Reverse ferret



Someone must have told Nigel Farage to shut up, because he quickly amended his original statement – that he was in favour of a second Brexit referendum – to one that “maybe, just maybe” he was inching towards accepting the idea, although he did not like it. He claimed the government was plotting to foist one on us anyway.

This sort of manoeuvre is known among journalists as a reverse ferret.

Nigel had been in America and had missed the limelight. He had apparently also missed the fact that the British government has been saying for a year that a second referendum was out of the question because it would flout the will of the people.

Remainers rejoiced. A split in the enemy ranks! However, the referendum Farage is talking about is not the referendum which the Lib Dems, Tony Blair and others want to see. Farage wants a simple re-run of the in/out vote. The referendum Remainers want is a vote on the terms that are eventually agreed with the EU, or on leaving with no deal. (And in that referendum, staying in must be an option.)

Blair published an excellent article on the Institute for Global Change website on 4  January ( It was a clear analysis of where we are, enlivened by the occasional bit of dazzle: thus, of the 2016 referendum, “It was like having a General Election in which the question is ‘Do You Like the Government?’”

He nails the four options for negotiating Brexit: (1) to re-think and stay; (2) to exit the political structures but stay in the single market and customs union; (3) to exit both the political and economic structures and try to negotiate a bespoke deal; (4) to exit both structures and negotiate an FTA.

Of the last three, the Government has ruled out (2), is seeking to negotiate (3), but a substantial part of the Tory party is prepared to go for (4). The problem with (3), Blair  says, is that this is not negotiable without major concessions which make a mockery of leaving; the problem with (4) is significant economic pain.

He takes Northern Ireland as a metaphor for “the central Dilemma”: we are either in the single market and customs union, or we get a hard border and hard Brexit. It is the difference between the Norway and Canada options. “This really is a zero sum game: the nearer the Norway option, the more the obligations; the nearer the Canada option, the less the access.

“It is not a matter of who is the toughest negotiator. The Dilemma flows naturally from the way the single market was created.” Once this central Dilemma becomes manifest during the negotiation, he believes the split in the Government will re-emerge.

“The PM will still be in favour of option 3, making the concessions and trying to present them as consistent with ‘taking back control.’ The true-believer Leavers will recognise the concessions contradict the essential reasons for leaving and will be in favour of then moving to option 4…

“The risk is that we end up with the worst of all worlds. We muddle along, alternating between options 3 and 4, depending on what part of the Tory party is in the ascendancy, try to ‘leave’ without really leaving, with a patchwork of arrangements which allows the Government to claim Brexit has been done; but which in reality only mean we have lost our seat at the table of rule-making…

“Far better to fight for the right for the country to re-think, go to the high ground on opposing Brexit…”

But that, he acknowledges, will require a change of heart at the top of the Labour party.

In a splendidly optimistic piece in the Guardian of 9 September, Andrew Adonis predicted that Labour would be in favour of a second referendum by this summer: “Jeremy Corbyn can’t abandon his youth army and virtually his entire party by backing Theresa May on hard Brexit. The only way to disown May without taking responsibility for anything else will be to back a referendum.”

He thinks “sensible Tories” will support this demand and that “if the rebellion is large enough, May herself might agree to a referendum… to avoid her party splitting irrevocably.”

Can that referendum be won?

“If Chancellor Merkel and President Macron make an offer for the UK to stay in the economic institutions of the EU but with national control over immigration, I believe it can be won.”

He believes they might because many EU leaders, including Macron, don’t believe unrestricted free movement is integral to the single market; and because if Britain leaves, 80% of NATO resources will go with it.

At the weekend, Corbyn repeated that Labour would not support a second vote. Andrew Rawnsley in the Observer, 14 January, commented, “So long as neither the Prime Minister nor the leader of the opposition thinks they have an interest in asking the country for fresh instructions, it isn’t going to happen.”

