“Thick as mince, lazy as a toad”

 

It may be assumed from his demeanour – harassed, irritated, sucking a sweet – when he appeared before the Brexit Select Committee on Wednesday that David Davis did not want to be there. He had been told he must, by the Speaker.

He was there to explain himself. He had been rumbled. Having been directed by a Commons Opposition Day motion to release certain documents about the impact of Brexit on the economy which he had long said his department was preparing, having been ordered by the Speaker to obey that vote, and having promised to release versions that were unredacted, he had finally stopped prevaricating and given the Brexit Select Committee 850 pages in two lever arch files.

It was ridiculously insufficient and appeared to be highly redacted. It was accompanied by a letter saying that the documents the committee was expecting had never existed in the form MPs thought they did, and that he had repeatedly made this fact clear.

Committee chair Hilary Benn did not waste time (see Guardian, 6 December). Perhaps he had been told that Mr Davis had an important meeting in Brussels. He asked whether the fact that the Brexit impact assessments did not exist in the form that MPs had thought was the reason why the Minister had not handed them over.

That was correct, said Mr Davis. There were formal definitions of an impact assessment, and the work done by the Government did not fit those definitions.

Benn asked him if the Government had undertaken an assessment of the impact of Brexit. Davis said it had not, “not on a sector by sector basis.”

He was asked if it had assessed the impact on, for instance, aerospace, or agriculture. Davis admitted that it had not assessed the impact on any sector.

Wasn’t that a bit strange? Hilary Benn asked, with visible restraint.

The Secretary of State didn’t think so. The intention, when these sectoral analyses were carried out, was to help the government understand what the effect of Brexit would be. (He did not explain how that differed from making an assessment.) He added, rolling the sweet around his mouth, that he was not a fan of economic models because they had all been proven wrong.

Benn then asked him about comments he had made to a Commons committee in September, when he said detailed assessments were being carried out. Davis’s reply was illuminating, although not of the subject. He said, “Just because you are looking at the impact of something, that does not amount to an impact assessment.”

What, in that case, Benn asked him, had he been talking about when he told a committee that Theresa May would have seen “summaries of the assessments carried out”? Davis replied that he was referring to the “summary outcomes” of the reports that had been commissioned.

Seema Malhotra (Labour) took up the questioning and reminded the Minister that in September he had told a Lords committee that his department would “carry out a qualitative assessment.”

That was not the same as an impact assessment, said Davis.  He said that he had been using the term “sectoral analysis.” That was different.

Stephen Timms (Labour) asked how much had been left out from the 850 pages submitted. The Minister didn’t know exactly. He didn’t think it was a lot. And, no, he did not edit the material himself.

Indeed, it turned out he had not even read any of it. He had been provided with a sample two chapters before the material was given to the committee, but he did not read them. This was because he did not want to be responsible for deciding exactly what was and was not released. He would not have had time to read 850 pages.

It was not long after this that he said he was late for his next appointment.

Wera Hobhouse (Lib Dem) asked him where the misunderstanding that there were impact assessments had come from. He told her she would have to ask other people.

Incensed and incredulous Committee members debated, after the session, whether Davis should be charged with contempt for defying the Commons motion ordering him to publish the assessments in full. Non-parliamentarians might think that that was not the half of it. He had revealed that the Government had not carried out any assessment of what effect Brexit would have on the British economy. Was this not (as Seema Malhotra tweeted) a gross dereliction of duty? And he had lied. He and his underlings had at the very least “misled” the House (Joanna Cherry, QC, SNP justice and home affairs spokesperson). Parliament does not normally forgive this.

For a start, he had only “made it clear” for the past few weeks that the assessments never existed. For fifteen months he had exerted himself to give the impression that they were a real, ongoing process. The picture started to take shape as early as July 2016, when ministers told a parliamentary committee of the need to examine the impact of Brexit on various sectors (see jackofkent.com/2017/11/the-early-history-of-the-58-brexit-sector-analyses/  .

Then, at a Lords committee in September 2016, Davis spoke of carrying out “quantitative assessments,” used the words “sectoral analysis” and said, “they are working through about 50 cross-cutting sectors.” By December, the sets of analysis had grown to “about 57”, each of which had “implications for individual parts of 85% of the economy.”

In the largely fatuous White Paper on Brexit, the outlines of the great enterprise became clearer: “We have structured our approach by five broad sectors covering the breadth of the UK economy: goods; agriculture, food and fisheries; services; financial services; and energy, transport and communication networks, as well as areas of crosscutting regulation.”

In March, Davis was telling the Commons of a “huge amount of work,” and in April promising an in-depth assessment. The assessments were in “excruciating detail.” DexEu said it would shortly be publishing the list of sectors.

The list, which does indeed cover 58 sectors, was eventually published, after pressure from MPs, six months later. It runs from aerospace to wholesale markets and investment banking, taking in agriculture, business services, defence, fisheries, higher education, medical services, nuclear, pharmaceuticals, and a great deal more on the way. It is impressive. But then, a list doesn’t have to do much.

The documents which Vince Cable says he saw, “under a procedure rivalling access to the Crown Jewels,” in the room in which the Government has placed the documents for MPs’ viewing, hardly tallies with this prospectus. They were “descriptions of the sectors, not assessments of impact,” he said, and contained nothing that was not available on Wikipedia.

