens when businesses have massive layers of bureaucracy imposed upon them without time to prepare. A lot of the paperwork which they are being given by the government itself is not fit for purpose, and UK businesses and their European customers are paying the price. Many of them do not have the resilience to come back from this catastrophe, even if these are indeed, as the government implausibly claims, just ‘teething problems’. A lot of that can be laid at Frost’s door. He has just negotiated a deal which is widely seen as not fit for purpose. He has helped turn Brexit, which was always going to be painful, into something even worse, and the UK simultaneously into both an economic basket case and a rogue state. To put the icing on the cake, we hear from Dominic Raab that things will be fine ‘if you take a ten year view’. I never saw that on the side of the bus.
Yet Frost wears this outcome, which should be a humiliation, as a badge of pride, and he has been praised and rewarded for it.
‘The Great Frost’
Frost, ‘Frosty’ to his friends, and ‘The Great Frost’ to those who have experience of his manner, appears to be a personal choice of the PM. They have known each other since their Brussels days, a time when BJ the journalist became bored and decided to amuse himself by throwing live grenades over the fence at Brussels bureaucracy, and Frost, despite his background as a diplomat (perhaps I should say ‘diplomat’ in quotation marks), started to turn into a Eurosceptic. He has now been appointed with a mission – playing hardball with the Europeans. Perhaps there was a perception that Michael Gove had gone native and had become too chummy with his European opposite number, Commission Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič. That Gove was too soft may come as a surprise, bearing in mind that it was the same Michael Gove who wrote a letter to the Commission demanding a two year extension to the implementation of parts of the Northern Ireland Protocol, with veiled threats when he must have known that this government has little left to threaten the EU with. And of course a two year extension is precisely what the government could have asked for last June but adamantly refused to do so despite being warned of the dire consequences. Do these people have no sense of irony? Do they not reflect on how their bluster will be received by the other side? A lot less favourably than by the target audience, the ERG.
In being elevated to his new role, Frost is following in the footsteps of other surprising choices by the Prime Minister, including Dominic Cummings and Tony Abbott. He will find himself in good company in a cabinet many of whose members seem to rejoice in a combination of intransigence and ineptitude. ‘Shoulders of giants’ indeed!. As Ivan Rogers says, his appointment signals a willingness by government to distance itself further from compromise, and a state of denial over the howls of pain experienced right across the country over the damage caused by Brexit. The signal to the EU appears to be ‘not an inch’. And this week’s lack of progress in negotiations reflects that. To any informed, or even casual, observer, it must be increasingly clear that the ultimate goal of the UK government is some kind of Singapore on Thames, a neighbour of the EU whose agenda is to compete aggressively with it. That is not a good place from which to enter negotiations on equivalence for the City of London, where a memorandum of understanding is expected in about the next month. Unless there is a change in direction there are few people in the field who think the EU will make many concessions on equivalence, indeed the City of London may well finish up worse placed then New York or Tokyo – not through lack of probity on the EU’s part, but through lack of trust. The flight of business from the City will accelerate, and that will of course not only hurt those who work there but also the British tax payer. And the transformed economic climate will go hand in hand with poisoned relations with all our nearest neighbours. There is talk of a new Cold War. Frosty is indeed the word.
Media – what media?
At a time like this, perhaps one of the most disappointing things is how little interest the mainstream media have taken. With a few honourable exceptions, the press have ignored the problem, or tried to shift the blame to what they see as the Evil Europeans. The BBC has turned into the government’s lapdog. With the exception of the SNP – who now of course have their own problems – the opposition parties have tried to pretend that Brexit is history. And predictably the pandemic is being used as a smokescreen, with the Tories gaining vaccine-fuelled points in the opinion polls, despite the fact that their performance in almost every other respect has been dismal.
So it is up to us ordinary citizens to make up the ground. The Tories need to know that they will be held accountable for what they have done to the country, and the opposition parties need to feel a duty to oppose, both for the good of the country and also out of enlightened self-interest. We need to build on the fact that an increasing share of the public (about 50% vs 40%) now see Brexit as a mistake. We in Oxford for Europe have not given up – quite the contrary. Our campaign continues, and if you agree with us please follow the links below, share and retweet. And please also keep an eye out for our regular series of meetings featuring brilliant speakers. The next one is almost upon us, please follow this link.
The views stated here are those of the author, and not necessarily those of Oxford For Europe
55. We Don’t Want To Spoil You, Mr Ambassador
25 January 2021
Whatever happens our friends and neighbours in the EU deserve and need to be treated with respect.
As a result of becoming what the government proudly but meaninglessly calls “an independent coastal state”, the UK, in common with most other countries around the world, agreed to the appointment of an EU ambassador. João Vale de Almeida was named to this role in January 2020. And yet, a year on from the appointment, the UK governments position is that Mr de Almeida should not have the diplomatic privileges accorded to other ambassadors, and that his staff would equally be treated at best as second class diplomats. The explanation given was that the EU is not a nation state, but rather an international organisation, analogous to the UN and NATO. In the words of the PM: “The EU, its delegation and staff will receive the privileges and immunities necessary to enable them to carry out their work in the UK effectively. It’s a matter of fact that the EU is a collective of nations, but it’s not a state…in its own right,”
That this decision was controversial is entirely obvious. It is without precedent – all 142 EU ambassadors around the world have been accorded full diplomatic status under the Vienna Convention. This is a policy enshrined in the Lisbon Treaty and supported by the UK while it was a member. Even in the US, where Trump tried to downgrade the EU embassy 2 years ago, this initiative did not last long, and justice has been restored.
So at a time of extreme diplomatic sensitivity, why would the UK act in this way? And why tell a man some time after his appointment that the job he is being asked to do is a different one from the job he accepted? Is it simply to give the EU27 a slap in the face and to try to “put them in their place”? Or is it a signal that the UK wishes in future to negotiate on a bilateral basis with individual EU countries such as Germany and France? If the latter, then it shows a touching faith in the success of the “divide and rule” policy which was clearly so fruitless in negotiations both of the Withdrawal Agreement of 2019 and the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) of 2020. It seems, in other words, to be a completely vacuous act.
On the other hand the downsides for all concerned are entirely obvious. Firstly, it shows up the blatant hypocrisy of a UK government which has spent the past number of years deriding the EU for turning into some kind of a “superstate”. If it is one it should be treated as such, and if not then why all the bellyaching? Secondly, this Prime Minister, perhaps in contrast to some of his underlings, has constantly emphasised the wish to remain on good terms with “our friends and allies” in the EU, and this is actually a necessity rather than a luxury. After all, the TCA is really only the beginning of negotiations. The “teething problems” (if that indeed is what they are) of the past three weeks highlight how much work there has is still to be done to achieve anything approaching a reasonable modus vivendi with the EU 27. And, with the loss of passporting rights, the UK services sector badly needs a certain amount of goodwill in trying to negotiate equivalence for the City of London, when there is actually very little hard negotiating capital left (good luck with that!). Causing the EU27 totally gratuitous upset seems to be about the worst possible thing to do at a time like this.
However, it is not just that. If the UK is allowed to get away with taking this step, it says a precedent for other countries. Undemocratic states around the world are likely to take it as carte blanche to downgrade the EU delegations in their own capitals, thereby stripping diplomats of their protection and potentially leaving them open to bullying, harassment and arbitrary detention. It should be entirely obvious to the Prime Minister that the EU will not allow this to happen. It would almost certainly find ways in which to “punish” the UK (in the phrase beloved of the Express – as if punishing illegal behaviour was somehow unreasonable). At the very least they could reciprocate in kind, and, as happened December, there could well be obstacles placed in the way of direct bilateral government to government communication.
In the words of an EU spokesman: “It seems petty. This is not about privileges, it’s about principle. What does it say about the UK, about how much the British signature is worth?”
It seems likely that this matter will finish up being resolved, possibly by a UK climbdown , and that it will emerge as yet another exercise in grandstanding in order to achieve some unrelated aim. However, it highlights continuing misunderstanding of the UK’s negotiating strength, and in addition it will reduce even further the respect in which this country is held around the world. It does, after all, come from a government which has form in behaving petulantly: few will fail to be reminded of its attempt to renege on the Northern Ireland protocol of the withdrawal agreement, which it made less than a year after signing it. The behaviour which this government has indulged in, in the name of patriotism, has caused not only contempt and derision around the world, but has also been a source of shame for many of its own citizens.
‘Brexit Means Brexit’
While all this is going on, of course, the reality of Brexit is becoming clearer by the day. Exporters, importers and haulage companies are all being hit by non tariff barriers which not only cause delays but add to costs. For perishable goods such as fish, and now equally obviously agricultural produce, this often leads to whole consignments having to be thrown away. And even exporters who have done everything by the book (not an easy ask) may fall foul of this because the have the misfortune to share lorry space with others who have not done so. This cannot but have a fatal effect on supply chains, UK exports, and the range of goods available to consumers, not to mention prices.
The government talks about “teething problems” as if that somehow made the matter trivial. If they are teething problems, then firstly a £23 million bailout for the fishing industry is not enough : in fairness all those industries which are affected should get equal help from government. But that is not going to happen because it will be frankly unaffordable. Furthermore, if they are indeed teething problems, then that raises the question of what the government is doing to resolve them. The evidence at the moment appears to be that it believes resolving them is up to others, even if the problem was of the government’s own making. Time is of the essence, as every day that goes by there are more and more businesses whose reserves have run out and will be forced to close permanently regardless of what solutions are found in the future. And the Department For International Trade has in effect admitted that this is a long-term issue: The best advice its representatives can give struggling companies is to set up an office within the EU.
Sadly, however, the evidence is that this talk of teething problems is yet another example of pathologically optimistic Brexiter bluster. Michel Barnier, speaking to our friend, RTE’s Tony Connelly, has been very clear that as far as trade goes the TCA is the final word, the UK was warned that its economy would suffer and, even without the imposition of tariffs, that is the reality of Brexit. It is beyond words how much worse a no deal (“Australian”) Brexit would have been, and that is what Boris Johnson described as “a good outcome”.
Do we have a Government which does not understand or does not care or both?
We cannot restore the status quo of last December, leave alone the status quo of May 2016. What happens from now is a matter of damage limitation. It would require some tough decisions, even if we did not have the background of a pandemic. It really is time to call in the adults in the room.
The views stated here are those of the author, and not necessarily those of Oxford For Europe
54. Kicking at an Open Goal and Missing
18 January 2021
“What is happening is that the government is tackling this issue, dealing with it as quickly as possible, and the key thing is we’ve got our fish back. They’re now British fish and they’re better and happier fish for it.”
We wanted to have reciprocal right for musicians to tour, but before everybody worries about this I should just stress that what we have is the right for musicians to play in other European, in EU countries, for 90 out of 180 days.
Boris Johnson speaking to Commons Liaison Committee.
“Whether we like it or not, that is going to be the treaty that an incoming Labour government inherits and has to make work. And it is not being straight with the British public to say we can come into office in 2024 and operate some other treaty”
It is better than being kicked in the face or mugged in an alleyway… but compared to EU membership it’s a pathetic little nothing.
Prof Michael Dougan on the Deal
Both fisheries and work permits for musicians are a very small part of the horrendous unfolding Brexit drama. However, they are significant because they are good examples of how gravely a massive cross section of ordinary people have been let down by this government.
The fishing industry is currently facing its greatest existential crisis ever. With deliveries of fresh produce to the EU taking several days because of red tape, the contents of lorries arrive at their destination fit for nothing but landfill. This is money from the mouths of the very people on whose behalf the government claimed it was negotiating diligently until the very last minute. To say they feel betrayed is to put it very mildly.
When challenged by Ian Blackford at Prime Minister’s Questions this week, all BJ could say was that £100 million was earmarked to help rescue the fishing industry. They are not asking for handouts, what they want is to be allowed to trade as they did before. Sadly, that will never happen. This is not a temporary teething problem, it is the new normal. With dockside fish prices collapsing by 80%, the industry is in effect unviable and the government has promised nothing which is going to change that. Even if it were a matter of teething problems, the government could give no assurance that they will be resolved in time to save all but the largest stakeholders. Unless, of course, the UK consumer overnight develops a massive liking for langoustines and mackerel.
It beggars believe that at a time like this Jacob Rees-Mogg could treat fisheries as a joke. Was he actually trying deliberately to alienate fisherman by what he said? Is he being forced to resign because of the sheer callousness of his response? Or is his boss Boris Johnson joining in the joke? Have a guess.
This, by the way, is the same Rees-Mogg who chose this moment to end the work of the Committee on the Future Relationship with the European Union, so there is no new parliamentary forum for scrutiny of a complex process which is really only beginning. And remember all of this is being done in the name of greater sovereignty for the UK Parliament. Could there be a greater irony?
And as for the music industry, again this was an unexpected problem. It is now in effect impossible for performers (or indeed anybody else), to cross the channel in either direction and earn money without a special work permit, which is prohibitively expensive (except at the discretion of the host country). While the Prime Minister is technically correct in what he said to the liaison committee, what it boils down to is that any musician can travel to the EU as a holiday maker and perform, provided they do so free of charge. That will come as scant consolation. Was BJ deliberately misleading the public or was he really so ignorant about the treaty he had just signed?
It has now emerged that this particular gap in the treaty was at the UK government’s request, because it saw EU musicians coming to the UK as an expression of freedom of movement. Having initially denied this, they have now admitted it. How many orchestras and performers, even after the end of Covid, will no longer be able to make ends meet? The case has been made very clearly by Oxford’s own Dillie Keane: “Britain’s cultural exports have been one of our greatest successes for decades. However, cost & sheer administrative impact of varying entry requirements for personnel, equipment and vehicles in each country within the EU will be prohibitive to the majority of live musicians”. A petition on this issue has already exceeded 250,000 signatures.
There are so many other aspects of this agreement that will penalise ordinary people on both sides of the channel. The latest estimate is not only a 4 to 6% drop in GDP, but a 30% drop in trade with the EU and a 13% drop in UK trade overall , relative to what would have happened had we continued in the EU. Obviously no amount of trade with the USA or other far flung countries will come anywhere near making up the shortfall. The City of London has been thrown under the bus. All this together with loss of individual opportunities and cultural links, and the enmity of all our nearest neighbours.
When faced with a government which has been both incompetent and devious in its dealings, the question arises why any member of the public should trust them. It is perhaps not surprising that Covid-related restrictions are respected much less than during the first lockdown.
Equally perhaps it is not surprising that the Telegraph is filling with excuses from Brexiters who claim it is not the fault of Brexit but merely a matter of how it was done. These are the same people who cried ‘Project Fear’ at every opportunity before the truth was obvious to all. Do you believe them? If so, I have these magic beans I can sell you…
At a time like this, just when the profound harm done by Brexit is becoming apparent, the government is leaving an open goal for all the opposition parties. It feels as if Labour, for one, is not even making a serious attempt to kick at this goal. Keir Starmer, last week, on the Andrew Marr Show, appeared to rule out making significant changes to the treaty on coming to power in 3-4 years’ time. He also appeared to drop the policy, expressed in Labour’s 2019 manifesto, of restoring freedom of movement. In the first prime minister’s Question Time after Brexit started to bite, he asked not a single question about this important issue. At this week’s Fabian Society conference he again failed to make any firm commitment on Europe. And whenever he is accused by BJ of being an ‘unrepentent remainer’ he squirms in discomfort rather than wearing it as a badge of pride.
Obviously he would say in his defence that the coronavirus crisis takes precedence over Brexit. However by focusing solely on that he is giving the impression of being willing to collude with the government in using coronavirus as a smokescreen for what Brexit is doing to the country. For an opposition this is not good enough.
Many commentators who are in a position to know defend him by saying that Brexit has happened and is outside Labour’s control. By the time they come to government, if they do, it will be well bedded in. The party’s focus at the moment is on not forfeiting the voters, such as those in the Red Wall seats, who moved across to the Tories because they wanted to ‘see Brexit done’. And pro-Brexit voters are perceived as being vastly more flaky than pro-Europeans. This despite the fact that the latter represent the vast majority of Labour supporters and almost all surviving Labour MPs, since the merciful departure of people like Kate Hoey and Gisela Stuart.
Others would argue, and I agree with them, that this is a misguided view. It is not true that pro Europeans have nowhere else to go. In order to make this obvious we need a strong and attractive Liberal Democrat Party with good pro European credentials. Ed Davey, though, to his great discredit, declining to call the LibDems a rejoin party, has at least committed to a return of freedom of movement. Labour should not take its pro-European supporters for granted, it still has to earn their respect.
Both parties are shown up by the SNP, which is making the most articulate and vociferous pro-European case. Ian Blackford has been relentless in pointing out the problems created for his country and the fact that this government, even if it tried, could not do more to alienate Scottish voters. There is even a theory that this is BJ’s intention and that he would not mourn the loss of Scotland to the union. It is entirely possible that by the time of the next election in 2024 there will no longer be any SNP presence at Westminster. Many of us would miss them. And of course Scottish independence would in all likelihood copperfasten Tory rule, in spite of the party’s appalling track record.
At a time like this, the English opposition parties would do well to think how the electoral landscape will have changed by 2024. It will be obvious that the government promise to “get Brexit done” was fraudulent. The country will still be mired in difficult negotiations with the European Union. The ability to travel and trade with European countries will have affected many more voters and their jobs and quality of life. The folly of Brexit will be apparent. In spite of the propaganda of the right wing press, and in spite of the attempts to blame the EU, many of the pro Brexit voters Labour is currently trying to court would have ceased to be that. The trend of disillusionment, already well established, can only accelerate. Labour needs to be able to recapture them on the rebound from their voyage of delusion. If Labour is seen to be complicit in Brexit that will be difficult.