What could change this is a shift in public opinion, says Rawnsley, but “Remain supporters just becoming more passionately Remainy is not what matters. What is required… is clear evidence of second thoughts among a substantial wedge of Leave voters.”

He tracks some hopeful developments: more people than before think we will be worse off out of the EU; fewer think Brexit will enhance Britain’s position in the world; there is “a gentle rise” in the proportion of voters who favour another referendum; 46% now think Brexit was the wrong choice while 42% think it was the right one – but still, he says, it is not enough.

Nevertheless, the chaos is mounting and the government is manifestly incompetent. If talks fail, the Labour leadership would face colossal pressure to back a referendum, says Rawnsley, and a lot of Tories, horrified by the prospect of the cliff-edge, are likely to support it.

Another scenario is that Parliament refuses to endorse the deal May produces (as it now can, following the Tory rebellion before Christmas) and there is a constitutional crisis. “A not unreasonable conjecture is that May would feel there was no other option but to go to the people.”

Hooray. Except that this is only the start. There is still surprisingly little “Bregret” in view of the piling-up of negative news about the effects of Brexit.  Chris Grey in his blog of 18 November ( explores why.

Donnishly, Professor Grey suggests we think of the vote “in terms of the gap between Brexit as a symbolic act and Brexit as a series of concrete legal, economic and political arrangements.” He reports hearing Brexiters ridicule the idea that leaving the EU could mean needing visas to travel to Europe, that it could mean restrictions on air travel or that British people could face restrictions on retiring in European countries.

He thinks that two related things underlie such beliefs. One is a taking for granted of the familiar accoutrements of modern life without realising that they are the product of extensive, albeit largely invisible, institutional arrangements. The other is that “for many Brexiters the vote to ‘take back control’ was not thought about in concrete or legal terms but as a kind of symbolic, feel-good act.” He refers to Grimsby, where 70% voted Leave, and which is now seeking special exemption from tariffs for its fish-based industries.

“The same kind of disconnect can be seen across many aspects… The underlying thought process seems to be – these are not the consequences that we wanted from the Brexit vote and ‘therefore’ they are either nothing to do with that vote (denial) or are being unnecessarily forced on us by the EU and/or obstructive Remainers (blame).

He thinks it extremely unlikely that Leave voters will link the consequences with their vote, because people find it difficult to admit they were wrong. But if the narrative of blame can be re-directed on to the leading figures in the Leave campaign, “it is far more likely that Leave voters will accept the proposition that they were fooled by politicians – as indeed they were – than that they fooled themselves.”

Perhaps. I don’t think it is far more likely that Leave voters will accept they were fooled by politicians than that that they fooled themselves, just a little more likely. If you are fooled by someone, you have allowed yourself to be fooled, and since it is obvious that not everyone was fooled, the implication that you were a fool is hard to dodge.

In Grey’s article is a reference to something called “the backfire effect,” described as follows in The Skeptic’s Dictionary: “The more ideological and the more emotion-based a belief is, the more likely it is that contrary evidence will be ineffective.

“There is some evidence that lack of self-confidence and insecurity correlate with the backfire effect. More research is needed to fully explain what additional factors lead some people to respond to contrary evidence by treating it as if it were additional support for one’s belief.” (My italics.)

Bingo. This confirms the impression of all Remainers who have ever tried to talk rationally to Leavers about Brexit, or anyone who has ever listened to David Davis.

The question is what to do about this condition (although Googling it is worthwhile). It is serious for the individual affected, and if sufficiently widespread will be terminal for the country. Clearly there is no point in challenging it on intellectual grounds, since rational argument is what sustains it. This is a conundrum even worse than the Irish border.

I think that in time the condition will be self-correcting. Meanwhile, fortunately, it does not affect all those who voted Leave. There is a sizeable minority (Rawnsley’s “wedge”) that is accessible to reason. They need to be found while the window out of Brexit is still open.