This flimsiness is assumed to result from a state of panic that struck DexEu in November when it realised that the game was up, and began frantically throwing material together in the three weeks that David Davis had said he would need to “collate” the information into a convenient form. The pressure had begun to mount on 10 October, when 120 MPs signed a letter demanding the release of the “secret advice” the government was assumed to have.

The rhetoric about the analysis was immediately rowed back on and “assessment” became a taboo word, but it was far too late to correct beliefs that had been foolishly nurtured. The Opposition Day motion was passed on 1 November, but it still took an order from the Speaker to get the documents, such as they were, released, and an Urgent Question from Keir Starmer followed by another intervention from the Speaker to get Davis in front of the Brexit committee.

What on earth was the department doing before that? However, that isn’t, of course, the point. The question is, what did David Davis think he was doing? And it’s an interesting question, if one can manage to bottle one’s rage and keep it on a shelf while considering the matter. How long did he think he could keep it up? Did he really think MPs were by now so cowed that they would never ask to see this stuff? That their constituents wouldn’t? Was he relying on his luck, on everything falling apart anyway, on a royal wedding?

Or, to dig in another direction, why didn’t he do the work?  Was he afraid of what the analyses would reveal? Or does he just not like work?

“Thick as mince, lazy as a toad, vain as Narcissus,” said Dominic Cummings (Vote Leave manager) of David Davis in July.

Perhaps it’s as simple as that.

The Brexit committee voted on whether to move for Davis to be held in contempt of Parliament. They voted by 11 to 8 that “in view of the fact that no impact assessments have been undertaken [my italics], the Government’s response to the resolution of 1 November has complied with the terms of that resolution.”  In other words, since the assessments had never existed, Davis could not be held to be in contempt of Parliament for not publishing them.

The 11 in favour were Tories and one DUP member; the eight were all opposition MPs.

The Government went to some trouble a few months ago to ensure that government members on a Commons committee always outnumbered opposition ones (see my blog post of 10 September, The height of pavements). This is an early fruit of those labours.

Someone on the Government side is working diligently.

 

 

 

Not a sausage

 

Theresa May does not, as Tony Blair once put it, have bandwidth for anything except Brexit. If she talks about something else, it is to smooth the way for Brexit. She has just been in Saudi Arabia, selling the Saudis weapons with which to kill the Yemenis so she can pay for Brexit.

So why, I wondered, had she devoted her entire speech at the Lord Mayor’s banquet to Russian interference with western democracy? It was as if she was expecting something to happen. I noticed that she hadn’t mentioned Britain. But of course she couldn’t: that would be to acknowledge that Russia might have had its fingers in the referendum, which would suggest that the referendum ought to be re-run.

A few days later a friend sent me a link to a piece by Louise Mensch on the Patribotics website (https://patribotics.blog/2017/11/24/exclusive-brexit-referendum-may-need-to-be-redone/). It claimed that “sources say that UK intelligence is minded to recommend to Theresa May’s government that the Brexit vote be redone.”

What sources, I immediately wanted to know, but Louise Mensch was not going to tell me. It’s an exasperating piece, crucially vague. Ms Mensch has been having a nasty spat with the Guardian, which accused her of making things up. She rebutted this angrily. A former Tory MP, living in New York, once a chicklit author and now working for Rupert Murdoch (yes), writing about the alleged corruption of the UK’s political system by Russia… one wonders where she’s coming from.

But I can’t dismiss the piece, not only because it has become impossible to ignore the evidence that the UK’s political system has been corrupted, but because, reading around it, I came across some disturbing things.

Mensch claims that, according to her unnamed sources, “the level of money and the reach of the fake bots and targeted data funded by Russia, using Cambridge Analytica, were so great that M15 and M16…did not believe that the Brexit referendum could be said to have been ‘free and fair.’”

The article continues: “Sources cautioned, however, that an absolute decision had not yet been made and that the Prime Minister and her government opposed a revote. Reasons for this included both the public reaction, and the fact that it is thought that any second vote is likely to have the same final result as the first one.”

That’s the authentic voice of Whitehall. But how about this?

“Sources with links to both UK and US intelligence also believed, however, that there was major anxiety within the British government… of politicians’ links to the Russian state being exposed.”

Which politicians? Links of what kind? This is not about going to a party at the Russian embassy and drinking too much vodka.

Mensch then fingers other political players who are said to have been recipients of Russian generosity – the SNP, Labour, UKIP (she has nowhere explicitly mentioned the Tories) – before dropping her reader from a great height with: “Sources speculated… that any re-do of a corrupted Brexit vote might be announced after the arrest of Nigel Farage, which, separate sources assert, is a certainty.”

Let’s not rejoice prematurely.

Russian interference in the American presidential election is now beyond dispute. Because of the close links between the Leave campaigns and the Trump campaign, and Putin’s evident interest in a British exit from the EU, questions about Russia’s involvement in the EU referendum have been getting louder in recent weeks.