It is much too soon for Labour to talk about a policy of rejoining. However, it seems obvious that to rule it out, or even to refuse to consider renegotiation of the treaty when that falls due in five years’ time, would be a mistake of epic proportions. Meanwhile, there is nothing to stop Labour from taking the initiative on practical tweaks to deal with the current crisis. Perhaps service industries are where most needs to be done. And then there is agriculture, work permits, Erasmus and recognition of professional qualifications etc etc. David Henig has articulated some realistic short to medium term goals.
At a time like this we need constructive engagement, not acquiescence. The country needs an effective opposition, and there is much to oppose.
The views stated here are those of the author, and not necessarily those of Oxford For Europe
53. When Project Fear Became Project Reality
11 January 2021
“In a single generation we should have renounced an imperial past and rejected a European future. Our friends everywhere would be dismayed. They would rightly be as uncertain as ourselves about our future role and place in the world… Our power to influence the [European] Communities would steadily diminish, while the Communities’ power to affect our future would as steadily increase.”
From a government White Paper of 1971, discussing the likely consequences of staying outside the EEC. Quoted by Fintan O’Toole
It is truly astonishing to reflect how much more common sense the conservative party of 50 years ago had than that of today.
You may have seen the Prime Minister’s car crash interview on Andrew Marr recently. He was asked the obvious question, “what are the benefits of Brexit for the ordinary man in the street?”. You would’ve expected that this was an open goal to the king of boosterism, who must surely have spent the last four years thinking about this very question. People like you and me certainly have. What could he come up with? Saved membership contributions, freeports, and fishing. That was it. Savings are dwarfed by the costs of Brexit, based on the government’s own estimates. All the other quoted benefits would have been possible within the European Union.
In a word, Boris Johnson was unable to name one single benefit to members of the public. Even the fishing industry itself is feeling betrayed, it is telling us that it is actually far worse placed than it was when we were members of the EU.
As against this, the downside of Brexit is all too apparent and becoming more so every day. We knew before 24th December that the deal would be a thin one. Yet it is only now that the full horror is sinking in. I will not repeat all of what we have learned in the past 2 weeks: You just need to look on the European Movement Website. But I will mention a few aspects.
We did not know for sure that we would lose Erasmus or mutual recognition of qualifications or short term work permits for musicians and other creatives. The latter, even without coronavirus, could make several UK orchestras unviable. All these things, taken in conjunction with the loss of freedom of movement and with the Immigration Act, seem calculated almost deliberately to stifle cultural and professional exchanges between the UK and the EU.
Now we are learning also that the barriers to trade are even greater than we thought. We were promised tariff free trade. This is not the case. Rules of origin dictate that where products contain a significant proportion of third country ingredients, tariffs are still chargeable, sometimes at a significant rate. Furthermore, non-tariff barriers are greater than expected. Delays in transit have led to perishable foods having to be discarded. And yes, the queues so far have been small but only because throughput is down. The UK government’s requirements for EU exporters to register for VAT has led many of them to wash their hands of UK trade. In many parts of the UK, and more particularly in Northern Ireland, supermarket shelves are starting to look empty, especially of perishables. Rising food prices are already being noticed, and they are not going to fall again. The UK as an export hub for Europe has no future under these conditions. And many EU businesses have decided to give up on exporting to the UK. UK haulage companies are becoming unviable, while their EU opposite numbers are avoiding coming here for fear of problems getting home.
All the government can say to all this is that these are temporary glitches and that it is working hard to resolve them. Essentially it is telling us that it is in damage limitation mode. This is so unnecessary. As to whether this is a teething problem or is really the new normal, I think we have to decide whether to listen to a government with a known track record of pathological optimism or whether to listen to the trade experts and the hauliers, who tell a very different story.
Certainly the £5bn of euro share dealing trade lost to the City in one day last Monday, apparently against expectations, is not coming back.
We have a prime minister who was elected to office despite a stated policy of “fuck business” (his words, not mine). I do not think even his worst enemy ever thought that he would implement this policy quite as effectively as he has.
The prevailing Brexiter fantasy is still that Brexit is good for you, or at least will be at some unspecified time in the future, or, if not, then it is somebody else’s fault, eg the EU27 for driving a hard bargain and not doing the UK any favours. The same EU27, of course, have acted from the start as they said they would.
A further fantasy is that, five years on, the time to talk about Brexit is over and we should move on.
In accord with these fantasies, many politicians, for example recently Rishi Sunak, are now calling for both sides of the Brexit debate to come together in the national interest. In response, once we have calmed down, what we say has to be quite nuanced. I think all of us do need to play a part – though not necessarily on their terms – in the damage limitation process. After all, almost everyone who has had to do the heavy lifting in this process, including the civil service and diplomatic corps, would very reasonably have preferred to remain. Without their hard work the country would go to hell in a handcart. And of course it is right to make the effort to understand and support those who voted leave in good faith.
It’s OK to feel angry
But does that mean we have to bury the hatchet with those who led the Leave campaign? This would be to forgive and forget several important facts. We have been taken into an infinitely harder Brexit than ever appeared on the ballot paper in 2016. When given the opportunity to request an extension and avoid the double crisis we’re living through right now, this government refused to do so, on purely ideological grounds, and against emphatic advice from countless stakeholders. The Erasmus programme has been dropped, in defiance of repeated promises. The services sector (80% of the economy) has been left in the cold and is waiting to find out what crumbs it will be granted by the EU, after the UK government has used up all its negotiating capital. The UK has made rivals and possibly enemies of all its nearest neighbours.
All these things were done in the name of the oft-quoted ‘17.4 million’, and with no effort at compromise, as if the 16.1 million on the other side did not exist.
We cannot forget the harms which have been done, and I would argue that this is not the time to forgive them either. Forgiveness is only possible when the perpetrator acknowledges that there is something to forgive and makes at least a token effort towards restitution. Yet we are talking here about people who pretend not to understand those basic facts, and who would never even think of using the word ‘forgiveness’.
Far from any display of goodwill or contrition the incessant lying continues. Please remember the prime minister’s repeated declaration that the deal involves no non-tariff barriers, something which the dogs in the street know to be untrue. Brandon Lewis, who should know better, has continued to claim that there is no border in the Irish Sea. And, perhaps on a more minor but nonetheless significant level, remember the repeated fraudulent claims from government ministers that such things as the early roll out of coronavirus vaccine, the abolition of the tampon tax and the ban on pulse fishing would not have been possible while we were EU members. Spoiler alert: yes they would.
This government is doing all it can to stifle discussion. It chose this moment to end the work of the Committee on the Future Relationship with the European Union, so there is no parliamentary forum for scrutiny. And remember all of this is being done – ironically – in the name of greater sovereignty for the UK parliament.
One more word to those who say we should move on. This is precisely the moment when many people who voted leave are starting to realise what a profound mistake they have made. How can this be the right time to make them feel guilty about saying so? If there were a statute of limitations applied to the crime of taking the UK out of the European Union, the clock should not start ticking until the harms are apparent, ie now.
Yes, why would we not feel angry? It is OK to do so. But the difficult bit is to channel that anger.
In the words of our next OfE speaker, Ian Dunt, ‘We have to keep in our minds that better vision of what Britain is: open, fair, diverse, moderate and engaged with the world. We have to fight for it. There’s no point getting downcast or self-pitying. We have to defend our convictions, no matter how bad things look.’
So far, thank goodness we do not live in the world of Orwell’s 1984, and we are under no obligation to deny that two and two make four just because the leader tells us to. This week, for the first time, ordinary voters will start to feel how Brexit has diminished the quality of their lives. We should not rejoice in that fact, nor should we simply say ‘I told you so’ But we most certainly should not allow the blame to be placed anywhere other than where it belongs.
52. Giving up what we have for something we never lost
3 January 2021
This is the week this Brexit government’s dream came true. It is also the week when their promises are put to the test. If they are found wanting let’s make sure they are held to account.
Of course, this whole debate has always been about sovereignty. But we should cut through the sound bites and ask ourselves what sovereignty actually means in the 21st century.
For me, it is about being able to seamlessly do work, travel, study and do business in 27 countries. It is about pooling our strength and speaking together in a world full of great powers. And in a time of crisis, it is about pulling each other up. Instead of trying to get back to your feet, alone.
And the European Union shows how this works in practice. No deal in the world can change the reality of [the] gravity in today’s economy. And in today’s world, we are one of the giants.
The fetishising of sovereignty, code for going it alone and “we were once an empire”, is a cruel delusion for which the UK will pay a heavy price.
30 Minutes To Justify Independence
I had the privilege of hearing the Polish statesman Radek Sikorsky speak at a conference four years ago. He was preceded by Daniel Hannan who huffed and puffed for what felt like 30 minutes about the sunlit uplands of Brexit and was loudly applauded by the Brexiters in the audience. Sikorsky started his speech brilliantly. “Ladies and gentlemen” he said, “so, you have had your Independence Day!”. Again booming applause from the many people who did not appreciate irony. “When we in Poland had our Independence Day it did not take half an hour to explain why it was a good thing”.
To this day his remarks ring true: even now that the deed is done, Brexiters struggle as much as before, possibly more, to find positive benefits. More and more they are forced to fall back on the argument that 17.4 million people demanded sovereignty and can’t all be wrong, and that to say otherwise is in some way a denial of democracy.
For myself, like Sikorsky, I grew up in a country which has a long and complex relationship with a larger neighbour. Irish people – at least those south of the border – know what it is to gain independence. And it looks very very different to what has just happened to the UK. Paradoxically, the fact that the UK was always free to leave demonstrated the falsehood of the ‘Brussels shackles’ rhetoric.
Sovereignty for what?
What does independence mean? Surely our Leaver friends have thought about that, given the massive sacrifices they are prepared to make with other people’s lives and livelihoods to achieve it. When challenged to answer, they talk about sovereignty, which they tend to define as the ability for a nation to mould its own future, to make decisions (yes, and to make mistakes) independently of the will of any other nation. The ERG rather pompously had a ‘Star Chamber‘ confirm that the agreement ‘preserves the UK’s sovereignty’ – as if they understood the word.
The government and ERG seem to be unaware that any nation, even the most powerful (of which the UK is no longer one) can thrive only if it learns to work with others, for example by being part of transnational organisations, be that the much-vaunted World Trade Organisation, UN, or NATO. Membership means the pooling of sovereignty, and this is usually understood to be in the mutual interest. It is not a question of being held captive, rather one of being a willing partner. So it was with the EU. The UK as a member had just as much sovereignty as any other. EU members still have control of their borders, as France is currently demonstrating to our cost. The UK participated fully in the decision making bodies of the EU, and, with France and Germany, was generally regarded as one of the Big Three. The UK was respected by other members as pragmatic and sensible, and had an influence beyond its size upon European legislation. For example the European Single Market was very much the creation of Margaret Thatcher and her government. Only rarely did the Council of Ministers make decisions to which the UK had strong objections.
Sovereignty therefore does not mean the ability to do as you like, but rather the ability to make decisions, in concert with others, that serve the long term interests of the nation and its people. It is where decisions are made remotely, with no input from the nation, from its people or its government, that there is a loss of sovereignty. This is precisely what we are witnessing since the day UK left the EU and gave up its place at the table. However, the tangible evidence will only start to accumulate now that the transition period has ended.
Furthermore, if sovereignty means that national government has discretion to make decisions as well, then surely this is only valuable if that national government can be trusted. It is astonishing to me how many people say that they favour Brexit on grounds of sovereignty, ie giving Westminster more influence, and yet very understandably also say that they would not trust Johnson’s government as far as they could throw it.
Before we can decide whether sovereignty is in the interests of the people, we must also ask how it will be used. It’s nothing if it just means the power to make decisions that you have no intention of ever making. As Jonathan Powell put in in his brilliant demolition of the deal: “We have defended the theoretical possibility of doing things we don’t actually want to do, like lower our environmental standards or support failing industries, in return for giving up measures that would increase our prosperity. So we have spent the last weeks fighting (and losing) over fishing, which represents 0.1 percent of our economy, while accepting that services, which represents 80 percent of our economy and where we have a competitive advantage, is excluded from the agreement.”
The UK, Ireland and sovereignty
I referred earlier to Ireland, it gives me no pleasure to compare and contrast our two nations in terms of sovereignty. Ireland has chosen to remain within the EU (in accord with the wishes of over 80% of its people in recent opinion polls – this despite the fact that for the past five years it has been a net contributor to the EU budget). Yet it remains a sovereign and equal member of the EU, with a seat on the Council of Ministers, its own commissioner and 11 elected MEPs. If the EU is a “protectionist” organisation, as we keep being told by the Eurosceptic side, this may not be such a bad thing. Ireland for one can vouch for the fact that the solidarity of the 26 other EU states has worked to protect its interests. This is something which the UK no longer enjoys. Instead it is outside the club and decisions made in Brussels no longer need to take the best interests of the UK into account. It is however in many respects at the mercy of those decisions, now being a relatively small state living geographically and indeed economically in the shadow of a much larger neighbour. Ironically this is precisely the status from which to a great extent EU membership has rescued Ireland.
The UK’s loss of international status has been such that in 2017 for the first time it lost its seat on the International Court of Justice. Ireland has just taken up its seat on the Security Council of the United Nations, where the UK has had a presence since the UN’s foundation, but now increasingly we are hearing murmurs that that too may come to an end.
At a micro level, and it gives me no pleasure to say this, the same is true. Until last Thursday a UK passport was worth every bit as much as an Irish one. Now an Irish passport holder has the freedom to live and work in 32 countries, as compared with just two. Who has greater sovereignty?
Ironically it was David Cameron, the author of this whole misfortune, who, possibly in one of his moments of lucidity, said before the referendum, ‘(suppose Leave wins).. You have an illusion of sovereignty but you don’t have power, you don’t have control, you can’t get things done’. Bobby McDonagh, former Irish Ambassador to London and Permanent Representative to the EU, put it like this: “the UK can reach no meaningful trade deals that do not limit British sovereignty. National control over trade is a contradiction in terms. Absolute control over trade stops at Dover and Heathrow. There is only one way to achieve such control. Don’t export anything.”
And yet it is for this elusive thing , sovereignty, together with what has turned out to be a negligible increase in fish catches, that the UK negotiators have accepted, and Parliament has passed into law, a deal which in almost every respect disadvantages the UK compared to the status quo. A list of the benefits and losses which the deal brings has been compiled by Yorkshire Bylines and is entitled the (David) Davis Downside Dossier. The European Movement has done something similar. In both cases it makes painful reading.
The PM refers to it as ‘a fantastic deal’. For once he is right, its benefits are totally in the realms of fantasy.
A Done Deal?
There seems to be a belief on the Leave side that Brexit has now been done, and that there is no more negotiating to do, so the day has come when we can at last stop talking about Brexit. The reality is that, if I live to be a hundred, I do not expect to see that day. I just hope my children will. Meanwhile, for us it is important to look forward, not back, but also to keep up the fight to regain, by working with others, the sovereignty we have so carelessly discarded.
51. The Clock Is No Longer Ticking
25 December 2021
At the end of a successful negotiations journey I normally feel joy, but today I only feel quiet satisfaction and frankly speaking relief.
Ursula von der Leyen
The clock is no longer ticking
So, the deal is done. A last minute Christmas present to an eagerly waiting nation. At the risk of sounding like the Christmas Grinch, the best I can offer is modified rapture.
Tidings of comfort and joy?
Of course we in Oxford for Europe, like all of us in the pro European camp, are entitled to share in Ursula von der Leyen’s relief. It feels as if it has been a long time in the making, with the repeated permeable deadlines and the tentative ‘will they / won’t they?’ resumption of often tetchy negotiations. In truth, of course, 11 months is no time at all to negotiate a comprehensive trade deal. After all, with Canada, it has taken about 8 years and counting. The argument that we were starting from a position of congruence does not hold any water. These negotiations were about trying to achieve divergence with minimal damage, always a tall order and becoming taller.
So has Boris Johnson managed to “get Brexit done ”? Obviously the devil will be in the detail. We should of course welcome the fact that there will be tariff free trade in goods, and perhaps sympathise with Scottish seed potato farm farmers whose produce for some reason stands out by being excluded. It will be good news for BMW, in the sense that for now they can feel there is a future, even if their just in time philosophy will need some rethinking. We can be glad that perhaps a solution has been found to the problem of rules of origin. It is to be welcomed that UK hauliers will not, after all, require special permits which are in short supply. And there will be continued if modified participation in Horizon Europe, Copernicus and Euratom. Perhaps the most important, if less tangible, benefit is that both sides remain on speaking terms, the atmosphere between them is still vaguely amicable, and negotiations can continue.
And make no mistake, negotiations do need to continue. 80% of the UK’s trade is in services, not goods , and that is something which is sadly lacking from the deal. The Prime Minister has been unable to reassure us that security cooperation will be as good after as before January 1st. Manifestly it will not. It was always clear that the UK would leave Europol, and, despite the best intentions, access to European databases such as SIS II (Schengen Information System) will be clunky at best. Freedom of movement is gone, to the disadvantage of both sides. And many many day to day implications remain unresolved.