I have a dream. One night, while the nation sleeps and the Prime Minister tosses uneasily in her bed, there will come through that window the creature that will save us.

A reverse ferret.



There will be one more post in the present series. Thank you for reading the fox blog.

Ale, bread and chickens



Liam Fox was off to China last week to talk about trade.

He has a romantic view of it. “For two centuries,” he told an audience in Manchester Town Hall in September, “we were the trading nation.” He spoke proudly of the Royal Navy’s patrol of the world’s trade routes and “the might and resilience of the British Merchant Navy.” He found it astonishing that “this small island nation, sitting at the northern end of Europe” had allowed its trade to be “outsourced” for the past 43 years to a common market that would develop into the EU.

Professor Stephen Weatherill’s reply to this nonsense ( was sharp: “In Victorian times, to which Dr Fox pays much wistful attention… the UK’s economic and political strength allowed it to swagger its way to oceans of beneficial trading activity. The balances of power are different today.”

That is the very thing Brexit refuses to acknowledge. The rest of the world, meanwhile, sees it clearly. It is inconceivable, says Wetherill, that, post-Brexit, the UK will get anything other than a worse deal than it currently has either with the EU or with other trading partners.

It is madness to go into battle with your weakness more visible to the enemy than it is to yourself.  However, that is not the only disability under which Brexit labours. It doesn’t seem to know anything about the terrain, the rules of engagement, the level of sophistication of the opposing forces or their likely degree of ruthlessness.

The Government got a glimpse of the ruthlessness when the US Administration, following a legal action by Boeing, decided to impose a 219% import tariff on Bombardier C-Series aircraft partly manufactured in Belfast. It was a nasty humiliation to a British Prime Minister who had rushed to Washington as her best hope of a trade deal and had invited the President on a state visit. And it followed on a row over chlorinated chickens.

Undeterred, Liam Fox and his Department continue to parrot the rhetoric about Britain’s glorious opportunities to trade on WTO rules that has perverted public understanding of the issues for the past two years. Essentially this rhetoric assumes, in the words of Stephen Weatherill, “that WTO rules offer some kind of basic, entry-level framework for international trade which is sitting, ready and waiting, for the UK to revert to.” It is far more complicated than that.

“There is no free trade, there is only freed trade [my italics], and it is regulated trade. The people of the UK have voted to quit the EU and that will lead also to the UK falling out of the scope of the EU’s several dozen free trade agreements with third countries. That will not grant the UK free trade. It will diminish the UK’s enjoyment of freed trade.”

Free trade in the form that Liam Fox imagines it is unregulated trade, says Weatherill, and that doesn’t exist. His elucidation of this is interesting. He explains that “governments intervene in markets for myriad reasons and in myriad ways, and they have been doing so for a very long time,” and cites the way the composition of ale and bread was regulated in England for centuries for the protection of consumers.

Markets “are and have long been built on the correcting influence of public regulation,” he says, and this “readily transfers to the transnational plane. State borders cannot possibly entail a process of private traders arriving in foreign lands and striking deals with local buyers without regard to local laws. Those traders will be required to comply with the local rules that govern the operation of markets… and those rules will doubtless be different from those that apply at home… These are non-tariff barriers to trade.”

There are two ways of dealing with these non-tariff barriers, he continues. The first is to decide that regulatory diversity should be ignored, but in effect this means placing one’s market under the jurisdiction of a more lenient regulator in another state. The second is to create a common rule-making body.

He does not think it necessary to point out, but I will, that we are leaving the second, which places us at the mercy of the first.

Chlorinated chickens.

There is still an unresolved war raging between Michael Gove’s Dept of the Environment, which insists that chlorinated chickens will not enter the UK, and Liam Fox’s Dept for International Trade, which insists that they be allowed in as they do not pose a threat to human health. In fact it is not the health of humans that is under discussion here but the health of chickens, whose rearing conditions in the USA are so abysmal that chlorine is needed to disinfect their corpses, a matter on which Dr Fox has remained silent since chickens are beyond the remit of his Hippocratic Oath.