Boris Johnson had a fit of absence of mind when asked whether he had seen any evidence of Russian interference in British politics but eventually managed, “I haven’t seen a sausage.” This provoked incredulity from Chris Bryant, MP, vice chair of the all-party parliamentary Russia group, who used the words “distinctly fishy” and said, “Even as a junior minister in the foreign office, Russian stuff came across my desk every day.”

Boris was feeling the heat at the time because he had on 19 October attended a Brexit fundraising dinner at which he had met, and been photographed with, a Mr Mifsud who is named in an FBI investigation as a high-level go-between linking the Trump campaign and the Russian government (Guardian 11 November). Ben Bradshaw, MP, expressed amazement that British intelligence, who must have been told by the FBI about Mifsud, allowed this accident to happen.

The only way he could explain it was that “Our own agencies are keeping information from Johnson for some reason… which only begs further worrying questions.”

It’s an extraordinary suggestion. It suggests a distance between the intelligence community and government, and – worse – distrust. And it takes us back to Louise Mensch’s reference to “politicians’ links to the Russian state.” We already know that, for instance, Matthew Elliott, founder of the TaxPayers’ Alliance and chief executive of Boris’s Vote Leave campaign, and now reportedly being lined up for a senior role at the head of the Conservative party, was a member of Conservative Friends of Russia, “a Moscow influence organisation” (Carole Cadwalladr, Guardian, 4 November). Is Boris one of these politicians? If May thinks he is, she is likely to be not just worried but pacing the floor.

But then, I began to realise, if there’s Russian influence it doesn’t stop at Boris.

How strong does a link have to be, to be significant? In many cases we’ll never know what links exist. They will be scrambled, covered over, sent on baffling detours. But here’s one link that certainly ought to be pursued, because it’s in full public view and it’s operating at the highest level. It’s the link between the Government and something called the Legatum Institute, “a handsomely-funded extreme free-market think-tank fuelled by offshore cash from the Caribbean and Dubai,” behind which “stand the Chandler brothers, who made their billions in Russia’s most turbulent years, and once owned 4% of Gazprom” (Gina Miller in the Guardian, 28 November).

The Legatum Institute has emerged from nowhere and is deferentially mentioned on the BBC as an adviser on Government policy, without any explanation of what qualifications it has for that role. Michael Gove attended a seminar held by Legatum’s director of economics, Shanker Singham, ten days ago, alongside people from Downing Street.

I’m not suggesting that Legatum is a Russian front. The Mail is, though. An eye-widening article in the Sunday Mail online (25 November) was headlined: “Putin’s link to Boris and Gove’s Brexit ‘coup’ revealed,” and alleged that Shanker Singham was involved in drawing up the “ultimatum” letter sent to Theresa May about Brexit.

I have long wondered who is pulling Theresa May’s strings. I should have realised that, in a matter like this, the closer one gets to the answer the more the answer recedes.

Money is everywhere in this story. Follow the money and names come up. Follow the names and you fall over more money. The money in Legatum. (The Chandler brothers are disaster capitalists. Why are they interested in the UK?) The “dark” money behind Arron Banks’ s funding of Leave.EU. The £485,000 given by the opaque Constitutional Research Council to the DUP during the referendum campaign (no disclosure about donor required because different standards apply to Northern Ireland). The £625,000 Vote Leave gave to a 23-year-old student for his pro-Brexit campaign. The money which swashes around London.

“London is one of the main outposts for Russian financial and political influence programmes in the west,” said Bill Browder, Anglo-American businessman and campaigner for the Magnitsky Act.  “There’s a huge reluctance to strangle the golden goose. Because a lot of people close to the centre of power are financially benefiting.” (Cadwalladr, Guardian, 4 November.)

How close to the centre of power?

“The big question now,” Gina Miller writes, “is to what extent Russian money came into the Leave campaigns, and is in effect funding a cold war.”

A UK parliamentary committee has asked Mark Zuckerberg to supply any information he has on activity by Russian-linked Facebook accounts during the referendum campaign. The Internet Research Agency, a Russian state-backed “troll farm” operating out of  St Petersburg, is said to have targeted Facebook users in the USA before the presidential election; Facebook has promised to create a tool that will allow users to see whether they were targeted. However, about the UK, Facebook has said nothing.

Ben Nimmo, of the Atlantic Council think-tank, said evidence of Russian online interference in the referendum was “incontrovertible” (Cadwalladr, Guardian, 4 November). In the campaign, Vote Leave and Leave.EU spent lavishly on, respectively, AggregateIQ, based in Canada, and Cambridge Analytica, set up by an American billionaire and with links (illegal) to AggregateIQ: these were companies that scooped up Facebook users’ personal data, analysed it and sent tailored messages to them (see my blog of 26 May, Say you like it). Mensch says that Russia funded Leave.EU’s use of Cambridge Analytica; I’m not aware of the evidence, which doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

We already know quite a lot about Russian-linked fake Twitter accounts. They posted almost 45,000 messages about Brexit in the 48 hours around the referendum. Research by Swansea University and the University of California tracked 156,252 Russian Twitter accounts that mentioned Brexit; most although not all were pro-Leave. Many appear to have come from the troll farms.