Touring with Turing?
The Erasmus programme is one of the casualties of the deal, and this is something which will be deeply missed by as many as 15,000 UK students per year. Johnson assures us that something called the Turing scheme will take its place and allow UK students to travel around the world. Perhaps, let’s suspend judgement on that. I wonder what Alan Turing would have thought? At any event, not being reciprocal, this change will be a big blow for UK universities such as ours, for whom Erasmus students from Europe have been a part of the landscape for years.
The loss of mutual recognition for professional qualifications for doctors, nurses, architects, dentists, pharmacists, vets, engineers will be hard. It could cause enormous problems of recruitment to the NHS.
And non tariff barriers will still exist. The Prime Minister in his press conference barefacedly denied this, and when he tries to mislead on something as obvious as that, it is difficult to know how much else of what he tells us we should believe.
This is a thin deal. Inevitably, we think as much about what is missing as what is in it. It really does not bear comparison with what we had before. As Michael Heseltine put it, the relief we feel is that of a condemned man who has had his death sentence commuted to life imprisonment. But relief it is nonetheless.
The deal has already been welcomed by the Bones, Bridgens and Bakers of this world. Even Farage has not been thrown into apoplexy by it. Should that worry us? Perhaps they had been squared in advance. Very possibly, when they get into the substance of what has been agreed, they will do the expected and talk about a BINO, Brexit In Name Only. After all, the type of have-your-cake-and-eat-it Brexit they hanker after was never going to be on the agenda. The Prime Minister has tried to sell it as such. But then again a year ago he said the same about the withdrawal agreement, and that looks a lot less shiny now.
Does this deal justify the refusal to seek an extension? Certainly the fact that it took until the last minute highlights just how tight the time scale was. But of course the consequence of all this is that there is no time for the UK Parliament, the EU Heads of Government, or the European Parliament to reflect on it. That may of course have been the intention but it is a travesty of democracy. Nor is there time for implementation, either by government or business. It is not good enough simply to blame businesses for not being ready – until now they did not know what they had to get ready for, and even now there is a lack of clarity about the details.
And as for Labour? It should not be so, but Brexit has turned into as painful and divisive an issue as it is for the Tories. Keir Starmer has followed a possibly enlightened policy of letting the Tories dig their own hole. In line with this, abstaining would seem to make sense, the deal will pass even without Labour support. Many party members will feel queasy at the decision to vote for the deal, as that leaves Labout at least looking complicit, and they will find it hard to challenge aspects of the deal when they need to. Ho hum, I suppose nobody wants to be dragged into Parliament on 30th December, when they should be with their families, just to sit on their hands.
So our ‘No to no deal’ campaign is history. Where to now?
So many promises have been made around the deal. So many have already been broken, now that we know what it looks like. So many more can still fall victim to the creative ambiguity which is baked in. The first thing we can do is to use social media to hold our elected representatives to account, with the hashtag #baddeal4britain.
So much more one could say. But no doubt, like me, you want to get on and enjoy Christmas.
Given that the Christmas plans of so many families have had to be shelved, it is sadly with more feeling than ever that we wish each other Merry Christmas, and as much in hope as in expectation that we wish for a Happy New Year. However, hope springs eternal and, in the spirit of the season, I would like to wish you both. HAPPY CHRISTMAS
50. So Long, And Thanks For All The Fish
1 December 2020
“Our position on fish has not changed. We’ll only be able to make progress if the EU accepts the reality that we must be able to control access to our waters.”.
-Boris Johnson, at PMQs, 25 Nov 2020
“We want to know what remedies are available in case one side will deviate in the future, because trust is good but law is better”.
-Ursula Von Der Layen, 25 Nov 2020
The 11th hour, much less the 1439th minute, is not the right time to have negotiations about points of detail. We are now six weeks past the point where both sides said a deal should be concluded. And yet talks continue, as I speak Michel Barnier is in London, and so far neither side wants to be seen to be the one to pull the plug.
In any sane world we could not be in this situation. Against the background of a pandemic which is consuming the energies of all governments and the lion’s share of media attention, decisions have to be made which will affect Britain and Europe for years to come. In any sane world we would be about to begin a two year extension period, during which rational negotiations could be completed, preparations made and, hopefully these things could be done in a post-pandemic world. There is a government which is giving in willingly to pressure from the Spartans of the ERG, and which is not going to behave rationally if it is has any alternatives.
Lies and Damned Lies
Again and again we have the same platitudes from the Brexit side. Firstly that the Europeans need a deal more than the UK does, and during the German presidency of the EU Angela Merkel would be pressed by German exporters to compromise. Secondly that in EU negotiations it is normal for everything to be decided at the last minute and unless there is time pressure the Europeans will not come to their senses. Thirdly that 95% of the measures in contention have already been agreed. Fourthly that British resilience is such that we can cope with the pandemic and therefore can cope with anything, so if our bluff is called and we finish up with ‘an Australian solution’ ie no deal, that would be, in the PM’s words, ‘a good outcome’..
I think this is the same delusional thinking that told us in June 2016 that we would have “the easiest deal in history“. And the same thinking that rejected the unanimously dire predictions of all economists as “project fear“. It has not gone away.
Firstly, no other European country, even Ireland, will see the same impact on its economy as the UK. The latest OBR (Office for Budget Responsibility) projections, commissioned by the government, indicate a long-term loss to GDP of about 4% even if there is a deal, and about 6% if there is none. This is considerably greater than the impact of Covid, which is obviously massive in the short term but will diminish, it is expected, over subsequent years. European governments know this, even if the UK government pretends not to. And they are united in pushing the integrity of the single market ahead of trade with the UK. They recognise the benefits of the single market, ironically enough bearing in mind that it was very much the creation of Margaret Thatcher.
And yes, the EU has form in agreeing internal deals at the last minute. This is not an internal deal, as the UK is now a third country. What is more, a deal reached in haste is not necessarily a good one. The Withdrawal Agreement was signed about a year ago in a very great hurry, and was ratified by the prime minister and approved unanimously by Conservative MPs who actually voted not to give themselves time to read it. Now many, as articulated by Iain Duncan Smith, are repenting at leisure, And this government is blithely telling us it is so unsatisfactory that it has no choice but to break it in defiance of international law.
The deal is indeed 95% agreed. That appears to have been the figure for several months and of course it reflects that the remaining 5% is the most difficult part. Final agreement has been about a week away for a very long time, just as, we are told, nuclear fusion power has always been about 50 years away ever since the 1950s. Perhaps it will never come closer.
And then of course this dreadful lie about resilience. What these people are actually saying is that it is okay to take advantage of the disruption caused by the pandemic because it may mask that caused by Brexit. This is as mischievous as it is untrue. It is like saying to a man who has had one arm cut off that he seems to be coping fine and therefore it doesn’t matter if he gratuitously has the other one cut off as well. Industry is suffering and the pandemic has made it even more difficult to prepare for a no-deal Brexit than it would be otherwise. The constant refrain from government that it should do so, when even now it does not know what is supposed to be preparing for, is deeply hypocritical.
The Stumbling Blocks
Even at this late stage new problems seem to be coming out of the woodwork in negotiations, an example being the difficulties faced by Irish manufacturers whose products come from both sides of the border, and how these will be dealt with under rules of origin. However, the three principal stumbling blocks are the same as always, namely fisheries, the level playing field, particularly in regard to state aid, and governance.
The state aid issue is actually something of a straw man, as this is not an issue which has traditionally been prioritised by Conservative governments, and state aid in the UK is significantly less than in some EU countries such as Germany. Besides Liz Truss has already bargained away the UK’s rights to set its own state aid levels to the Japanese. In regard to governance, to some extent this is a self-inflicted problem for the UK government: the Internal Market Bill has turned it into an untrustworthy partner (Von Der Leyen’s observation above is made with feeling), but presumably the offending clause would not be necessary if an appropriate deal could be achieved.
So really this is all about fishing. The value of UK fishing is perhaps 1/80th of that of the automotive industry and 1/200th that of the financial sector. It is nonetheless understandable that to those who have not looked at the facts it has it has talismanic significance. Yet negotiations are bound to fail if the UK government is unwilling to compromise. The French in particular have much to lose if they do not have access to UK waters, whereas the UK fishing industry has little or nothing to gain by not letting them in. Indeed the penny is beginning to drop and there are increasing voices within UK fishing which, like manufacturing and agriculture, condemn the prospect of a no-deal Brexit. Frankly it is no good catching fish if you lose your largest market, and 60% of fish caught by the UK fleet are exported to the EU. The British are not enthusiastic eaters of fish, and such fish as they do eat, eg cod, are caught abroad. In a no-deal scenario tariff barriers would be potentially fatal. And, as Richard Corbett points out, even if the EU conceded in full it would not solve the UK’s problems, as both sides are bound by international conventions including the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.
So the constant talk about fishing is based on yet another lie.
Deal or no deal
We do not know whether there will be a deal, nor do we know much about what it would look like.
What if there is one?
There will be impossibly little time to ratify it, or indeed to read what may turn out to be a 1000 page document. The opposition parties will have a painful dilemma, and even before they know the details Labour are reportedly sharply divided. On the one hand they would prefer to see a deal passed than no deal at all, but on the other they are very clear that any deal which can be achieved now would be nugatory, and nothing like as good as what is being left behind. Understandably they do not want to be seen to abet the government in getting it through and in effect to have dipped their fingers in the blood. Allegedly Keir Starmer is inclined to vote pro, and many others, including Oxford’s Annaliese Dodds, would wish to abstain. At the same time there are pro-EU groups such as Another Europe Is Possible who are calling upon Labour to vote against, in the expectation that the deal will go through anyway despite opposition from the ERG. This seems an odd position to take: do Labour MPs really want to be seen as allies of the ERG? It is not an easy choice for Labour, especially since it has tried every possible tactic since the election to avoid any mention of something as divisive for the party as Brexit has turned out to be.
However, devoutly though we may wish for a deal of any kind, thin though it may be, it will not help in relation to non-tariff barriers. We will still get the queues of 7000 lorries at Dover which now even Michael Gove admits are unavoidable, there will still be a shortfall of 50,000 customs officers and there will still need to be 200 million extra pieces of paper completed every year by exporters. The haulage industry faces a very painful time indeed. The BMW factory in Oxford, which is reliant on supply chains involving the EU, will still be threatened. It is significant that BMW are now planning to manufacture minis in Leipzig in Germany, and the Cowley works may well finish up at best an assembly plant for UK production. And even if the deal means that some companies remain viable who would otherwise not do so, it does nothing for the services sector, which is 80% of the UK economy, and which has known for at least the past three years that such essential rights as passporting will go out the window.
And if there is no deal?
The fact that EU countries have been making preparations and the UK has not will be unmasked on day one. WTO tariffs will be applied to British exports to the EU, because they have to be. Examples are 10% on cars and 30% on lamb. The UK has said that it will waive tariffs, but in the absence of a deal it will be obliged to do this for all, not just EU, imports. So a perfect storm of increased costs and increased bureaucracy for exporters, undercutting of domestic producers by cheap imports, and reduced revenue for government. All the while this Government will blame betrayal by the damned Remainers (who happen to include almost everybody with responsibility for putting Brexit into practice, against their own better judgment) and the intransigence of the EU (who have only ever done precisely what they said they would do from the start).
And as for fishing, yes, the UK will proudly claim control of its 200 nautical mile limits (mainly be it noted relating to Scotland rather than England or Wales – see map) but good luck with trying to enforce them or to gain redress against offenders in any international forum. And who on earth is going to buy all these extra fish? They will finish up dying of old age in the sea or rotting in the harbours or in the backs of lorries. As an impoverished Britain flounces away from the greatest missed opportunity in history, the words of Douglas Adams will ring in its ears: “So Long, and thanks for all the fish”
49. Billy No-Mates
12 November 2020
“In recent decades, we have consoled ourselves that we ‘punch above our weight’ in international affairs. I think that was true – but that was then and this is now. Our hefty international influence rested on our history and reputation, buttressed by our membership of the European Union and our close alliance with the United States …. It now seems that on the 1st of January, only a few weeks away, Brexit will be more brutal than anyone expected”.
“This is statecraft by Clouseau”.
It looks as if the next 2 months will go down in history on both sides of the Atlantic.
Trump tramps out?
On one side we will be watching the craven political death throes of the least presidential president in history, during which we have to hope he fails to exercise his still considerable wrecking power to the full, and of course that his family and enablers – including Rupert Murdoch – see the light and persuade him the game is up. One by one he is firing those of his team who challenge his fantasy of victory, and replacing them with others who are as dangerous as he is. At this point it is no exaggeration to talk of an “attempted coup”, complete with armed supporters on the streets and a propaganda machine in overdrive. He will fight doubly hard knowing that staying in the White House is for him the best route to avoiding prison. While we are waiting for what presumably will be his forcible extraction from the White House, he continues to drive a coach and horses through American democracy by pretending not to understand how it works.
Meanwhile on the other side, in a piece of symmetry worthy of Greek tragedy, another wounded leader whose days in office are numbered.
Our Prime Minister, like Trump, is pretending ignorance. He wants us to believe he does not understand the most fundamental principle of international diplomacy, ie that you sign agreements with other countries in the expectation that both sides will abide by them. The Internal Market Bill flies in the face of this. It has been stripped of its most controversial (for that read illegal) sections by the Lords, and hardly anybody in authority outside the parliamentary conservative party believes it is justifiable. Yet, under pressure from the ERG, our Prime Minister is threatening to restore the offending sections. All at a time when the EU has already launched a legal action against him for it. And at a time when negotiations with the EU are on a knife-edge and the clock is ticking deafeningly.
A no-deal Brexit beckons. As John Major pointed out, even months ago, such an outcome was already looking way past the worst prognostications of ‘Project Fear’ of 2016. And yet it is even worse now.
- We are facing the second wave of a global pandemic, something which, despite the obvious warnings, this government failed to foresee. To cambat the pandemic we international collaboration.
- Following events in Vienna, the UK terrorist threat has been raised to severe, and we are about to lose access to the European Arrest Warrant and the SIS II database, with the possibility of nothing being put in their place. Purely because of an inability to negotiate. ISIS are loving this.
- There is even more bad news for business. Not because, as the government may tell you, businesses is unprepared, but because of the government’s own ineptitude. Unlike the most affected EU states, the UK has made minimal and belated preparation at its ports, and finds itself obliged, if it trades on WTO terms, to waive import tariffs from outside Europe at least until June. By then the effect of cheap imports on manufacturing and agriculture will have been catastrophic at best. Add to that the effect on exports and supply chains of tariff and non-tariff barriers which the EU will be obliged to impose on the UK.
‘Oh no! The new president is a Paddy! Who knew?’
But now on top of all this we have the US election. If the situation for Johnson could possibly get even more toxic, it just has.
This is the Prime Minister who, up until a week ago, was telling us how wonderful the new transatlantic partnership would be. Yet suddenly there is a president-elect who genuinely is an internationalist, who values firm links with Europe, and who recognises that the EU is a market of half a billion people containing three members of the G7, and the UK is the country which has just, against his and Obama’s advice, cut itself off. Biden’s first calls were to the three Ms, Martin, Macron and Merkel. They are all people he respects, and Micheál Martin is a personal friend. In the UK parliament, Biden’s closest links are with Colum Eastwood, of the SDLP. When he called BJ, he made a point of reminding him about the Good Friday Agreement.
For Biden anything that undermines the Good Friday agreement crosses a red line. There will of course be those, like Iain Duncan Smith and John Redwood, who assert that the USA has no business meddling in British internal affairs. They are mistaken. Firstly, Biden, who calls himself Irish, is deeply invested in the Irish peace process, which would have been impossible without American help. And the Irish-American lobby is strong. Secondly the breach of an international treaty is not an internal UK matter. Thirdly, like any third country the US wants to know whether or not it is dealing with a government which believes in honouring its international obligations. This is a no-brainer.
Diplomats are not optimistic. In a newly strengthened US/EU alliance, the UK’s options are to work towards being included as a junior partner or to be left out in the cold. The days when this country could claim to be some sort of intermediary between Europe and the US ended when it chose to leave the EU. Who is left to turn to as an ally? Putin, Xi, or the other autocrats, from Erdoğan to Mohammed bin Salman, to whom the Biden win is unwelcome news?
Does BJ not understand that in the past week the tectonic plates have shifted? He has lost, in Donald Trump, a soul mate who lies habitually, and regards international relations as a game based on expediency. Not for nothing did Biden call BJ the “physical and emotional clone of Donald Trump”. Just in case things were not already bad enough, Johnson sent a congratulatory tweet which was discernibly nothing more than a re-edit of the message he was going to send to Trump on his expected victory. Ineptitude on a ‘Four Seasons Landscaping’ scale. He really must try harder.
So at a time of unprecedented crisis we have a Prime Minister with few friends in the world. By chance, he has precious little support at home. The opposition and the devolved nations view him with contempt. In Northern Ireland he betrayed the Unionists by signing the Northern Ireland Protocol and then he betrayed the Nationalists by undermining it.
Within his party he has antagonised many MPs, who happen to be the strongest Brexit loyalists (after all aversion to evidence is their hallmark) by imposing a second lockdown having sworn he would not. So now we have the 50-strong ‘Covid recovery group’ which is calling – irony of ironies!!! – for impact assessments to be published, and who have seriously fallen out of love with him.