This internecine war over regulations will be the first of many. Meanwhile, the DIT has started to get an inkling that ahead of it lie deep waters.

Peter Ungphakorn’s piece on the International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development website ( wto-status-post-brexit) surveys these waters and is not optimistic about our chances of navigating them.

“The UK is already a WTO member, but its membership terms are bundled with the EU’s. Re-establishing the UK’s WTO status in its own right means both the UK and the EU would negotiate simultaneously with the rest of the EU’s members to extract their separate membership terms…

“For its part, the UK would have to negotiate with the EU itself, the US, China, Russia, India, Brazil and any trading nation or group of nations that matters… It would only take one objection to hold up the talks because the WTO operates by consensus.” (It has 162 members.)

… “To be an independent WTO member, the UK would be creating its own rights and obligations out of the EU’s. Extracting UK beef quotas out of the EU’s would require negotiations with all the countries, including Brazil, Argentina, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Paraguay, Uruguay and the US, with which it has agreed beef quotas. The exporting countries will be pressing for the UK beef quotas to be increased, while British farmers will be pushing in the opposite direction.”

Now for the real game-stopper: “We don’t know what most of the EU’s current commitments in the WTO are. The UK would be negotiating a share of key quantities that are unknown.”

Becoming an independent WTO member would only become relatively simple and quick for the UK, he explains, if it becomes “Much more of a free trader, with low import duties across the board, and minimal subsidies for farmers.” No wonder there are politicians who advocate this route. They think it’s the only one that can be done, and never mind the cost. But what exactly is the cost? “Domestic opposition would have to be overcome first.”

The withdrawal of subsidies is not what the farmers of Cornwall voted for. There would be a lot of anger. And since the free-trading model would be associated with a wholesale loosening of regulations, and since those regulations concern consumer protection, worker’s rights, the protection of the environment and the numerous other matters the EU has officiously taken upon itself to worry about, it would not be surprising if the protests of farmers spilled over into generalised fury. I do not like the sound of the word “overcome” in the last sentence quoted.

Faced with a choice between a maze of mind-boggling complexity with a black hole at its centre and a sea of pitchforks outside Downing Street, what is a politician to do?  Make sure that not a word of what is going on gets out, naturally.

Liam Fox is trying. He has signed an agreement with his American counterparts in the UK-US Trade and Investment Working Group that any information relating to trade negotiations between the UK and USA will be “held in confidence unless otherwise jointly decided” ( us-uk-trade-and-investment-working-group).

The information will be kept secret “for four years after the conclusion of this working group.” That should be long enough to stitch up the electorate.

The rationaldebate blog devotes an unsettling post to this development ( It notes the looming shadow of TTIP (the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership) in the background. “This, too, was going to be negotiated in secret, and it was only massive public protest that opened up (and arguably scotched) the deal.”

TTIP, says the blog, would have made the NHS vulnerable to the US private healthcare market, would have undermined UK food safety standards, and would have incorporated the Investor State Dispute Settlement in the treaty. Those three key risks are still very much at the core of any trade deal with the US.

The ISDS mechanism, which is least understood, “gives foreign investors the right to take our government to private, secret arbitration panels to curb regulation… There is no appeal. Essentially it is a tool for multinationals to take over government… Local companies have no access to such arbitration panels and are therefore disadvantaged in their home markets.”

It is as impossible to reconcile this with Brexit’s mantra about taking back control as it is to reconcile what many British farmers voted for with what, under a hard Brexit, they will get.

“One has the increasing impression,” says Professor Weatherill, “that those who drove the people of the UK to vote for Brexit and who are now in charge of plotting the future do not understand the first thing about what ‘free trade’ means today.”

No, but they understand the political implications of it perfectly.