What is Britain doing about all this? There’s the request to Mark Zuckerberg. There are demands for the parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee to investigate. The Electoral Commission is examining the possibility of breaches of the electoral rules by Vote Leave and Leave.EU (“I’m terrified,” said Arron Banks). The Intelligence and Security Committee is only now about to be re-constituted after the general election (why has it taken so long?) At the request of Tom Brake, MP, there will be a three-hour Commons debate on Russian interference on 21 December.

Across the Atlantic, there are five separate FBI investigations under way into Russian involvement in the Trump campaign, and Americans talk openly about impeachment. Here, the Prime Minister has still not used the words “Russia” and “Brexit” in the same sentence, and is presumably behind the timetabling of a debate on the subject three days before Christmas, when, with luck, ten MPs will be present.

Smiley must rap on the door of No. 10. No-one else can do it.

But Smiley needs our help. We have to shout, loud enough to rattle the panes in that decaying building on the Thames. Loud enough to put this corrupted government to flight and replace it with something cleaner.

 

Let them all go

 

“One unintended consequence of Brexit is that Ireland finds itself for the first time in its history on the stronger side of the table in negotiations with the UK,” noted Brigid Laffan, Director of the Global Governance Programme at the European University Institute, Florence, in the Guardian (23 November).

Leo Varadkar knows it. He has repeated his warning that he will block Britain’s progress to the second stage of negotiations with the EU unless he receives a binding commitment that there will be no hard Irish border.

Arlene Foster, party leader of the tiny DUP faction that props up May in Westminster, called it blackmail. The Sun spat fury from its gutter: “Leo Varadkar should shut his gob.” The Government’s lackeys are whipping up outrage that an Irish premier should try to interfere with “our” Brexit. One would think it had nothing to do with him.

In fact the Irish border has been near the top of the EU’s concerns ever since the referendum vote: it has always been known that the UK would have to clear this hurdle, and that the failure to get it right would entail serious economic consequences for both parts of Ireland. Worse, there might be dangerous political consequences. Leo Varadkar has every right to be worried.

So does Britain, but more of that later.

It is still the Government’s position, rejected by the EU, that the border issue can’t be settled until trade talks have begun because the two are related. This is convincing for the first few seconds until you think about it. Then you realise that the problem is that the British government has two mutually irreconcilable imperatives – the border needs to be material enough to present an obstacle to goods and people, and immaterial enough to be invisible – and that problem cannot be solved by discussing trade or anything else; it can only be solved by discussing the problem itself.

To put it another way, as Brigid Laffan crisply does, the Government’s argument is bogus because “There is no future trade deal available to the UK that will lead to frictionless trade if it leaves the single market and customs union.”

The keyword here is “frictionless.” That is what the border needs to be. It’s a word the Government likes, but it doesn’t seem to understand what it means. “Frictionless” means without custom declarations, tariffs, non-tariff barriers, that sort of thing. To get that, you  have to pay a price. The Government won’t pay it.

The rational solution to the border problem is for Britain to stay in the customs union and single market. Over May’s dead body will it do either. The reasons for this are not particularly obvious.

Theresa May, when she took office, did not have to embrace hard Brexit. She did not have to turn her back on the two brilliant ideas that bound the EEC, later the EU, together and made it the second largest economy in the world. After all, we hadn’t been told in the referendum campaign that this was what leaving the EU would entail. We had been explicitly told that this was what it would not entail.

Was the power balance in what would necessarily become her cabinet already so weighted in favour of the numpties? Whatever the cause, she made her choice, and then, some nine months after the vote, she made a serious mistake. She called an election.

The result was catastrophic for pretty well everyone involved. She lost her majority, and we got the DUP.

I have expressed my opinion of that party, and the shabby pact the Government made with it, in a previous post (www.foxoutinfront.com/bacon-from-limerick-stout-from-dublin/), but I focused then on the fact that this narrow sectarian group would enable May to cling on to a mandate which the electorate had just denied her. It was not yet clear how much the DUP would affect the Brexit negotiations. It’s clear now.

Northern Ireland voted by 56% to 44% to remain in the EU. Among the 44% were the supporters of the Democratic Unionist Party, which wants a hard Brexit and has become the fall-back bulwark defending it. As long as Theresa May is dependent on these 10 MPs for her hold on power, there can be no possibility of a rethink on the single market and customs union, no special customs deal or regulatory alignment for Northern Ireland (the DUP can’t allow the six counties to be marked off in any way from the mainland UK), and of course no question of moving the border to the Irish Sea, which would likewise solve the problem.

By ruling out these avenues, the DUP makes inevitable what everyone agrees can’t be countenanced: a hard border, with surveillance cameras, checkpoints, customs posts…   With breathtaking inconsistency, it doesn’t want a hard border, either. It’s afraid it might be bad for Ulster’s farmers.

It will, and not Ulster’s farmers alone. It will hugely complicate the lives and businesses of hundreds of thousands of Irish people in both the north and the south. Eighty per cent of Ireland’s trade goes through the UK; if there’s a hard border, goods passing through it will be subject to tariffs, inspection and delays. A third of Northern Ireland’s milk goes south across the border every day to be made into cheese, butter and infant formula. Some dairy farmers will go out of business.

Many other items, at present seamlessly, go back and forth: Guinness crosses the border twice before it’s shipped out from Dublin. Between 23,000 and 30,000 people, living in the north and working in the south, or vice versa, commute, hardly aware of it since the border is invisible; farmers cross it several times a day from one field to another; people visit relatives. Dogs are walked, horses are ridden, along roads on which, if the border comes back, they’ll need documents.