And then there are many middle-of-the-road Tories who were made to vote against feeding children, at huge political cost to themselves in their own constituencies, only to watch the PM negate their sacrifice by doing a Rashford-inspired U-turn.
The rift with Cummings – if indeed it ever genuinely was one – just introduces another complication into the Tory psychodrama. Optimists would like to believe it is an opportunity for the BJ we saw in London’s liberal mayor to come to the surface. But we are not all optimists.
So Johnson’s days are numbered. The only thing saving him is that his opponents will struggle to agree on a successor and indeed the choice is sadly limited. Within the parliamentary party the person who seems to come nearest to having experience and competence is Jeremy Hunt (I say this reluctantly, speaking as a doctor), but, as the last leadership election showed, many loyal Tories would rather take poison.
And yet, soon a lot of them may wake up to the realisation that they already have…
28 October 2020
“I think Donald Trump is clearly out of his mind if he thinks that’s a sensible way to proceed… What he’s doing is playing the game of the terrorists and those who seek to divide us, and I have to say, when Trump says that there are ‘no-go’ areas in London, he’s betraying stupefying ignorance that makes him frankly unfit for the office of the presidency. I would like to invite him to come to see the whole of London and take him around the city, except I wouldn’t want to expose Londoners to any unnecessary risk of meeting Donald Trump.”
– Boris Johnson, Mayor of London, about Donald Trump, reality show host, in 2015.
“Actually he has many, many good qualities”
– Boris Johnson, candidate for PM, on President Donald Trump, 2019.
By the time you read this, it is entirely possible that the US presidential election will be a done deal, and we will know whether the Americans and the world will have to cope with another four years of incompetence, corruption and mendacity. Equally likely the matter will have been kicked into the long grass as it was in 2000, to be resolved by a Supreme Court which has just been dishonestly twisted into a 6-3 Conservative majority by the opportunistic behaviour of the Senate Republicans.
Why is this of interest to us here in Oxford for Europe? You may well ask. The truth is that American voters at this moment probably have more influence over the fate of this country than we do ourselves.
What we know is that “negotiations“ around the UK/EU trade deal are entering their endgame, with nobody entirely sure whether Boris Johnson is playing chicken with our livelihoods or simply running down the clock until the inevitable no Deal car crash happens and he can blame the EU for their obstinacy. This blame game is of course unjustified in the eyes of anybody who knows the facts, but we can be quite certain that it will be aided and abetted by the right-wing press, and many other more credulous compatriots will be taken in. However, there is a plausible theory, supported by as eminent a person as Sir Ivan Rogers, that neither of these motivations is foremost in what our prime minister is pleased to call his mind. Rather, it is argued, he and his Svengali, Dominic Cummings, are awaiting the results of the US election before deciding whether to accept a gossamer-thin deal or no deal at all.
In the event of a victory by his new best friend Trump, the best outcome from BJ‘s perspective would be no deal. Trump has made it clear that any trade deal with the European Union would block US/UK negotiations – after all his only objective is to have his way 100% – and if that happened we might even have to wait a bit longer for our chlorinated chicken. On the other hand, Biden, like Obama, could never see any merit in Brexit, rather from his perspective it is a major obstacle to international co-operation, and if a no Deal Brexit threatens the Northern Ireland Good Friday Agreement then all bets are off. What appears to be a revelation to our prime minister, even though any Irish person could have told him this years ago, is that politically in the USA the Irish have clout and the UK does not, even more so now that Brexit has actually happened. The “special relationship” belongs to the era of Reagan and Thatcher, or perhaps that of Kennedy and Macmillan.
Either way the precious US deal may turn out to be beyond salvation. Given all the evidence that it will bring very few benefits (possibly about 0.2% of GDP) and lots of pain (not just the proverbial chlorinated chicken and GM-derived food, but also a serious threat to the NHS and our ability to trade with Europe), the loss of an American trade deal should not make us weep. Let’s leave the weeping to Johnson.
Having decided this is how the decision is to be made, I wonder whether Johnson and Cummings lie awake at night in fear of an inconclusive outcome and another month-long court battle, as in 2000? That really would be an irony.
It is all too tempting to believe that Biden has it in the bag. Nationally he has a 9% lead in the polls, his campaign has far deeper pockets (by a ratio of 3 to 1), and William Hill is pricing him at 2 to 1 on (admittedly a worsening from 9 to 4 on two weeks ago). He is now campaigning actively in the states which were previously considered safely Republican. Is his confidence justified? There are several very good reasons for not counting our chickens just yet.
It is certainly true that more people have or will cast their votes for Biden on a national scale. The large number of postal votes – assuming they ever get counted – will favour Biden. However as in the UK the electoral system creates anomalies. A Democratic candidate almost always has to achieve more votes than his Republican rival to gain the presidency . This is because the less populous states such as Wyoming (580,000 people and three Electoral College votes) which tend to go Republican, have far more influence on the outcome per capita than the larger ones (eg California with 40,000,000 people and 55 votes). Al Gore and Hillery Clinton learned that lesson to their cost. Secondly, in spite of all the Trump bluster about electoral rigging on the Democrat side, all the evidence points the other way. Without doubt there is voter suppression in some Democrat areas, namely less affluent and less white parts of the country, by means of more sparsely distributed and more crowded polling stations and insistence on voter ID (which of course many poorer voters do not have). Thirdly there is use of social media. I think it is a given that on the morning of 3rd November some massive and damning lie about Biden will go viral. Because of careful targeting it will not come to the attention of the Biden campaign until much later, and even if it does there will not be time to issue an effective refutation. On the other hand, as we know from the experience of both the UK Leave and Trump campaigns in 2016, there will be a widespread last minute mailshot telling Biden supporters that they do not need to bother voting because the presidency is in the bag. It is entirely plausible that Trump could win or steal the election even without the help of his Russian allies who are allegedly as we speak infiltrating the software on which the election is being run. Let us hope that those efforts are in vain. Let us hope too that the Biden campaign has learned the lessons of the last 3 elections: how to energise the electorate as in 2008 and 2012, and how to avoid alienating them as in 2016.
And as for the US Supreme Court, Biden very reasonably refused to comment on whether he would, given the opportunity, increase its size. There are good constitutional reasons why he could justify adding four more justices, therefore restoring a 7-6 liberal majority. Or perhaps even more? Frankly, the sooner the better.
And back home in the UK, who knows, on 4th November we may well know our fate.
47. High Hearts and Complete Confidence – Really?
19 October 2020
‘If we can’t agree by [15 October], then I do not see that there will be a free trade agreement between us, and we should both accept that and move on,’
– Boris Johnson, 7 September 2020.
‘There are huge opportunities for a sovereign independent UK to cut free trade deals very quickly with Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the USA, people who are not going to be demanding that they have a say over how we legislate in our parliament and the laws and regulations we have to bring in and that those will more than compensates for the benefits of being able to trade in the single market’.
– Andrew Bridgen MP, 15 October.
“With high hearts and with complete confidence we will prepare to embrace the alternative and we will prosper mightily as an independent free trading nation controlling our own borders, our fisheries and setting our own laws.”
– Boris Johnson 16 October.
“Businesses are doing what they can to prepare for Brexit. But firms face a hat-trick of unprecedented challenges: rebuilding from the first wave of COVID-19, dealing with the second and uncertainty over the UK’s trading relationship with the EU. That’s why more than three quarters of UK firms say they need a deal, quickly. With each day that passes, business resilience is chipped away. A swift deal is the single most effective way to support recovery in communities across Europe. After four years of debate, there must be a resolution. 2021 can then be a year to rebuild, rather than regret.”
– Joint statement from CBI and 71 Trade Associations representing 7 million employees, 18 Oct
When a major crime is committed in plain sight, it is a very British thing to walk past with a “nothing to see here, let’s move along” look on the face. We simply don’t want to get involved.
What this government is doing at the moment is a serious crime against the British people and the economy. They know it but they lie through their teeth about it, and hope that because of the pandemic we will either not notice or we will give them the benefit of the doubt because “we must pull together” and, they will tell us, at the end of the day it is the will of the people, not the government’s fault, that the country should be made poor and cut itself off culturally and economically from all its nearest neighbours.
Of course, without exception, all Tory MPs feel bound to collude in this, ranging from rabid and unthinking ERG members like Andrew Bridgen to some former moderate one-nation Tories closer to home here in Oxfordshire. Why? Firstly, because a condition of standing in the December election was committing to support Johnson’s Brexit policy. Secondly, because having voted for the manifestly illegal Internal Market Bill and the economically damaging Agriculture Bill, they have dipped their fingers in the blood and frankly anything after that would seem mild in comparison (or maybe not?, Who knows what is still to come?). So now, of course, if they want to survive at all in politics, they must wake up every morning and repeat to themselves a big lie: For those who voted remain that the referendum result is more important than their own conscience. For those who voted leave everything that happens proves how malicious the EU is and that we must part company with it. And, this being so, it does not matter how intense the howls of pain are from industry, farmers or the healthcare sector. All of this is just called “project fear” and it must be resisted on principle. If asked for specifics, these MPs would mutter something about solidarity with our 12,000 fishermen and women, rather than focus on saving the automotive sector, aerospace, agriculture and services, which are worth together well over 300 times as much as fishing. The new term ‘Pescismo’ hits the nail on the head.
So, in the spirit of looking the other way, much of British industry has spent the last few months hoping against hope that the government would see sense at the last minute and agree a deal that would at least potentially stand in the way of annihilation for manufacturing and the service sector. What is striking is not that they have now come together and made a clear statement on the danger of no deal, but that it has taken them this long to do so. It really is now the 11th hour and beyond.
Today’s statement comes from the full spectrum of British business, including automotive, building, haulage and agriculture. It could not be clearer about the harm that will follow if January 1st is allowed to pass without a deal. And it is no good saying that a deal will come later. That may well happen, but business has to make hard choices in the meantime and cannot proceed on the assumption that anything would be agreed soon. Most new trade deals, eg EU/Canada, which Johnson never tires of referencing, take many years to negotiate. In circumstances where both parties are starting from a position of mutual distrust, it can only be worse. And business cannot give the government the benefit of the doubt. It will have to start disinvesting on the worst-case assumption. Even the skeleton of a deal at this point, on the other hand, will be an indication of goodwill and a sign that momentum has not been lost. It will not stop non-tariff barriers, or the need to employ 50,000 new customs officers, the need for 200 million new forms to be completed per annum or the likelihood of 7000 lorries queuing to cross at Dover (Michael Gove’s own admission). But it may at least mean that the door is open to better things. But by common consent it must happen in the next 2 weeks or it will be too late. Brinkmanship can lead to tears.
How can the country possibly have dug this appalling hole for itself? And why? The classic Brexiter answer to that question is “because people voted for it”. And yet even the most deluded and bone-headed member of the ERG must every now and again have a niggle of doubt whether people really voted to cause chaos and make themselves this much poorer. At any event, even if we accept that the government has an obligation to carry out the referendum mandate, that really was limited to “UK leaving the EU”. That has now happened. The mandate is executed and is history. We need to consider that chapter closed and begin anew, planning for the future and taking account what is best for the country. At no point, for example, did people vote to leave the single market and customs union, that was an inference made by May and Johnson in the total absence of evidence. The referendum did not state what should happen after 1st January, not even how long the UK should stay outside the European Union .
This mantra of the People’s Will seems to have supplanted in some people’s minds the notion of “Open Britain”. Today there seems to be something ironic and indeed sleazy about the kind of thing that Johnson and Bridgen say above. They’re telling us that somehow Britain can thrive after cutting its links with the world’s largest economic union, where currently about half its exports go, and replacing that with markets outside Europe, all by definition far away.
The facts are these: Of the G7 economies, ie the most economically powerful countries, three are in the EU and three, excluding Britain, are outside it. Excluding the black market, global GDP is £67.4 trillion, ie £67,400,000,000,000, according to the World Bank (2019 figures). The EU (without UK) makes up about £11 trillion, ie 17% of the total. Of the remainder over 60% is made up of 4 countries, USA (24.6% of global GDP), China (16.4%), Japan (5.9%) and India (3.3%). Note that the top 4 do not include any of the much vaunted ‘white commonwealth’ countries of whom people like Bridgen seem so keen.
Presumably, then, it is fundamental to the Brexiters’ dream to have an increased ability (above and beyond that which we had already as EU members) to trade with those 4 countries. So is that realistic? Can a pig fly?
Whoever wins the American presidency, any trade deal with the USA will not get past Congress unless it protects the Good Friday Agreement. The Internal Market Bill has made it clear that HMG is not committed to this, and if it is put into effect it will almost certainly make a US trade deal impossible. We will continue to trade with the USA on the same terms as before, which will be considerably inferior to those which are currently being negotiated between the USA and EU. And, of course, if Biden wins, which I’m sure every reader of this blog sincerely hopes, Johnson’s gamble will not have paid off and the administration, as well as Congress, will take a punitive view of any attempt to throw Ireland under the bus.
In the case of China, I need only remind you of Huawei. We may well approach China with the begging bowl in our hands and still get a slap in the face because the Chinese are in a position to insist that trade takes place on their terms, and they can almost certainly afford to be more demanding with a weakened Britain than they will with the EU. There is a serious risk of the relationship between the China and the UK being like that between a dog and a lamp post, and we are not the dog.
As for Japan, the new PM, Mr Suga, will take a long time to forgive the UK for its treatment of the Japanese car industry, after Nissan, Toyota, Honda and others had invested massively in the UK as a base for exports to the EU, and been badly burned by the barriers to trade wantonly erected by the UK government. The government may argue that it has agreed a trade deal with Japan, but it is really no better than the EU/Japan deal, and incorporates concessions on state aid, something which the UK has declined to offer the EU.
In the case of India, which has now displaced the UK as the world’s 5th largest economy thanks to Brexit, Mr Modi has already made clear that there will be conditions attached to any favourable trade deal, in the form of free movement of people, which, we will all remember, was one of the Brexiters’ red lines.
|GDP £Trillion||% of global GDP|
|Rest of the world||18.6||27.6%|
Trade with the EU, USA, China, Japan and India is therefore in various ways problematic. What about the rest of the world? This is 29.7% of global trade, spread across 158 relatively small economies, mainly at considerable distance. They range from Brazil (2.1% of global trade and 5,000 miles away) to Tuvalu (0.0001% of global trade and do you really care how far away?). Do we really want to use our scarce resources tediously to negotiate trade deals with them one by one? The government may well tell you that it has achieved trade deals with the Faroe Islands and Switzerland, but the fact that they even bother to tell you this smacks of desperation and pathos.
To those who think that trading on World Trade Organisation terms, i.e. almost uniquely having no bespoke trading agreements with any other country, will be a walk in the park, I would challenge them to identify one single current or former director-general of the WTO who sees it as anything other than disastrous.
In short, our Prime Minister has just told us he is walking away from negotiations which might have mitigated the disaster of Brexit, so he is by common consent throwing British industry and agriculture under the bus, all for the dream of creating a “global Britain” which is based on nothing but fantasy. We must speak out and do all we can to make sure this never happens.
46. Of Starship fleets, fishing and small dogs
3 October 2020
“For thousands more years the mighty ships tore across the empty wastes of space and finally dived screaming on to the first planet they came across – which happened to be the Earth – where due to a terrible miscalculation of scale the entire battle fleet was accidentally swallowed by a small dog.”
– Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
The EU-UK negotiations may be about to enter what is commonly known as the “tunnel”. Michel Barnier has recently taken to calling this the “submarine”, a very apposite term, because, as I am informed, nuclear-armed submarines have to maintain radio silence while on patrol in order to remain undetectable. It calls to mind the picture of intense secret negotiations, ending with (to mix metaphors) a rabbit being pulled out of the hat and the elusive deal being presented to a waiting and applauding public. Well, we will see…
Pundits seem to be marginally more optimistic that some kind of deal will emerge, although it may only take a “bare bones” form. This may possibly make a difference at least in terms of morale and in terms of the quality of the “relationship”, if we can call it that, between the two sides going forward. For British industry it may make the difference between disaster and complete annihilation, but sadly we do not often hear experts being any more optimistic than that.
The situation is of course infinitely more complex than any of the advocates of Brexit ever pretended to believe. However, it appears that negotiations boiled down to three things: state aid, fisheries, and, as of last month, The UK government’s decision to go back on the commitments it made in the Withdrawal Agreement .
State aid is one of the aspects of the “level playing field” of which we have heard so much. It is very odd that this is the hill on which a Conservative government is prepared to die. After all, it is not something which features high in its policy playbook. In fact it is exactly the opposite of what Thatcher spent her life fighting for. The current EU state aid rules, which our current Prime Minister seems to find so toxic, were to a great extent written by Thatcher and her successors. Even more damningly, while Frost was grandstanding in Brussels over state aid, Liz Truss effectively signed away what he was fighting for by agreeing a deal with the Japanese which committed the UK government to give them precisely what he is refusing to give the EU. To say that there is a lack of joined up thinking in this government is to state the obvious.
Fisheries are something which have assumed an almost talismanic significance. There is a traditional glorification of the grittiness and heroism of fishermen (and women). This has been exploited shamelessly by the tabloid press. Ironically, 53% of UK fishing is actually in Scotland, so if Scottish independence happens it will be lost to the UK government anyway. However there are three other crucial problems over the fishing argument.