When the EU taskforce dealing with Brexit and the border listed specific areas of collaborative activity that would be adversely affected by Brexit, it found no less than 142. They ranged from security coordination against paramilitary threats to bus routes.

However, the strongest argument against a hard border is that it might undermine the still-fragile peace process.

Someone left a pipe bomb at Omagh two weeks ago. Dissident republicans are out there. A hard border starts as a soft target: all the bomber has to do is attack a single customs post. Then all the customs posts along the border will have to be fortified, and his job is done. This idea is dismissed in London as fantasy. It is not dismissed in Ireland.

It’s not just in relation to the border that the British Government is shamefully neglecting its responsibilities, or that the DUP is behaving like a spoilt child in a sweetshop. Power-sharing in Belfast broke down in January as the result of a scandal involving the DUP and a green energy scam. As conditions for power-sharing to resume, Sinn Féin want equal status for the Irish language and the ban on same-sex marriage in the province lifted. The DUP want Ulster Scots (spoken by a much smaller percentage than speak Irish) included in the language clause, and believe that same-sex relationships are sinful.

After a lengthy stand-off, Westminster will soon have to resume direct rule. Nobody wants direct rule – certainly Westminster doesn’t – but Arlene Foster last week sounded not too upset at the prospect.

Sinn Féin are upset at the prospect. The reason is both glaring and shocking. The peace in Ireland is founded on the Good Friday Agreement. The Good Friday Agreement is based on power-sharing. Power-sharing is partly based on the principle that the British Government, which is one of the guarantors of the Agreement, is politically neutral. Direct rule is undesirable but not against the principles of the Agreement; but the present British Government is kept in office by the DUP, which is one of the parties to the power-sharing.

Naturally the DUP does not acknowledge that this is a problem. Well, it wouldn’t, would it? It got a cool billion out of its deal with May. And the Government can’t acknowledge it because it can’t do without the DUP’s support in Parliament. It defeated the Labour amendment to retain European law on fundamental rights by 10 votes.

The terrible truth about this government is that it doesn’t give a damn about anything but its own survival. Ireland can go hang. Ireland is, of course, aware of this attitude.

But now Ireland, which used to be a friend (how stupid of the government to lose that friendship), has turned hostile, and what is May to do? It is desperately urgent to get trade talks going: she has to solve the Irish riddle, and on EU terms. Her proffered solution (drones, electronic registration) has been rejected. The EU is steering her towards the single market and customs union but, in addition to a humiliating U-turn, that means facing down the Brexiteers and junking the DUP. She is afraid of the Brexiteers, and if she junks the DUP she loses power.

If she had courage, and understood more about what she is doing, and could find it in herself to trust the British people, she would tell them the truth and put the future of the country where it belongs, in their hands.

That is not going to happen. She is heading for the edge, and taking the country with her. Unless it wakes up.

If it doesn’t, there is yet hope for Ireland. It is that, if Brexit drags Northern Ireland out of the EU, against the wishes of most of its population, the Ireland-wide poll about reunification that is provided for in the Good Friday Agreement is held, and returns a “yes” answer.

But it would be so much better if the Irish could be left to do that when they’re ready; if we could have our own poll first, and junk Brexit, May and the DUP in one fell swoop, and then welcome in the dawn.

 

 

Hurry up please it’s time

 

Theresa May panics easily. A tide has started to run against Brexit. It has to be stopped.

The date on which the UK leaves the European Union will be “enshrined” in law, according to an amendment the Prime Minister proposed ten days ago. It is to be 11 pm on 29 March 2019. The shrine is a bit off kilter because everyone assumed it would be midnight, but it can’t be because it has to be midnight in Brussels as well, and on 29 March Britain will still be on GMT. This neatly encapsulates the power relationship between Britain and the EU, but in the Commons nobody cared about that except Frank Field, who made a valiant attempt to bring back unicorns by suggesting we postpone the time of departure by an hour, by which time it would be the next day, but only in Europe.

The Commons took no notice: it had the entire EU Withdrawal Bill to chew its way through. Nevertheless, the PM’s unexpected bit of law-making caused a furious Tory rebellion. Harsh words were spoken: “Utterly foolish” – Kenneth Clarke; “pointless” – Tom Tugendhat; “incoherent and thoroughly stupid” – former attorney general Dominic Grieve. Grieve announced his intention of voting against the Government whatever was done to him. Goodness knows what he thought might be done to him, but the Daily Telegraph was in a nasty mood, plastering the photographs of Tory rebels across its front page as if inviting readers to get up a posse.

The obvious fear, shared across parties, is that the amendment could force the country out of the EU before it is ready to leave. It tied the Government’s hands, said numerous speakers; it would leave no room for last-minute manoeuvre; it might “come back to haunt us.”  That it would leave no room for last-minute manoeuvre was of course the point. Keir Starmer was right to call it “a desperate gimmick.” It has a whiff of the suicide bomb about it. But May perhaps does not see that. Who knows what she sees?

Starmer pointed out that it could stand in the way of an orderly transition. Others connected it with another of May’s bright ideas, that the final deal, having been voted on by Parliament, should also be enshrined in statute. They said this offer would be made meaningless by fixing the date of the UK’s departure, because there would probably not be enough time to pass the legislation before the date elapsed.

The matter of the parliamentary vote on the deal is sunk in as deep a morass of confusion as anything else to do with Brexit, which is saying a great deal. The confusion became heated when David Davis a few weeks ago informed a Parliamentary select committee that, because the EU negotiations might go to the wire, there might not be time for Parliament to vote on the deal, and had to be contradicted first by the Prime Minister and then by his own department before he had the sense to contradict himself and thereby restore the illusion that this is a democracy. The question was not satisfactorily laid to rest, and Wednesday’s stormy debate resurrected it. Nor has anyone explained how negotiations could “go to the wire” on 29 March 2019 when they are supposed to be concluded by next October.

The Prime Minister’s proposal to put the final deal which Parliament had accepted into law was an attempt to reassure the country that there would be a vote, and that it would be “meaningful” in that it would be taken before Britain left.

However, it would not be meaningful in any other sense, because it would give MPs only the choice of accepting whatever terms the Government had negotiated or leaving the EU without a deal. This is what the Government has always intended, ever since, under pressure, it deigned to allow a parliamentary vote at all. Anna Soubry described this “concession” (yes, that is what the Government is calling it) as “insulting.”

Roughly half the Commons seems disinclined to worship at the shrine. The Government has been warned it must rewrite the date amendment or face defeat in a Commons vote in December.

This unlooked-for defiance has set the Government running in dazed circles. One source said that a “possible solution was for the Government to fix the date but make it clear it would try to extend Article 50 if an act of parliament approving the withdrawal agreement was not passed in time for that date” (Guardian 17 November).

In which case, what is meant by “fixing the date”?

David Davis dropped shrouded hints that the Government might abandon its amendment. The Government denied it was thinking of any such thing. It said, in the tones we have come to know and love, “What this amendment does is provide certainty over our position that we are leaving the EU on 29 March 2019.”

Just before it issued this statement, a source in Whitehall divulged that the Government was “trying to think of a way of watering down its amendment without taking out its reference to 11 pm on 29 March 2019” (Guardian, 17 November. My italics).

Fortunately, sanity still rules in the EU. The 27 have sought a legal opinion from the European Commission on the possible extension of the two years allowed for talks under Article 50. The 27 do not envision a lengthy extension: one diplomat explained, “This extension would only be if we are near striking a deal and need a few extra weeks or months” (Guardian, 17 November.)

Another thing the EU is doing is preparing for a no-deal Brexit.

The drumbeat in Westminster for no deal has been growing louder in the past weeks. May continues to say it is not what she wants, while seeming clueless about how to prevent it. To get a Brexit deal, she has to do the second stage of talks. To do the second stage of talks, she has to get through the first stage. To get through the first stage, she has to resolve the budget contribution, citizens’ rights and the border.

The budget, as I write, is being discussed at an urgent meeting of the Cabinet; more must be offered (more is owed!), but an increase in the contribution will be politically explosive. An agreement on citizens’ rights may be within sight; nothing of the kind is in sight on the Irish border, a conundrum May cannot resolve because she has blocked herself in by refusing to stay in the single market or customs union. The Taoiseach has threatened to block progress to second-stage talks unless Britain commits itself in writing  (don’t they trust us?) to no hard border and a continuation of the Common Travel Area.

It doesn’t look possible without a radical shift in thinking at the top. This is why, despite a mounting chorus of alarm from business and the direst warnings of what will happen, we are heading, it seems inexorably, for a no-deal Brexit.

Will it really be so bad? Yes, it will be an absolute disaster. I will talk about this in another post; meanwhile there’s a manageable summary on the BBC website by Chris Morris, 14 October. Even the BBC thinks it’s not a terribly good idea. Who could possibly want this near-doomsday scenario?

Well, some people do and they have their reasons. They don’t talk about most of them, but they will point with satisfaction to the House of Lords judgement in March that, if Britain leaves the EU without a deal, it will probably have no legal obligation to pay into the budget. The judgement adds that not paying would “antagonise the rest of the EU and further sour relations. Legal action … could not be ruled out.” But I can’t see no-dealers being bothered by a spot of French colère.

These are the people pulling May’s strings, and the amendment seeking to fix the date of Brexit is intended to reassure them. In spite of her constant reiteration that there can be no monkeying about with Article 50, Theresa May isn’t so sure. She is said to have taken legal advice on whether Brexit can be revoked; she is not telling anyone what answer came back. There is for her an unnerving possibility that negotiations might stretch out, the EU might prove inconveniently accommodating over the date and Brexit may vanish in the tangled grass. Fixing the date both removes that danger – it’s a guillotine – and puts enormous pressure on those innocent souls who are still striving to make negotiations work.

May’s puppeteers don’t want a good deal, they want no deal, and they presumably welcome the increasing evidence that a good deal can’t be negotiated. Closing off a genuinely free vote solves half their problem; fixing the date solves the other half because it provides cover. They don’t want time. Time will make the Government’s failure more apparent. It is not really a failure, of course: it’s a betrayal.