First of all in terms of GDP fishing is tiny, about half the size of the biscuit industry, £1 billion or so per annum. I know that may sound a lot, but the turnover of the car industry alone is over 80 billion, not to mention aerospace, haulage, agriculture, and of course the even larger service industries. All of these have their survival threatened by a no deal Brexit. To say that you are going to allow negotiations to collapse simply because of the fishing industry is to make the same grievous error of scale as Douglas Adams’s starship captain. Of course this is far from being the first time that errors of scale have been made by the Brexiteers. We were told that EU membership was costing us a fortune, ie a net of £10 billion per year. This sounds a lot until you compare it with the actual cost so far of Brexit so far, which is at least 20 times higher at £200 billion (yes, £200,000,000,000) and counting. That is more than the UK paid into the EU in all its 47 years of membership
The second problem is that any victory over fishing would be entirely pyrrhic. There are separate agreements which would make it impossible to bar EU vessels from fishing legally in British waters anyway. It is simplistic to say, in this day and age that we can simply build a physical wall around our fishing waters and nobody will ever penetrate this. And that, of course, is even without mentioning illegal fishing.
The third is that , while a successful agreement on fishing might just about happen, and UK fishermen might well be able to increase their catch, they will struggle to sell it and they will face the option of lower prices or allowing it to rot in the ports. The reason is that 60% of fish caught by UK fleets are actually sold to the EU, and much of the fish consumed in this country is actually imported. This is simply a result of differing tastes in fish (we like cod, tuna, haddock and shrimp, while Europeans tend to favour herring and mackerel). If you can’t sell your fish for a reasonable price, or it becomes unviable due to import tariffs of up to 25%, then what is the point catching it?
Fourthly, one look at the map will show that because of an accident of geography UK fishing waters are disproportionately large and by agreeing not to fish in them the EU would be making a far bigger concession than it could realistically be expected to make.
Fishing is a noble profession, but worth throwing away the whole of UK manufacturing industry for?
We are now informed that HMG has finally, for the first time, bowed to the inevitable and offered a deferral of 3 years over fishing. Is this a real concession or it it just kicking the can down the road? Time will tell.
Finally, there is the EU Withdrawal Agreement. Both parties signed this – we are told – in good faith, yet the Single Market Bill, which barefacedly breaches it, has now passed its third reading in the Commons. The EU has initiated court action, as of course it always said it would, and even Brexiteers like Michael Howard admit that in these proceedings the UK does not have a leg to stand on. The Internal Market Bill represents a piece of brinkmanship. Johnson, Cummings and Frost believe that it will concentrate the minds of the Europeans. The reverse is the case and indeed they are lucky that the EU side did not simply walk away from the table, on the reasonable grounds that there is no point negotiating with people who break their promises. It will very likely spend some weeks being debated in the Lords, and will return shorn of its most controversial clauses, ie 42 to 45. If a deal has been reached in the meantime then presumably the strategy is for the bill to be passed without its controversial elements. However, even if that happens – and it is far from being a given – the UK government would have been guilty of a massive breach of trust, and probably also of international law, by proposing the bill in the first place.
To try to draw an equivalence by saying that the EU is negotiating in bad faith is mischievous: nobody is claiming that they are acting illegally, and the accusation simply boils down to the fact that they are not giving the UK all it is asking for. Even Lord Frost has had to admit recently, for example, that the EU was acting within its rights on the rules of origin, when it declined the UK request that it should pretend that UK exports containing non-European components were actually British.
People like Ann Widdecombe, from a position of blind ignorance, persist in telling us that the EU have so much to lose that they are bound to cave in, and that the Single Market Bill was an effective negotiating strategy. There is no evidence whatever for this but they will go on saying it forever if the gamble works. Either way, the UK is manifestly the weaker of the two negotiating partners and if it wants to see its industries survive it is the one who will have to make the concessions. From its captain’s perspective, the Starship fleet may well look enormous, but from the perspective of the small dog and everyone else, it most certainly does not.
Wake up and smell the coffee.
45. Britannia waives the rules – but only in a limited and specific way
(So that’s alright then…)
13 September 2020
“Dear Vote Leave activists: don’t worry about the so-called ‘permanent’ commitments this historically abysmal Cabinet are trying to make on our behalf. They are not ‘permanent’ and a serious government – one not cowed by officials and their bullshit ‘legal advice’ with which they have herded ministers like sheep – will dispense with these commitments.”
“We will call out those who flout international law, like the Russian Government.”
Dominic Raab, Foreign Secretary, 13 January 2020
“Yes, this does break international law in a very specific and limited way. We are taking the power to disapply the EU law concept of direct effect, required by article 4, in certain very tightly defined circumstances.“
Brandon Lewis, NI Secretary, 8 Sep 2020
“The rule of law is not negotiable. Our commitment to the rule of law is key to attracting international business to the UK and to maintaining faith in our justice system.”
Simon Davis, President of the Law Society, 8 Sep 2020
“My Lords, does my noble and learned friend simply not understand the damage done to our reputation for probity and respect for the rule of law by those five words uttered by his ministerial colleague, in another place, on Tuesday— words that I never thought I would hear from a British Minister, far less a Conservative Minister? How can we reproach Russia, China or Iran when their conduct falls below internationally accepted standards, when we are showing such scant regard for our treaty obligations?”
Lord Michael Howard, 10 September 2020
“We, the British government and parliament, have given our word. Our honour, our credibility, our self-respect and our future influence in the world all rest upon us keeping that word. Nothing less is worthy of Britain.”
Geoffrey Cox QC, Former Attorney General, 13 September 2020
We have become accustomed to the Johnson / Cummings government making decisions which are simultaneously stupid and unscrupulous. You have only to think back on the PM’s previous 12 u-turns, and the tenuous excuses given for them. Or of the people he has chosen to appoint to senior positions, ranging from Dido Harding and Tony Abbott, through Dominic Cummings, a ‘career psychopath’ (in David Cameron’s words) and a declared anarchist, as his de facto chief of staff, to Brandon Lewis himself, gratuitously replacing Julian Smith, a competent, experienced, principled and widely respected Northern Ireland secretary, with somebody who is in every respect the opposite .
However, despite this PM’s lamentable track record, nothing could have prepared us for the latest affront, the Internal Market Bill, which is qualitatively different. As Brandon Lewis admitted in parliament (because to do otherwise would have been knowingly to mislead the House), this flies in the face of international law. And it is not just a bit illegal, it is a flagrant breach of faith, letting down our negotiating partners who happen to be all 27 of our nearest neighbours and, up to now, friends. The gutter press would have you believe that ‘Brussels’ is now frightened because Britain is prepared to stand up to them. On the contrary, the EU27 are astonished at and contemptuous of a government which could behave in this way, and even if the Bill went no further, they would not quickly forget it.
Brandon Lewis’s phrase “in a limited and specific way”, will live on in the mouths of future generations. It will join the lexicon of Tory infamy, along with Robert Armstrong (speaking for Thatcher) being “economical with the truth”, or Mandy Rice Davies’ “well he would, wouldn’t he”. We may mock, but this is a serious matter. When even arch Brexiters like Michael Howard speak out, we know this matter is not going to go away. It cannot come as a surprise that the EU 27 is proposing legal action, and takes the view that Johnson went outside the law the minute he proposed the new Bill, whether it is ever enacted or not. Talks about a trade deal continue, but frankly they will probably be little more than a pretence, because neither side wants to be the one to walk away, and because suddenly the British government is not one that anyone takes the time to make a deal with because it cannot be relied upon to keep it. This is dreadful.
If this Prime Minister were capable of serious reflection, he would have spent the last few weeks lying awake thinking through the pros and cons up bringing forward the Internal Market Bill. Sometimes, as in June 2016, such reflection is a bit like thinking through the pros and cons of taking cyanide. I would argue the same is true now.
So what, from the Johnson / Cummings perspective, are the pros and cons of the Internal Market Bill?
Clearly it will be a sop to the extreme Europhobe Spartans on the Tory side. People like Steve Baker, who are now telling us openly that in January they voted for the Withdrawal Agreement because they were given explicit promises that it would not be honoured. However, please bear in mind that their usual pattern of behaviour is, when thrown red meat, to demand more and more. Now we are hearing from some of them that their preferred option is simply to scrap the Withdrawal Agreement completely. After all, we have now left the EU, and the Tories achieved a massive majority in the election, so the WA has served its purpose. Indeed it is easy to see this move as a means of provoking the EU27 to walk away, so achieving the prize of a No-Deal / ‘Australia-style’/’WTO’ Brexit and being able to blame the other side.
The Daily Express will be happy, because it can now run headlines about Churchillian bulldog spirit, and gallant Little Britain (sorry, England) standing up to those bullies in Brussels who are acting in bad faith – notwithstanding the fact that the EU 27 position has not changed one bit since the beginning of 2016. The EU27 are doing precisely what they said they would do, which is to decline to let the UK have its cake and eat it. They have negotiated in an adult way, in the vain hope that the UK government would do the same. It is the Europhobes who got it wrong, by claiming the EU would back down. I have yet to hear them apologise.
BJ claims in yesterday’s Telegraph that the Bill will in some way stop the EU27 from imposing a food “blockade” in the Irish sea that would destroy the “economic and territorial integrity of the UK”. He seems to forget that a blockade is precisely what he created with his Brexit project.
The PM can try to claim that the Bill is only a contingency plan, which will only be needed if a Free Trade Agreement does not happen. This is of course false. The WA is separate from trading negotiations and is binding regardless of their outcome. And of course, ironically, the Bill makes an FTA less likely.
There seems to be a residual hope that somehow The UK government can drive a wedge between its EU interlocutors. Hence the story in the Telegraph that panicking national governments are threatening to ‘sideline’ Barnier. This represents a complete misunderstanding of how the EU works. The reality is that the EU knows that the biggest victim by far of Brexit is the UK, and the German car industry is not pushing Merkel to make concessions. Quite the reverse, because they recognise the importance of the single market and also of course the fact that, with the weakened pound, the UK is no longer as attractive a destination as it used to be for EU export products. Indeed, nothing has served to unite the EU 27 as effectively as the shock and abhorrence created by Johnson’s behaviour.
This is a golden opportunity to put the pesky Irish in their place. In Ireland in days of old there was a saying that “England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity”. Maybe Johnson is trying to take turn this on its head and take advantage of Ireland’s ‘weakness’ following the departure from office of the formidable Varadkar and Hogan. If this is his calculation, he has a lot to learn. Ireland is not negotiating on its own, and there is huge moral capital invested by the EU 27 in ensuring that Johnson does not undermine what has been achieved so far.
The decision will please the DUP, who rightly feel shafted by the Johnson government. They foolishly believed his promises through 2019 that he would never allow customs checks in the Irish Sea, just before he solemnly promised the Europeans that he would do precisely that. On the other hand, while the DUP prior to the December election were the Tory government’s Useful Idiots, now they are no longer useful.
Perhaps in the parallel universe of Johnson and Cummings, this whole affair is another dead cat, which can distract from the government’s performance in managing the economy, in setting up a test and trace programme, in siphoning off public funds to Tory party supporters, and in selling the UK economy and the NHS to Donald Trump. It would take a fool to believe that this will work, and the voting public have a right to feel their intelligence is being insulted.
Where do you start? The unwisdom of what this government is doing is so blatantly obvious that, not only did Sir Jonathan Jones, head of the Government legal department, resign immediately in protest, but also almost all former Tory leaders and all 5 living former Prime Ministers (now including even Cameron) have spoken out passionately against it. Even Brexiters like Michael Howard and Norman Lamont and now Geoffrey Cox QC have not held back. It should not need to be said that openly breaking international law is a catastrophically bad decision. It turns the country into a laughing stock and an international pariah comparable with Lukashenko’s Belarus and Orban’s Hungary. It makes it impossible for this country to speak out plausibly on breaches of international law in other parts of the world.
The decision profoundly undermines negotiations on an EU trade deal, which are already in a parlous state with the clock ticking down rapidly. Time will run out on, at the latest, October 15th, just about a month from now. And the fantasy that a deal will be done the last minute will be discredited. BJ’s belief that this is a good way to do business is shown up by one of his own excuses for repudiating the Northern Ireland protocol of the Withdrawal Agreement, namely that it was signed in haste. If this is true, then he should have learned a lesson from it and avoided leaving substantive negotiations to the last minute this time around. The European Parliament has already made it clear that it will not approve a trade deal if the UK remains in contempt of international law.
Countries around the world will be looking at what is going on here. Johnson / Cummings continue to have, or at least express, a touching faith in third countries to sign rapid trade deals with the UK. They continue to talk as if this country’s negotiating position had not already been grossly undermined by Brexit. After all, part of the art of negotiation is knowing how strong or otherwise you are vis a vis the other side. The much vaunted trade agreement with Japan (which is in substance little different from what the UK could have had as a member of the EU anyway), remains to be ratified, and we can have no doubt that the Japanese, who are canny operators, and who are already stung by what the UK’s hard Brexit policy has done to their car industry, are thinking very hard about whether they would still trust this government as a trading partner.
As for our prospective deal with the USA, of which Johnson is so proud, he has just dealt it a potentially fatal blow. In doing this he may very well have done the country a favour, as the trade deal was always going to be predicated on Trump’s “America First” principles, and therefore damaging to both consumers and producers in the UK , with little tangible benefit to GDP. it would also, of course, have made it more difficult to trade with the rest of Europe, which will always be a much more important trading partner for us. Nonetheless, from the Johnson perspective it is a prize worth winning and he has invested a lot of political capital in it. Nancy Pelosi, House Speaker, and Richard Neal, the chair of the Ways and Means committee, have made it clear that any attempt to undermine the Good Friday Agreement will lead to Congress blocking a US / UK trade deal, and regardless of who wins the November election, Congress has the power to do this.
It must be apparent to this government that voters have a right to feel cheated. They elected the Tories by a large majority only nine months ago, and one of the most important selling points was their Withdrawal Agreement, which Johnson praised to the skies and described as an “oven ready deal”. How can he now, so soon afterwards, repudiate is as threatening peace in Northern Ireland, knowing that its express intention was to do precisely the opposite? This, as in 2016, throws into serious doubt the legitimacy of the electoral decision.
And of course peace in Northern Ireland is the most important issue here. When Johnson signed the Northern Ireland protocol he was acknowledging that keeping an open border in Ireland entailed putting some customs checks in the Irish Sea, at least for traffic going from east to west, if not in the other direction. He now seems to be claiming that his hand was forced at the time and that he did not know or understand what he was signing. If this were the case it would be quite simply a resigning matter for any politician. However, there is now clear evidence that the PM was warned by his civil servants before signing the WA what the implications would be. Quite simply, if the Northern Ireland protocol is not applied it follows that there will be a border on the island of Ireland, with all that this implies for the peace process.
That the bill can and will be challenged in the European Court of justice is a given, even if it never becomes law. The government may pretend not to be bothered by this, as it has been fighting specifically to leave the ECJ’s jurisdiction. However, it seems likely that it will be subject to judicial challenge within the UK as well, and for this reason it has within it clauses asserting immunity from legal challenge. Can this government really believe it can get away with this? At the very least, it could lead to a major constitutional crisis within the UK, with serious uncertainty as to how it will finish.
The PM’s u-turn on the WA is actually a sign of weakness. He is admitting that, as we on the Remain side have always said, this withdrawal agreement is unsatisfactory. It is perhaps the least worst of all the options, so, as we have always claimed, “good Brexit” is really an oxymoron. It cannot be done.
Finally, Johnson must have been at least a little surprised at the vehemence of opposition to what he is doing from within his own party. He has managed to split the party right down the middle, and even though his bill has now survived its second reading, with the usual threats and bribes, and he may well get his legislation through the Commons, doing so will cost him and his party dearly. And, even after that, he has the Lords to contend with.
We may well ask whether Johnson personally can survive this. If he does not, his departure may prove to be his first ever substantial service to his country.
The views stated here are those of the author, and not necessarily those of Oxford For Europe
44. The Deadly Sea
28 August 2020
“The government needs to move on from soundbites and focus constructively on serious and long-term solutions. Britain is better than this. We have a proud history of welcoming people fleeing some of the most violent and oppressive regimes in the world and we can’t stop now.”
Stephen Hale, the chief executive of Refugee Action
“The only difference between you and us is luck. We did not choose for our countries to become so unsafe that even the deadly sea offered a better prospect. The past few months have proved that wherever we come from in the world, we are united by the love and concern we hold towards our loved ones. Just like you we want what’s best for us and our families.”
Hassan, an asylum seeker and now NHS worker settled in the UK.
Among the many thousands of tragic and avoidable deaths in recent months, I want to single out just two. Abdulfatah Hamdallah was a young man From Sudan whose body was washed up in a French beach after he tried, with a friend, to cross the Channel in a small inflatable boat with makeshift oars. He had been refused asylum in France and saw the UK as the Promised Land – little did he know. Mercy Baguma was a young Ugandan woman who was found in a Glasgow flat after starving to death in the presence of her (just about surviving) baby, after she had had all benefits withdrawn.
The home secretary, Mrs Patel, fulminates against what she describes as “illegal migrants”. She is perhaps prepared, nobly, to make an exception for her parents, who would have been illegal under the Immigration Bill she is currently steering through parliament. When she tells you that it is made too easy for migrants to gain access to this country, think of Abdulfatah. When she tells you that they have too cushy a life after they arrive here, think of Mercy .
I have spent almost 30 years working as a GP in Cowley, and at the last count our practice population represented 173 different nationalities. Many of these had come as asylum seekers, and made a new life in the UK and were contributing massively to their community and to the UK economy. I often think of a young man I came across as a taxi driver. He had come from Afghanistan with limited means and very little English at about the age of 10, and now here he was, 12 years on, driving a taxi to work his way through medical school.
These are the kind of people who are stigmatised by this “hostile environment” government as “spongers”, and by the appallingly smug Nigel Farage in his notorious poster of 2016 .
The latest appalling act by this government is a Dad’s Army style video, published on the Home Office Twitter account and paid for by you and me, which pushed out a catalogue of lies about “illegal migrants” and the “activist lawyers” who are inconveniently blocking attempts to deport them. The video claims that after the Brexit transition this kind of reprehensible behaviour will stop. It was subsequently withdrawn after an outcry from the press and the legal profession – but only after it had had 1.6 million viewings – many of those by people who never heard the retraction.
Sadly, there are members of the public who are swallowing the government’s narrative on migration. In a recent YouGov survey it appears that 49% of respondents had little or no sympathy for migrants crossing the channel, and 46% agreed with the statement that the UK had done more than its fair share to accommodate refugees who have arrived in Europe when compared to other European countries. (This may indeed reflect public opinion, although it is likely that there was some manipulation involved, there was a big swing against migrants in the closing hours of the survey.)
So what are the facts?
We keep hearing that some 5,000 people have successfully crossed the channel into the UK so far this year. The Preti Patels of this world, together with the gutter press, try to make that sound like a big number. Is it? Total net migration into the UK stands at well over 300,000. 80% of this figure comes from outside the EU, and this is of course a major change since the referendum. Strikingly, total net migration has stayed almost stable but that from non European countries has risen. Total asylum applications in the UK last year numbered 35,566, and this figure itself, though dwarfing the number of boat people, is much smaller than that of comparable countries such as Germany (142,500) and France (123,900). The number of boat people crossing the Mediterranean annually to Greece, Italy, Spain, Cyprus and Malta is of the order of 40,000. The world total of refugees is almost 30,000,000 and if you include people who are internally displaced it comes to 80,000,000. The UK takes a tiny proportion. Just think of Lebanon, where about 1/3 of the population are people escaping the war in Syria. And along with civil unrest and a broken economy, Lebanon has had to cope in the past few weeks with the largest non-nuclear explosion in history at the centre of its capital city. So don’t let anyone tell you that the UK is creaking under the strain of illegal migration.
So what about the claim that this country will have control of borders on January the first, when Brexit really starts to bite? If you are the kind of person, and I am not and I hope you are not, who believes, with Mrs Patel, that immigration is to be avoided at all costs, then I recommend you think very very hard.
Britain has the “advantage” of being an island (I exclude Northern Ireland from this). This means that people can arrive in the country only by air or by sea. If you are coming by sea and are self propelled, you will be arriving from an EU country. While the UK remains governed by EU regulations, it is subject to the Dublin Convention. This dictates that asylum seekers should be required to settle in the first safe country in which they arrive. For those coming by sea this almost never means the UK. The Dublin Convention is hugely advantageous, from the Patel perspective, to the UK , in that it makes it possible, at least in theory, to return migrants to another safe country. In practice this happens relatively rarely – under 7% of those arriving last year were sent back. However it is a theoretical right which will end on 1st January, unless alternative bilateral arrangements are in place by then. This, given the appalling state of relations Johnson and Frost have created with the EU, seems exceptionally unlikely at the moment. People crossing the sea will therefore know that once they arrive in the UK there is no mechanism for returning them, and if this is not an encouragement, I cannot think what is.
Chris Philp, the immigration minister, chastises the French for not doing more to control British borders. Surely even he, in his befuddled way, must see the irony of this coming from a Government which pushed Brexit because it would allow Britain to ‘control its own borders’.
And what do you do if you really really want to sour relations with your neighbours and forfeit their co-operation? You say that migrants have a fear of being tortured by the French. Which is just what Mrs Patel, in her wisdom, did.
Similarly, the Home Office has just made an attempt to fly a planeload of migrants back to Spain. It had to be abandoned following a legal challenge. Frankly, HMG had not done its homework.
Just when we thought things could not get more absurd, Tory Brexiteer backbencher Edward Leigh suggested that the UK should take back control of Calais, on the grounds that it occupied it until 1558, in the reign of Queen Mary. This is the kind of jingoistic ignorance we have to deal with.
Possibly foreseeing increasing difficulties, HMG is proposing, against resistance from the Royal Navy, to put armed naval patrols in the channel to look out for refugees. What will be their task? It looks to me as if, unless they propose to break international law, this too will have the opposite effect to that which is intended. Let’s just assume that no captain will be prepared to attack or ram a rickety boat full of migrants, nor to enter French waters without permission, nor to attempt to return migrants to a French port. The only option open to them is to obey the law of the sea, pick up those in danger, and take them back to a British port. Once again, knowing that this will happen, more, not fewer, migrants will choose to come.
None of this is surprising. While I do not think that any reasonable person would accuse Priti Patel of being a genius, it does not take a genius to recognise these issues. Any fool could have done so as far back as 2016, including this fool. Here is an extract from a letter I wrote Boris Johnson (our former MP and then still a humble backbencher) back in spring of 2016:
‘Suppose Leave wins . Suppose on 24 June Mr Cameron resigns. Some unfortunate will have to step into his shoes and face the following challenges: … How to explain that, contrary to predictions, leaving the EU does not absolve us from the obligation to accept migrants from other parts of the world. It will make it much more difficult to negotiate with the French on security at Calais, and will also make it more difficult to achieve a united European stand on immigration, which at a time like this is more important than ever.’
I need hardly say, reply came there none.
The inhumanity of this government’s policies is matched only by their stupidity. No wonder that even the Murdoch press is turning against them.
But perhaps it is even worse than that? Perhaps all these attempts to shift the debate onto migration and feed red meat to the xenophobes among us are actually another dead cat. Perhaps what this government is attempting to do is to stir up a bogus debate and distract attention from the catastrophic no deal Brexit it is forcing upon us, the fiasco of A-levels, the gradual dismantling of the civil service, the undermining and manipulation of planning laws, the opening up of the countryside to developers and speculators, the deliberate lowering of food standards, the barefaced collusion with Russian oligarchs, and the failure of ministers to accept responsibility for the most egregious behaviour? Or am I being too cynical?
Meanwhile, let us remember the appalling conditions from which many of these asylum seekers come. When you are talking about Syria in 2020, it is a nonsense to try to make a distinction between refugees and economic migrants. Those we see in Europe are no more than the tip of the iceberg. And let us also remember that travelling from one part of the world to another to escape oppression and misery goes back to the dawn of civilization. Our society, like all others, consists of waves of migration which have come over many generations and will continue to do so. Let us do what enlightened people around the world have always done, and see them as something which enriches our communities, not the reverse.
43. Playing Russian Roulette With The Nation’s Future
23 July 2020
‘It has been surprisingly difficult to establish who has responsibility for what. Overall, the issue of defending the UK’s democratic processes and discourse has appeared to be something of a ‘hot potato’, with no one organisation recognising itself as having an overall lead.’
– The Russia Report
Recently Oxford for Europe played host to Dominic Grieve and Michael Dougan. In these strange times, sadly it had to happen via Zoom. Both had much wisdom to impart. On the day the main focus of questioners was of course the Russia report, of which Dominic was the principal author. Though at the time he was unable to disclose the contents of the report, he was very clear in his views about its suppression. The timing of the meeting was fortuitous, as the report was finally published, perhaps against expectations, a matter of days later.
The response to the Russia Report was predictable. Nigel Farage demanded an apology from Remainers for any accusations that his side was in cahoots with the Russians. The Prime Minister once more attempted to pretend he was exonerated, thereby once again gaslighting the public and treating them as stupid children. In reality the report in its way is even more toxic than if it had found clear evidence of Russian interference in the referendum. The fact that such evidence has allegedly not been found (so far) was linked to an almost deliberate strategy of steering security forces away from any inquiries into this issue, and many others where the Russian regime might have been implicated. Government had no hesitation in lending credence to those parts of the report which implied Russian support for Scottish independence or for Corbyn. Yet it tried to denigrate any implication of similar support for the Tory party or the Brexit cause, despite it being on the record that that is where the bulk of Russian money actually went. Many Tory MPs have been forced to admit that their constituency parties accepted money from Russian oligarchs with Kremlin Connexions, including Robert Courts of Witney. Surely we have to ask what was being offered in return?
As Bill Browder, the author of the Magnitsky Act, made clear in a recent broadcast chaired by Carole Cadwalladr, the Russian regime is an equal opportunities actor. It is quite happy to back parties of the extreme left and those of the extreme right, provided it serves its general purpose of creating division and discontent among what it sees as its western adversaries. There is no contradiction whatever in this regime supporting the extreme Brexiteers in the Tory party and the Corbynites within the Labour Party, at the expense of the moderates on both sides, and of course at the expense of the UK as a whole.
What really was a smoking gun in the report was the fact that, in the face of very clear evidence of illegal Russian activity in the City of London, the government did not give the security forces any steer towards investigating it, and they in turn did not feel it was their job to take the initiative. They took the view that their main responsibility was to report back to government, and at the time their principal focus was on the terrorist threat. In contrast, even in Trump’s America, the Mueller investigation was up and running within weeks of allegations of Russian electoral interference. The government’s first responsibility is the safety of its people , and in this respect successive prime ministers from Cameron onwards were grossly and culpably negligent. The fact that Johnson tried to bury the report (something he now denies) is in itself deeply incriminating.
As always with Johnson, we are faced with an almost unique combination of malice and incompetence. The incompetence shines through: it was Johnson himself who delayed the reconstitution of the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC), which is quoted as the ground for delayed publication. He had the opportunity to appoint 5 of the 9 ISC members, and chose in all cases people he considered to be loyal Brexiteers. He shot himself in the foot by appointing Dr Julian Lewis, somebody who had publicly stated his serious concerns about Russian behaviour in the UK. It should have come as no surprise that Lewis was no Patsy . On the contrary, he allowed himself to be elected chair by the 4 opposition MPs on the ISC and of course that led to the report’s publication. Had Chris Grayling, as the PM wished, been elected to the chair (a post for which he had no qualifications or experience), undoubtedly we would have had to wait for another 30 years before publication. Incidentally , to the many other resounding achievements of Failing Grayling can now be added his success in losing a rigged election.
In the event the decision to publish was unanimous, with even Grayling voting in favour once publication was going to happen anyway. Perhaps the four surviving Tory MPs on the committee were suddenly seized with a pang of conscience when they had actually had a chance to read the report. Or perhaps they were bowing to the inevitable – being unable now to block publication – and saw a greater risk from reputational damage than from prime ministerial disapproval. All nine members of the committee endorsed a press release condemning the delay in publication, and also endorsed the report’s call for a further investigation into the details of the Russian role in the 2016 referendum. This call should have had all the more force since it came from all 16 former and present members of the ISC, including the Tory Brexiteers, and yet it was rejected by government almost as soon as it was published. Could we possibly ask for a better demonstration of arrogance and lack of principle ?
So, massive Johnsonian cockups can sometimes be in the public interest. The other one which belongs in that category is the decision by Johnson / Cummings (perhaps we should now refer to this abomination as Mr Johnnings?) to remove the whip from Julian Lewis, thereby creating yet another angry ex Tory MP who knows where the bodies are buried, and simultaneously ensuring that the Intelligence and Security Committee has, for the foreseeable future, an non-Tory majority. Perhaps that at least will ensure that it continues to do its job effectively.
With all the focus on the Russia report, perhaps the government felt it was able to sneak through its Trade Bill with less scrutiny than it would otherwise have had. This has now successfully completed all its Commons stages. Its effect is to allow this government and its successors to agree trade deals with other countries without the inconvenience of parliamentary scrutiny (is that what was meant by ‘taking back control’?). Even worse, the contents of such deals do not need to be made public for five years. This may mean we will have to rely on the US Congress to tell British voters what their own government has negotiated on their behalf. All opposition amendments to this bill were soundly defeated, and, to their deep discredit, all four Oxfordshire Tory MPs voted with the government at every opportunity. I very much hope that voters will tell them what they think of this spineless collusion in the act of disenfranchising themselves and thereby their constituents.
For those who say we should not be challenging this government’s actions on the grounds that Brexit is the people’s will and has now happened, let me say 3 things:
Firstly, to the many arguments against the validity of the non-binding referendum of 2016, we must now add the serious doubts amplified by the Russia report as to whether indeed meddling by a foreign power compromised the result. And as for the 2019 election, it was more a vote to stymie Corbyn than a mandate for Johnson/Cummings to do as they wished.
Secondly, even if we accept the belief that the referendum bound the Government to leave the European Union, this has now happened, “what the people voted for” has been delivered, and no further action is required to deliver it (as pointed out by Chris Grey in his superb blog). Even if the UK had chosen to remain in the Single Market and European Customs Union indefinitely, or even to rejoin the EU, this would not be going against the referendum mandate, as that covers only the act of leaving the EU, not remaining outside. In other words, a rational government, having delivered on its promises, would now make a hard headed evaluation of the current position – which is after all in so many ways (not just in relation to Covid) different from that of 2016 – and act in the best interests of the country, whatever that might mean.
Thirdly, there is daily accumulating evidence of the harms of Brexit. The government has embarked on a massive propaganda campaign (‘The UK’s New Start: Let’s Get Going’) to “prepare” the country for a no deal Brexit. When people choose to look at the details of this, it contains no evidence of any benefits, just more hard work, more bureaucracy, more barriers to business and travel, and a need for 50,000 more Customs officials, few if any of whom will be in post in time (that is substantially more than the total number of officials, the “unelected bureaucrats” employed by the EU). The cost to business of the added bureaucracy alone will greatly exceed any contributions UK ever made to EU coffers. The American Trade Deal, if it happens, will tie our hands in dealing with our EU partners, yet it will benefit the economy hardly at all. Predictions are that a Free Trade Agreement will enhance our GDP by 0.16% – as compared with a 10% drop (ie £200 bn + per annum) as a direct consequence of a no-deal outcome on 1st January.
David Frost, our chief negotiator, has achieved virtually nothing so far, and that appears to be what he was employed to do, given that he is being rewarded with a new job from 1 October. He will then be expected to combine responsibility for security with his negotiating role – a fact which reflects the low priority this government has chosen to accord both roles. It is hard to escape the conclusion that the government’s default aim is a no-deal Brexit.
And as it happens that same date, 1 October, has very special significance. It is the date on which the furlough scheme, on which so many people depend for their livelihood, is to end. It is also the date on which Michel Barnier expects negotiations over a trade deal to be completed, as any deal, if there is one, has to be ratified by all 27 member states and the European Parliament. It may well be at about the same time that we will see a further wave of Covid. It is also about this time that Parliament returns from the recess which has just started. When that happens, we can only ask: what kind of a world will MPs be returning to?
With all the doom and gloom in the air, I’m sometimes asked why we bother to carry on fighting. In a word, we have to. It may be that we have lost some of today’s battles, but if we lose them without a struggle we are bound to embolden our enemies and make it easier for them to win tomorrow’s. I would like to end by quoting our speakers at the Oxford for Europe meeting:
“The only way things really become unsalvageable is if people like us stop trying to salvage them “
Prof. Michael Dougan.
“The tide of history is on our side about this… Those of us who want good for our country’s future and want our children to prosper should not give up. Our forebears have been through similar periods in UK history and we’ve come through it, and I am convinced that we will come through this as well, and we will look back on this in 50 years’ time and think ‘what an extraordinary episode when the UK took leave of its senses’”.
[The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Oxford For Europe]
Quote of the week:
‘Brexit must happen so that the UK parliament can take back control from the EU of something over which it did in fact have control but had foregone the right to exercise, but since it had done so then now it has taken back control that foregone right should continue to be denied parliament because it would have no fewer rights than if Brexit hadn’t happened in the first place.’ That sentence really needs to be read in a ‘Sir Humphrey Appleby’ voice to get its full effect.
42. Move on, Nothing to see here
2 June 2020
While people forgive their leaders a great deal – often far too much – there is no forgiveness for that terrible moment when you realise that the anguish you have endured for the greater good was, to those in authority, just a mark of your credulousness and inferiority.
“Boris Johnson is the prime minister. What did they expect? Send in the clowns, and you wake up in a circus”
“There will be things that the UK government has got right in managing the covid pandemic, but at this point in the proceedings it is hard to identify what those are.“
Dr Fiona Godlee, Editor, British Medical Journal
‘I know that you’ve asked Chris and Patrick, but I’m going to interpose myself if I may, and protect them from what I think would be an unfair and unnecessary attempt to ask a political question. I think it’s very important that our medical officers and scientific advisors do not get dragged into what I think most people would recognise as fundamentally a political argument, if that’s all right Laura’
Boris Johnson to Laura Kuenssberg, silencing his two expert advisers on the Cummings question.
Boris told such dreadful lies
It made one gasp and stretch one’s eyes
His desk, which from it’s earliest youth
Had kept a strict regard for truth
Attempted to believe each scoop
Until they landed in the soup.
The moral, it is indeed,
It might be wrong but it’s a damn fine read.