And afterwards, when there are a million pieces to be picked up, the Government can disclaim responsibility. It was constrained by the law, which the House of Commons voted for.

This monstrous trap is quite simply dealt with.

If there is no alternative to “no deal”, then the alternative to no deal is no Brexit.

 

 

 

 

 

All honourable men

 

 

 

“Everyone with an ISA is involved in tax avoidance.” So said Lord Sassoon, former Treasury minister and beneficiary of a trust fund based in the Bahamas, amidst the furore that broke a week ago.

The very rich can be very obtuse. Equating a saver who has a few hundred pounds in an ISA and is earning 0.25% interest on it with, for instance, a sports celebrity who has just-about-legally avoided paying £220 million in VAT on a private jet by registering it in the Isle of Man is not just ridiculous, it’s an insult. Lord Sassoon should apologise to ISA holders. He won’t, of course.

The so-called Paradise Papers, 3.4 million confidential documents leaked by the offshore tax firm Appleby, lift a curtain on the world of what are repulsively known as “high net worth individuals.” They offer a baffling insight into the web of practices used by such people to hide their wealth in places where it can’t be taxed. The practices are convoluted, opaque, bizarre, but all basically dedicated to concealing who owns what. Sometimes even the accountants don’t know what’s going on.

As Molly Scott Cato, MEP, said in relation to the Panama Papers last year, Britain is right at the heart of this web. “More than half the companies listed were registered in the British Virgin Islands, and the data showed that other overseas territories and countries with a rather murky relationship with the City of London dominate that data.”

The Tories are on the wrong side of this, in the nature of things. They are traditionally the party of the privileged and propertied. New Labour may have been “relaxed” about extreme wealth, but it was Margaret Thatcher who made the ambition to be filthy rich respectable, and it was the Conservatives who recently cut the 50% tax rate and lowered corporation tax.

True to form, the Government last month voted down Labour amendments to the finance bill which would have forced UK beneficiaries of overseas trusts to declare their sources of property and income on a public register. Theresa May is still refusing to commit herself to a public inquiry or to having open registers for shell companies and secret trusts. Note that these are merely requirements for ending secrecy, not for changing the substance of the law, let alone for hanging the rich from lamp-posts.

However, the Government is merely being logical. The end of secrecy spells the beginning of the end of the practice, because the squirrelling away of money where the taxman can’t get at it is thoroughly hated – by people who don’t have large sums to squirrel, could not afford the services of tax accountants and, most important of all, are the ones who stand to lose. It is also deeply distasteful to many well-heeled citizens who have both the motive and the ability to engage in it, but who understand that it is corrosive of society.

What could all that money do if paid in full to the Treasury and put to its proper use? A recent study part-authored by the economist Gabriel Zucman (https://gabriel-zucman.eu/files/AJZ2017b.pdf) found that wealthy Brits had stashed about £300 billion –  equivalent to 15% of national GDP – in offshore tax havens. “This would more than cover our entire educational budget into the 2020s. It is the equivalent of £350 million being paid into the NHS every week for the next 16 years…”

Oh, there it is, that £350 million!

The avoidance or evasion of tax – the first is legal, the second is not, but, whatever you call it, the result is the same – robs public services of the funds they need and contributes to an inequality which is already of shocking dimensions. Do we want to live in a civilised society? Then we have to do something about it.

Current suggestions are directed at abolishing the secrecy. By an Order of Council, the Government could force overseas territories such as the Cayman Islands to adopt tax transparency measures. “We could change the rules on Lords and Commons’ members’ interests so that all offshore holdings would have to be registered” (Aditya Chakraborrty, Guardian 7 Nov.) Zucman has called for the creation of a worldwide tax register.

Any of this would be a welcome first step. However, transparency is not enough. A lobby group representing offshore business spoke of having “superb penetration” at the higher levels of the UK government before the G8 summit in June 2013. It congratulated itself when measures far less radical than those originally proposed were agreed.  A country in which that can happen should look hard at itself.

Here is the same point made more uncomfortably: “We’re not just complicit in what happens, we are central to its success,” said Margaret Hodge, MP, former chair of the Public Accounts Committee, in a recent adjournment debate on tax avoidance and evasion on the Isle of Man (zero tax on companies). She said funds from the British taxpayer were being used to enable the island to operate as a tax haven.

And here, perhaps, is part of the (intolerable) explanation: “HMRC is colonised by the tax avoidance industry and large corporations, who dominate its operations and are, in effect, allowed to write tax law” (Guardian, 6 November, article by Prem Sikka, Emeritus Professor of Accounting at the University of Essex). (My italics.)

Readers half-stunned by that last piece of information might reflect that David Cameron slashed the number of HMRC staff by 11,000 and that Theresa May plans to cut another 8,000.

It is legitimate to ask, in the light of this, whom our Government serves. It is not us, the people. Whom does Whitehall serve? The Government: that is its purpose. But, some will say, it is precisely for this reason that “the people” voted to leave the EU in the referendum; that vote was largely a protest about the way the country had been governed for decades in the interests of an elite.

Very well. Whom does Brexit serve?