Written by the press corps during BJ’s days as a journalist in Brussels
Boris Johnson is right. He is right that we need to focus on dealing with the pandemic and not be distracted by the issue of Dominic Cummings. The only way this can happen is by the Going of Cummings, which is now long overdue. His original offence may have been trivial, but it was definitely an offence, and his failure to apologise or show any degree of insight has become the real story. It beggars belief that at his press conference, in, of all places, the Rose Garden in Downing Street, he admitted, in an obviously legally crafted statement, to most of the accusations which had been levelled against him, but never once apologised. He tried to use an exception clause which was designed for people who are subject to domestic abuse, and did so without a trace of shame. He compounded this by admitting to two further offences of which the Mirror and Guardian were previously unaware. Firstly, that of returning to Downing St after visiting his wife, whom he knew to be ill with possible COVID-19. And Secondly driving while visually impaired. David Allen Green has subjected the Cummings statement to forensic examination and it does not come out well.
Cummings’ press conference ended, and not many people have noticed this, with him walking away smirking . This is what is known among those who study psychopaths as the “duper’s delight”, the look of satisfaction that follows a job well done. Like Prince Andrew, he really believed had had done enough. And sadly, he may yet be proven right. After all, ministers have been queuing, not only to defend the indefensible, but to pretend that he is completely blameless when they themselves know better, and so does the public. By doing this they risk forfeiting the right to be respected or even to be believed again.
Some people, in the face of the evidence, have alleged that Cummings is subject to a witchhunt. Yes, it is true that he is unpopular across the political spectrum, even among people like Steve Baker who have worked closely with him and should know what he is made of. However, it is not just that, he has exhausted all the goodwill which he might otherwise have claimed, by a career of self seeking and dishonest behaviour. It would be wrong to forget that this is the man who is still in contempt of Parliament for failure to appear before a select committee, treating our democratic institutions with distain. He is the man personally responsible for most of the lies of the Vote Leave campaign, which he himself admitted would have failed without them.
There really is not much reason to forgive Cummings for what he has done during lockdown, especially as by his behaviour he has brought the whole Government lockdown strategy into disrepute. Think alone of the phenomenal waste of police time as people who are challenged use the Cummings “instinct” defence: no wonder all the chief constables who have spoken out are united in condemning him. But far more important than this is the phenomenon which we have been witnessing over the past week of people ignoring the lockdown rules, which will undoubtedly set the scene for a re-run of the whole miserable scenario, shutdown of the economy and all. NHS staff – who are burnt out and deeply traumatised by the events of the last 3 months – are already being told to prepare for a surge in workload in July and August. Will people obey lockdown rules as carefully as they did first time around? After all that has happened? Dream on.
The expert advisors who appear beside Johnson like Tweedledee and Tweedledum must feel extremely uncomfortable. They have colluded with him by not showing international comparisons since May 9, the day that the UK overtook all other European countries in numbers of deaths to date. They remained silent when he stopped them speaking out about Cummings, on the grounds that this was a “political matter“. It most certainly goes beyond politics, it is costing people’s lives and they are remiss not to say so. This has been spelled out in this week’s BMJ.
Perhaps it is the fear that his experts will start to speak their minds has led to the latest development, the ‘reorganisation’ of the daily press conferences.
You might well ask what led to the sudden change of mind about the speed of relaxing lockdown. Was it just some red meat to throw to the Tory right and to the tabloids (who have not been kind to Cummings) to distract from this affair? Or is it about a lack of leverage in dealing with the extremists in the party who did not ever believe in social distancing, and who would not mind a few hundred extra deaths anyway?
The final insult was when, on a Saturday night, it was announced without consultation, that shielding could, in effect, end. Even NHS England’s national medical director of primary care Nikita Kanani, was not expecting it. It has caused huge anger among interested parties, carers, charities, and my GP colleagues. There is no evidence that the UK is ready for this. The figures show how different we are from the other countries who have relaxed lockdown on valid grounds.
Two things seem certain. One is the government has parted company from scientific advice, as independent experts and even several members of the official sage group, handpicked by government, have made clear. The second is that the pace of change would not have been as it is without the Cummings affair. Dominic Raab tried to tell Andrew Marr at the weekend that we were “transitioning from level four to level three” and with every word he said his nose grew visibly. The decisions which are being made are political, not public health led, and to pretend otherwise is disingenuous.
There are many important reasons why the Cummings affair cannot and will not be brushed under the carpet. There is still an ongoing media storm and many MPs, including Tories, who are unhappy . Public opinion is strongly against Cummings, and one thing we can say about the public is that they do not like being told by the Prime Minister what they are thinking or whether or not they are ready to move on. Most importantly, although it is now almost two weeks since the Cummings story broke, there has not yet been an opportunity for it to be scrutinised in parliament. An essential function of the House of Commons is to hold the government to account. This is perhaps one of the key reasons why Jacob Rees Mogg has successfully legislated to remove the right of MPs to participate from home.
This legislation is wrong on so very many levels.
Firstly it’s a bad example. After all BJ’s mantra was “work from home if you can, go to work if you have to”. Secondly it is illegal. MPs with disabilities, those who are shielding or who are looking after vulnerable relatives, will not be able to attend in person. This seems to fly in the face of the Equality Act. Thirdly it is unconstitutional. A decision is being made from which the MPs most affected are being excluded. It will be argued that the vote has been passed by only 424 MPs, so the outcome might well have been different had it been carried out fairly. Fourthly, it is a vote which anticipates its own outcome. If we suppose for one moment that the vote is indeed valid, the system which it introduces does not come into force until after the vote had been held, and therefore was not be operative at the time of the vote itself. Therefore the basis on which the vote was carried out is null and void. I can see no earthly reason why it will not be challenged in the courts. The Lords, after all, manage well enough with remote participation.
Watching the proceedings live on BBC parliament, open voting may in itself be a refreshing change, but it masks yet another assault on democracy.
One of the stories that arose in the popular press last week was that Cummings had agreed to leave government in six months. This may just have been kiteflying, but it is a significant period to choose. It would take him to the point where essentially all the groundwork for a no deal Brexit would have been completed, ready for a cliff edge departure on January 1st. This highlights what his main role in government is. Not only to act as the “brains” behind Johnson, but to hold his feet to the fire and ensure that he does not stray away from the path set for him by the Matthew Elliotts of this world. There is to be no shirking, the job must be done completely and without mercy. The last thing Cummings and his like want is any prolongation of the transition.. All the more reason, from our point of view, for insisting on it. Negotiations with the EU 27 over trade in goods are still going on, just about, but there is precious little negotiation time left and hardly anything has been agreed as yet.
Please do not be tempted by the traditional brexiteer argument that in the EU everything is agreed at the 11th hour. Both sides have other things to think about at the moment and it is not only likely but almost certain that something will go wrong in such planning. Michel Barnier’s pronouncement on Sunday highlights just how big a gap there is to fill (‘The UK has taken 3 steps back‘). And, as even the Daily Express has just discovered for the first time, goods constitute only 20% of the UK’s trade with Europe. 80% is services, and this is something about which negotiations have not even yet been scheduled. If there is no extension, the best we can expect is a hasty fudge on goods and a complete collapse on services. The impact on supply chains is going to be catastrophic, with the motor and aerospace industries being unviable overnight (if coronaviruses has not already seen to that) and the collapse of agriculture and the much vaunted fisheries trade, but most importantly the City of London being unable to continue dealing with its largest market. It will leave us with no allies but Trump’s America, and of course Trump will give us the ‘best deal in history’. The trouble is, it is the best deal for him. This must not be allowed to happen. It is Cummings’ dream and the UK’s nightmare.
Witch hunt? You must be joking
The Views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of Oxford For Europe
41. Time to relax? – please think hard!
18 May 2020
“Work from home if you can, but you should go to work if you can’t work from home”.
– Prime Ministerial statement
There are people who tell me that the government’s plans to relax lockdown are clear, comprehensible, joined-up and timely. How to respond to this? Where do I even start? Perhaps I should recommend that they think very hard about their choice of daily newspaper . Perhaps I should caution them against magical thinking. Perhaps they should read some of the well argued, or angry and outspoken rebuttals. Or perhaps they are people who think that simply believing something makes it true. They are uncomfortable with the thought that we are being led by donkeys, and therefore resort to phrases like “in times of crisis we should pull together and we need to trust the government”. Sadly, blind trust in a government which is both incompetent and unscrupulous is the road to dictatorship.
Let’s consider what has happened in the UK over recent months.
According to the Office of National Statistics, the first deaths from coronavirus occurred in the week ending 13 March. In that week Boris Johnson boasted that he shook hands with everybody, including people with coronavirus (and this is the man who appeals to our ‘common sense’?!). On 12 March he “recommended” that people modified their lifestyles. On 23rd March the government finally implemented lockdown. By this time there had been over 200 documented deaths from coronavirus. In the week ending 17 April, for the first time, the excess deaths directly or indirectly attributable to coronavirus exceeded all other deaths put together. In the same week total excess deaths in the UK peaked, and they have since been on a downward trajectory. This is of course evidence that the lockdown is starting to work, rather than that we should abandon it.
On 5th May the UK moved into the unenviable position of having the highest number of coronavirus deaths to date, per capita, in the world (On the same date all the tabloid press could think about to discuss was Neil Ferguson’s love life). In the week ending May 10th the Scottish and Welsh governments made it clear that they were sticking with the “stay at home” message and made minimal fine adjustments to the lockdown policy. At the same time newspapers in England were apparently briefed to headline a forthcoming significant relaxation of lockdown, and no sooner had they publicised this than the message was put out that this would not happen, that in fact the government would be broadly following what had happened in the devolved nations, although the new slogan would be “stay alert” (whatever that means).
So the public was all agog for the prime minister’s much vaunted announcement on Sunday May 10th. They had been given conflicting messages about what it would contain, and much of it came as news, apparently even to the Heads of Government in the devolved nations, in clear defiance of the consultation which had been promised. There even appeared to be confusion in the prime minister’s mind as to whether his writ ran to the whole of the UK (it does not) or just England.
When making his announcement the PM referred to the five tests which had to be met before easing of lockdown. When explaining these he appeared to have incomprehension written all over his face and the repeated use of a clenched fist was no substitute for the confidence and authority which were so obviously lacking. Without giving any evidence that the five tests had been met, he then went on to tell people that they should work from home if they could but go to work if they could not. He forgot to say when, or under what circumstances, or whether he was addressing key workers or all workers. Simultaneously he maintained strict bans on family gatherings, with increased penalties. Schools would possibly be reopened in 3 weeks.
This creates a situation where a teacher, for example, who has a young grandson living in a different household, will be asked to work in close proximity with other people’s children, but is liable to be fined if she has contact, even at 2 metres distance, with her own grandchild. After all, she is limited to one other person and a young child can hardly turn up on his own. And air travellers from other countries are being told they must go into quarantine, just at the point where the UK has the world’s highest per capita Covid death rate.
On Monday 11th May large numbers of workers crowded public transport (obviously having no alternative option), because they took the Prime Minister at his word. It was not until that morning that the hapless Dominic Raab had to explain that what the PM really meant was that the work-related changes should come into effect on the following Wednesday, and indeed the detailed guidelines explaining the policy did not appear until later on that day.
Chaos has followed since, and there has been agreement across public organisations, ranging from the BMA to the teachers’ unions to the Police Federation, bemoaning the absence of joined up thinking. Perhaps more surprising was the excoriating response of dyed-in-the wool Tory Peter Bone. It is odd to think that ministers believe they can give such inconsistent and unevidenced instructions without making themselves objects of derision. Maybe we should not be surprised that Jacob Rees Mogg, leader of the house, wants to restore parliament to its previous format, thereby filling the house with baying MPs who he hopes will distract from the killer blows inflicted at PMQs by the new Labour leader. Alas for BJ, trying to bail him out is a bit like trying to put lipstick on a pig.
At the press briefing on the day after the announcement, Laura Kuenssberg challenged both government advisers, Patrick Vallance and Chris Whitty, to say whether they agreed with the move from “stay at home” to “stay alert”, and they avoided answering the question.
The government tells us ad nauseum that it is following “the science”. Yet why is the science different North and South of the border? And why is the Independent Sage committee , led by Sir David King, former Chief Scientist, and a very much more eminent group of scientists than the original – and secretive – Sage, convened by the government, telling us something drastically different?
So have the 5 criteria being met? The first 3, possibly to a degree. There is certainly evidence that new cases and deaths are dropping In London, mainly because they reached such a high peak there. However in other parts of the country, and particularly in care homes, they are still rising. In other words, the much vaunted ‘R’ number, which is used as the basis of so much decision making, is not uniform across the country, and this is something that should guide policy.
The problem is the last two criteria. In regard to PPE, as we know this is consumed at a very high rate. Because of the many procedures required, it is estimated that a patient in intensive care will lead to 20 items per day of PPE being used. Not surprisingly, reserves of PPE are now less than they were at the time of lockdown. It is scant comfort if the NHS has enough beds to cope with demand (only because of the virtual cessation of all other activity), if staff cannot be protected from infecting themselves or from passing infection onto other patients.
Even more serious is the issue of testing. WHO has urged all its members to “test, test, test”. However this does not mean doing tests just for the sake of it, it means implementing a systematic test, trace and isolate policy, which is only really possible once the number of new cases has been brought down to manageable levels. The more cases there are, the larger a team of trained contact tracers you have to have, and the UK has nothing like the numbers required. In early April, Matt Hancock undertook to deliver 100,000 tests by the last day of the month. Given the resources available, informed opinion was that this was impossible, and Hancock proved it to be so. On May 1st he claimed 120,000 tests, and at the same press conference It became apparent that a third of these were simply tests which had been sent out and not actually done. The government advisers claimed that this was normal practise, but we had not been told this before. Indeed it was unclear whether the tests were actually being counted twice (more about this on the BBC’s excellent More or Less). The UK statistics authority severely condemned what had happened. Even worse, it later emerged that an email had allegedly been sent out on Conservative note paper to party members informing them that they were entitled to be tested. This at a time when many NHS workers and others with symptoms were finding it impossible to access tests.
This was a clear dereliction of duty by government. At no time was it apparent that tests were being used as part of the type of test and trace policy recommended by WHO. They were being used solely to save Matt Hancock’s career. Is it worth saving? He may be well-intentioned but he has a unique knack for digging holes for himself: Judge from this clip. By wasting tests in this way the government has created a shortage down the line, which without a shadow of a doubt has cost some people, perhaps many hundreds, their lives.
When confronted over this, the Prime Minister seemed not to recognise that there was a problem, and compounded the error by promising to “ramp up” (horrible phrase) testing to 200,000. Surely achieving this figure will require even greater dishonesty and wastefulness? His action shows profound lack of insight , and since this time he made the promise personally, he will have to stand over it and not once again throw his health secretary under the bus.
On the final criterion, preventing a second peak, it is difficult to know whether this has been met or not until after the event. Following on from the rush back to work in the week after the announcement, there is no doubt that the number of new cases will rise, and deaths will start to rise again two or three weeks down the line. This at a time when patients in hospital have to be treated by staff with little or no protective equipment. What NHS staff need is to be protected, as in the original slogan, not to be clapped on a Thursday night or to be handed medals. When will the government recognise that obvious fact?
Of course we must ease lockdown. The only questions are when and how. We deserve a government which can adhere to its own criteria, and which can demonstrate willingness to take the appropriate steps to prepare for a relaxation, rather than devoting 100% of its energies to saving its own already ruined reputation.
So what has all this to do with Oxford for Europe? Now that Brexit has happened, our principal objective is, like those of the national pro-European organisations, the European Movement, Best for Britain, March for Change, and Grassroots for Europe, to mitigate the damage. Our aims include holding the government to account where is it behaved unwisely or dishonestly. Please ask yourself whether you would trust what this government tells you about the future direction of the country. In particular, do you trust it when it tells you that it can negotiate a trade deal with the EU by 1st January, and that if it fails to do so preparations are in place? We all know that even the negligible preparations which were put in place by government and business for a cliff edge exit in March and October last year are no longer possible against the background of coronavirus. The resources needed will long have been used up. Both the UK and the EU are preoccupied with Covid, and devoting time to complex and almost certainly fruitless negotiations is one distraction too many. The last round, according to both sides, was unproductive. Let our slogan be “one crisis at a time”. Right now coronavirus is the biggest crisis do a face the world since the Second World war, and very possibly longer. Seven more months of transition are far too little. And does your heart not, like mine, sink when you hear that 50,000 new trained customs officers will be required in the event of a no deal exit? That is more than the entire civil service of the EU (those “unelected bureaucrats”).
Can we count on the official opposition to defend common sense? We know that with the welcome departure of people like Kate Hoey and Caroline Flint, the parliamentary Labour Party is almost entirely pro European. So is most of the membership, but sadly there is an influential minority, people like Len McCluskey, who take a different view. I had the opportunity to ask Keir Starmer on LBC on 11th May whether he would support an extension, and I was astounded, as I believe was the press, when he responded “we have not asked for an extension”. A careful choice of words : he did not preclude doing so at some time in the future, but he spoke as if he thought time was not of the essence. Some commentators speculated that this was a strategic position, and I hope they are right. It is no consolation for the rest of us if Labour watches the government driving us over a cliff and then says “I told you so”. Good for Labour but bad for the country. The latest pronouncement from Rachel Reeves gives a tiny modicum of hope, but, like Starmer, she spoke as if unaware of the tight timescale. Now is the time for Labour to ally itself with the call from almost all other opposition parties to extend. Wake up and smell the coffee.
The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessary those of Oxford for Europe.
You can still sign the European Movement petition on extending the transition period by clicking here.
40. The Time To Act Is now.
25 April 2020
“The transition period ends on 31 December 2020, as enshrined in UK law. The Prime Minister has made clear he has no intention of changing this. We remain fully committed to negotiations with the EU. We will not be extending the transition period – we will be recovering economic and political independence at the end of the year, which the British people voted for”
– Government response to petition requesting an extension to the transition period.
“We think the best way of providing certainty to all businesses out there is to let them know that we are not going to keep chopping and changing, that the transition period will end at the end of this year. To carry on negotiations with the EU, along with negotiations with other countries in the world, at least then to provide the certainty… No but we won’t be extending, to answer your question.”
– Grant Shapps, at the coronavirus press briefing, 24 April.
How can any government in today’s climate think that such a response is adequate? Sadly, they are acting true to form.
At a time of the greatest national crisis for centuries, we are saddled with the weakest ever government. It is singularly lacking in experience, common sense and probity. We have only to think of the four key offices of state. We have a Prime Minister whose only Cabinet experience is as the worst Foreign Secretary in living memory (his deputy, Alan Duncan, talks about having to pooper scoop after him wherever he went). In Dominic Raab we have a Foreign Secretary who spent four months in the Cabinet as Brexit secretary and then left in high dudgeon, having achieved nothing. Rishi Sunak is a Chancellor who has never been a Secretary of State for anything – his unique selling point compared to his predecessor was his compliance. In Priti Patel we have a home secretary whose only ministerial experience ended when she was dismissed for not having played by the rules (as of course was Gavin Williamson, now the education secretary). This is mirrored in the entire front bench, all of whom have been selected on the basis of their track record on Brexit, which means of course that they are chosen from among a small segment of an already greatly weakened Conservative Parliamentary party. On the other hand, many of the most experienced former ministers, such as David Liddington, Philip Hammond, Kenneth Clarke, Dominic Grieve and David Gauke, were all purged at the last election and can only watch helplessly from the sidelines.
And then of course there is the proven track record of ministers in obfuscating, contradicting themselves and deliberately misleading the public on matters such as herd immunity, testing, ventilator supply and PPE. They are trying to airbrush away delays and mistakes (Cheltenham?) which have cost many hundreds, if not thousands, of lives. And there is the clear evidence this week that Sir Simon McDonald, permanent undersecretary of the foreign office, was leaned on by ministers to disavow his correct statement that the government failed to participate in the European joint procurement scheme for political reasons. In other words he was forced to lie for his bosses. And now the government has admitted that Dominic Cummings and Ben Warner, who are political appointees and not experts, have been sitting on in and participating in meetings of SAGE, the Scientific Advisory Group For Emergencies. Does this mean that they are the channel by which SAGE’s discussion reach the ear of the PM? It is certainly without precedent and has been condemned by the opposition and by Sir David King, the previous chair.
The failings of our current government front bench are there for all to see at the lamentable – and evasive – daily ministerial press briefings, and in the contrast at PMQ’s between the forensic approach of Keir Starmer and the flannel of his opposite numbers in Government. It is also striking to see, in contrast, the professionalism and leadership of people such as Macron, Merkel and Ardern. Perhaps we should take some comfort from the fact that we do not have a leader like Trump, who is prepared in all seriousness to invite his public – to the silent horror of his medical advisors – to consider injecting themselves with antiseptic (now, incapable of admitting he was wrong, he puts it down to “sarcasm“). However, frankly, that is scant comfort indeed. Trump manages to make almost any other politician look good. And when challenged to distance themselves from his lethal foolishness, UK ministers have failed to do so. Another symptom of the reliance upon the USA which Brexit has forced upon us in this country.
Are we surprised? This, after all, is the same team that told us Brexit would be easy and would give us “control over our money, our laws and our borders”. Need I say more?
We now find ourselves at the mercy of such third-rate politicians, and we have to swallow hard when we hear people saying that they are the only government we have, so we must trust and support them.
It is against this background of ignorance that the government is proposing to push ahead with ending the Brexit transition period on January 1, 2021. When this date was chosen it allowed for a period of almost two years for negotiation and adjustment. Even then it would have been a tight timescale but the intention was that it would be occupied with intensive negotiations on an adult level on both sides. Instead we find ourselves with an 11 month period of which the first three have already been wasted, and behaviour on the British side which, far from being adult, is petulant and populist. On top of that now comes the coronavirus crisis, which of course has pushed everything else onto the backburner. Not only has it made negotiations about trade deals seem irrelevant and otherworldly, it is also meant that the practicalities of the negotiations have become difficult or impossible. I cannot believe such a complex task can be resolved by Zoom.
Even worse than that, when the possibility of Brexit was first contemplated over a year ago, great show was made of the preparations on the part of government and business for the eventuality of a no-deal Brexit. These preparations were of course grossly inadequate but at least there were some. The capacity to make such preparations has now been completely taken away by the coronavirus crisis. On the other hand the downside of a no deal Brexit is greater than ever. After all, if anything it has reminded us of our reliance upon the European neighbours and the fact that control of borders is a fantasy: who ever thought that the virus would stop its progress at Calais? That did not happen in 1347, 1665 or 1918, so why should it happen now?
In such circumstance of course common sense would dictate that the likely outcome is that no deal will have been struck by the deadline, and therefore an extension has to happen. That common sense has not prevailed is due in part to the pigheadedness and indifference to the common good which is so typical of this government. However there are several other factors. One may well be the Prime Minister’s indisposition, if that indeed is what it is, which will be used as a pretext for missing yet another deadline. Another is the calculation that the damage done by coronavirus can be used to mask that due to a no-deal Brexit, and therefore paradoxically that this crisis makes it easier for the government to get away with such an outcome. If cross-channel trade grinds to a juddering halt in January, perhaps nobody will notice because it is already so compromised anyway. Machiavellian or what?
There may well be some complacency, even among those of us with pro-European leanings. People are thinking ‘it is only April and we have until December to sort things out’. Nothing could be further from the truth. There are constraints at the tail end of the period, because any trade deal which is agreed has got to be ratified and implemented by January 1. Therefore negotiations have to be completed by November. Furthermore, this government does not have until December to request an extension, it has until the end of June. And in order to make such a request possible it has to legislate: the government bound its own hands by introducing an amendment, Section 15A, to the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 last year. This amendment would have to be revoked through an act of Parliament, at a time when Parliament has reassembled virtually but has not yet decided how votes can be taken, if at all.
Furthermore a request has to be made for the Joint Committee (which is required to meet within 30 days of a request by either the U.K. or EU side) to examine the issue of an extension, so in effect action would have to be taken by mid to late May. Thus we have at most a few weeks. It is to be hoped that the civil service, who after all are tasked with making all this happen, will persuade ministers that we live in the real world. And certainly they are trying.
Ministers will only act if they feel public opinion is pressing them. And that might still happen. Even at a time when many of us are suffering huge privations and anxieties about the future, we have to understand the importance of this issue. In normal times we would be having another march in the streets of London to highlight it, in the hope more than the expectation that it would be covered adequately by the BBC and other mainstream media. Just now our options are more limited. We do however have the power to lean on our local MPs, write to the papers, sign petitions (see below) and spread the word via social media that this is a matter of the greatest importance. It is certainly a more pressing issue than whether Captain Tom Moore is given a knighthood, something which attracted over 900,000 signatures to a petition. We really should be able to do better.
The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of Oxford For Europe.
Quotes of the week:
“When Johnson starts trying to distance himself from the incompetence of his own government, as he surely will, Cabinet ministers will find out just how loyal and honest he is. They could save themselves some time by asking his wives”.
– James O’Brien
‘Whatever it is, coronavirus has made the mighty kneel and brought the world to a halt like nothing else could. Our minds are still racing back and forth, longing for a return to “normality”, trying to stitch our future to our past and refusing to acknowledge the rupture. But the rupture exists. And in the midst of this terrible despair, it offers us a chance to rethink the doomsday machine we have built for ourselves. Nothing could be worse than a return to normality. Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it’
– Arundhati Roy
39. Drawing Us Together While Pulling Us Apart
12 April 2020
During the Irish potato famine of 1847, under the Government of Lord Russell, as people starved, Ireland continued to be a net exporter of grain. In the run-up to this coronavirus crisis, the UK was an exporter of ventilators. Why? Simple failure to do what other countries had done, to anticipate a crisis which was staring us in the face.
This has turned out to be the most bizarre Easter weekend any of us have experienced. As I write this, the UK is recording the highest number of daily coronavirus deaths of any European country. This now includes 2 members of staff at the John Radcliffe. Boris Johnson has just been discharged from St Thomas’s Hospital with the infection. Obviously we all wish him well, as we would in the case of any fellow human being suffering from this serious condition. During the PM’s incapacity, Dominic Raab is in charge. Cometh the hour, cometh the man. Well, we can only hope….
Meanwhile the election of Keir Starmer as Labour leader will, we can hope, herald a new era in British politics. Perhaps it will mean an end to the domination of the party by the extreme left, and may pave the way for at least a taste of moderation on the other side of the political divide. He has committed to work collaboratively where this in is in the national interest. This is no time for ya boo politics, and we really need to see such a spirit from our leaders. Perhaps they will follow the example of ordinary citizens who are doing their bit and more for the common good.
And ordinary citizens are doing amazing things.
The Coronavirus Act, the most restrictive piece of legislation ever in peacetime, has now been in force for 3 weeks. Ordinary people are being asked to make extraordinary sacrifices. And not just being asked, the verb used by Boris Johnson and Matt Hancock was “instruct”. People reading this will already be all too well aware how our lives have changed. It is now technically illegal for boyfriends and girlfriends even to meet if they live in different houses. Victims of domestic abuse are being required by law to stay at home with the perpetrator. Children are required to stay away from school in what may be cramped and indeed explosive conditions. And parents, many for the first time in their lives, are expected to turn overnight into confident and competent teachers. Places of worship are locked up precisely at a time when many people would wish to be there. And at no time is this more evident than at Easter / Passover. The traditional rights of movement and assembly have been suspended, initially for weeks but few believe it will end there. There will be huge effects on the nation’s mental health. And the impact on family budgets has been incalculable. Yet a majority of people have accepted all this as necessary. By the time the lockdown came it was seen by the opposition, by the scientific community and by the public at large, not as a power grab, but as a belated concession to reality.
But a note of caution. If people are to respect such rules going forward – and they may need to be in force for a long time – they must be based on trust.
We have to trust that the government is implementing them in the interests of the public, not as some form of martial law by another name. We need a government which shows competence, honesty and probity. And we need to believe that the new rules are being applied fairly and equitably.
Competence? The time for public enquiries and Royal Commissions may be in the future. However, serious mistakes were committed since the crisis broke, and indeed before, which are now costing people their lives. A pandemic scenario was game-played under Mrs. May’s government in 2016 (Exercise Cygnus), and concluded that better preparation was required – this was ignored and the report never published. Even the Telegraph was highly critical of this blatent failure. In 2017 the Conservative government committed a just-in-time approach to the provision of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), which has left the country hopelessly unprepared. In January, instead of trying to make good on the shortfall, the government did nothing and hoped it could get by on a wing and a prayer.
Even now, with the crisis not yet having peaked, key workers are having to beg, steal and borrow equipment because it is not reaching them via normal supply lines. This is no way to treat people who are risking their lives in the frontline. The new Nightingale Hospital (odd choice of name, given the reality of the original Nightingale Wards), in London’s Excel Centre, is filling up with seriously ill Covid positive patients, and too little thought seems to have been given to where the required 16,000 staff are to come from, and even less to where they are to get their PPE. In the care sector the situation is even worse. Why should essential workers have to rely on donated equipment from schools and film sets? Why is it seen as necessary to gag NHS staff, and even dismiss those who speak out? And, just as reprehensibly, when confronted with stark evidence of government incompetence, Matt Hancock tried to say that PPE was being over-used. He was rightly condemned from across the board for such a breath-taking exercise in blame shifting. Honesty? Probity? I wonder..
Similarly, there is a massive missed opportunity in the supply of ventilators. Before the crisis peaked, several British manufacturers offered their services to the government and were rebuffed, leading them to export their products. The government missed the opportunity to participate in the European joint procurement scheme, which during the transition period it could easily have done. It made a variety of excuses, not the least of which was the story of the missed email, which have been systematically refuted by the other side. And then there is the question of testing, with promise after promise being made by a government which must really know it is unable to deliver because it never planned ahead.
If for a second you attribute this to bad luck rather than ineptitude, look at the Irish Republic. Movement restrictions were in place a week sooner. Testing is being done on a much greater scale (over 8/1000 so far compared with 4/1000 in the UK), and the government is flying in £180m worth of PPE directly from China. Is the UK doing the same? Why is this Government being so inert? Is it just British exceptionalism, as Fintan O’Toole suggests?: ‘On the altar of this exceptionalism, lives have been sacrificed’. And the figures show that he is right. The reported deaths per 100,000 in the UK (likely an underestimate) are 14.8, compared with 6.4 in Ireland.
And there is the question of the rules being applied fairly. Admittedly the police have been placed in an invidious position. They are already overstretched through government led workforce depletion and absence through illness/isolation, and they are having to do something unprecedented. However, what justification is there for solo walkers being arrested for sitting on a park bench, or for people being warned against letting their children play on their own front lawn? To quote: ‘It’s closer to the Keystone Cops than to 1984’. All this while planeloads of people are being allowed to arrive at Heathrow and get straight onto the tube, having travelled from hotspots such as Italy and Iran. Surely justice must not just be done but seen to be done?
While all this is going on, of course, the major problems which preoccupied us back in December are still there. The multiple complex wars in the Middle East, in Yemen, in Africa for one thing. And then there is Ebola, Trump, Putin and the advances of both Islamic and right-wing extremism, not to mention the refugee crisis.
And then there is still Brexit. That unfolding psychodrama continues unabated. We cannot afford to let politicians, of whatever hue, use the pandemic as an excuse to take their eye and ours off the ball. At the moment we are less than 9 months from the end of the transition period, and there are no substantial negotiations going on towards a trade deal – this may well be understandable as there are more important fish to fry. However if there is no deal then we will be saddled in January with what the government is pleased to call the “Australian deal”, i.e. nothing at all. The country could not afford this before and can do so even less as a time of international crisis. That is why Oxford for Europe, together with its many sister organisations around the country, is calling for a two-year extension. This is within the gift of the UK government provided that the appropriate legislation has been passed and the request made by the end of June. There really is no alternative. Surely the time to stand on the principles of a ‘pure Brexit’ is long gone? Surely the argument that we needed Brexit in order to achieve control of our borders is now shown up as fatuous nonsense? Countries within Schengen have closed their borders when they perceived an overwhelming need to do so, and that was not something that the EU could prevent. So where it matters, individual nation states still maintain control. When even an arch-Brexiter such as Isabel Oakeshott sees extension as inevitable, it leaves the cabinet looking very lonely in its intransigence. Various petitions are going on and I would urge you to sign, as well as writing to your MP on the subject (see below). As Rafael Behr writes, the pandemic has made “the whole [Brexit] project look parochial and self-indulgent”.
Secondly, it is welcome news that there will be at least a temporary amnesty for healthcare workers from the EU. However this is not enough. The government needs to understand that citizens’ rights are a crucial issue and it is within the national interest, now more than ever, to ensure that our fellow Europeans continue to be welcomed in the UK. A very good starting point would be to keep the door open to essential workers, including those in healthcare. It is galling, at this time, to find Priti Patel emerge from her silence solely to press forward her already-discredited points-based immigration system.
Thirdly, while all this is going on negotiations continue below the radar on a trade deal with the US. In the form envisaged by the Tory right, this can only happen if we lower our standards and distance ourselves from those of the European Union. Pandemic or not, this would be massively to the country’s detriment and must be resisted at all costs. The absence of a functioning parliament and the impossibility of collective public protest should not be allowed to provide cover.
I would like to end on a more positive note. At the same time as making individuals walk literally 2 m apart, this crisis has served to bring them together. It has shown the selfless dedication of frontline NHS staff (and I have to declare that I am not one of them – currently I carry out only remote consultations), and of the many hundreds of thousands of people who have volunteered to help out with no prospect of gain and potentially some risk to themselves. All around the country groups of people are working together to help and support those less fortunate than themselves. As George Monbiot puts it: ‘The horror films got it wrong. Instead of turning us into flesh-eating zombies, the pandemic has turned millions of people into good neighbours.’. There is a national resource available for contacting a local group near you. There is also an Oxfordshire resource.
And locally a lot else is going on. In the face of Government inaction, a team based in Oxford has produced a new basic but serviceable ventilator, the Oxvent. Oxford University is at the forefront of Covid-related research, with 113 Principal Investigators and a total of 650 researchers working on vaccine development, testing kits, ventilators and other essential projects.
As for the Prime Minister, we can hope that when he has made his recovery he will not forget the lessons he learned in hospital, about the selflessness, dedication and hard work of the front line hospital staff. He will have learned much about why the NHS has such a special place in people’s hearts. And, if he has any conscience at all, he will have learned about the folly of throwing the healthcare workforce into danger unprepared. Finally he will have learned that this is not a condition to be treated lightly, and that determined, positive and timely action is needed in order to overcome it. The problem will not solve itself.
The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of Oxford For Europe.
Click here for the European Movement petition to extend the transition period.
Click here for March For Change Petition
Previous Blogs – From December 2018