Leave.EU was set up as a wholly-owned subsidiary of a finance firm based in Gibraltar that offered tax avoidance services. It specialised in “separating and relocating intellectual property and treasury functions to low- or no-tax jurisdictions.” Arron Banks, who contributed £8.5 million to Farage’s campaign, had been a substantial shareholder in the parent company (Guardian, 7 November 2015).

The association of Brexit with people who keep their money overseas is documented in a Guardian article of 9 November this year, ‘The Brexiters who put their money offshore.’ Here Arron Banks appears again, as co-owner of the Isle of Man’s Conister Bank, among whose clients was a businessman whose gambling firm was pursued by the US Dept of Justice for allegedly laundering billions of dollars in illegal proceeds. Charges remain outstanding. Banks himself is under investigation by the Electoral Commission for his contribution to Leave.EU’s funds.

Another familiar figure is Jacob Rees-Mogg, who has interests in an emerging markets fund in the Cayman Islands and Singapore. Andrea Leadsom’s brother-in-law runs a multi-billion-dollar hedge fund from Guernsey.  Brexiteer James Mellon owns the Hoxton Pony in Shoreditch, which apparently is very hip, through an obscure arrangement involving a UK-registered company owned by an Isle of Man company with four shareholders. The Barclay brothers, who live in the Channel Islands and Monaco and whose Daily Telegraph is an unfailing source of poisonous misinformation about Europe, cloak their financial affairs behind a nominee shareholding in which their names do not appear on the register.

There is no suggestion, the Guardian emphasises, that any of the individuals it mentions are suspected of criminality. Of course not. We are talking about tax avoidance. They are all honourable men. But the argument has moved beyond that. It has moved into the sphere of morality, and it needs to move into what is legitimate in politics.

In January 2013 the European Union produced an action plan for new legislation that would end tax-avoiding practices among its member states. The plan came to fruition in the Anti-Tax Avoidance Directive, published on 28 January 2016  (https://ec.europa/taxation_customs/business/company-tax/anti-tax-avoidance-package_en).

As Prime Minister, David Cameron fought a doughty campaign against the EU measures.  It is instructive to see how at two crucial points the lead-up to Brexit chimed exactly with the EU’s progress on tax reform. On 23 January 2013, less than a month after the EU presented its draft plan for the Directive, Cameron made a speech at Bloomberg in which he spoke of holding a referendum on whether Britain should remain in the EU.

Three years later, on 20 February 2016, within a month of the EU’s adoption of the Directive, he announced the date on which the referendum would be held.

The EU had stipulated the date by which the Directive has to be implemented by member states. It is 1 January 2019. That is just short of three months before the UK has to leave the Union. Theresa May is now exercising what little power she has to ensure that the departure date is written into British law.

A bit close, eh? But still…

The EU is now, after talking about it for a long time, drawing up a blacklist of tax havens. The UK’s favourite children – the Virgin Islands, the Caymans, Anguilla et al. – will be fingered. The list is expected in December.

That is close. On the other hand, who’s going to take any notice of a blacklist? Britain will soon be shot of the EU and all its works.

It’s impossible, at this point, not to see the apparition looming out of the fog that has long surrounded Brexit. It has been there all along, but it shuns publicity as vampires do the daylight. It cannot live with transparency, which means it cannot live with the EU and its meddlesome directives. The Brexit negotiations may appear to be a shambles; the Government is a shambles: for the vampire, none of this matters. Hard Brexit? The harder the better.

Get out quick and cut the rope.

 

 

Is this one of our fish?

 

 

 

As I write, we are eight weeks past Fish Dependence Day.

This is a date calculated by the New Economics Foundation to represent the start of the annual period during which the UK is dependent for its fish supplies on other countries. This year it was September 6.

Whose fault is this shocking state of affairs? Brexiters have no doubt it’s the EU’s. Britain must take back control of its fish stocks, bellowed Nigel Farage from his boat, as he led Fishing for Leave’s flotilla up the Thames in June 2016. Through his loud-hailer, he informed Bob Geldof that fishing communities were being destroyed by the EU’s fisheries policy.

Geldof, leading the less flamboyant counter-flotilla, called Farage (correctly) a fraud and charged that, when he was on the European Parliament’s Fishing Committee, Farage had attended precisely one meeting out of 43.

A factual rebuttal of Farage’s claim was left to Greenpeace’s director, John Sauven. “The distribution of fishing rights within the UK’s fleet is entirely the responsibility of the UK’s fisheries minister,” he stated. He said the problem lay with the concentration of the UK’s fishing quotas in the hands of a few large operators, some of whom, he said, were in Farage’s flotilla.

This hit an important nail squarely on the head. Fisheries account for less than 1% of the country’s GDP, but the emotional significance of the Hull trawler, the Grimsby fishing smack, the Scottish herring boat, coming in at dawn is huge. We are a maritime nation and fishing is a powerful symbol in our iconography.

There is hypocrisy in this because, as fishermen and fisherwomen would point out, we don’t give them a second thought when we complain about the price of plaice. However, that doesn’t mean the emotion isn’t real. It is a sentiment deeply woven into the Union flag, and it was what Farage appealed to.

As so often, he knew what he was doing.

And, as so often, what he was doing was deeply dishonest.

It was easy to do because fishing has been a source of trouble ever since Britain joined what was then the EEC.  The EEC did not act from the highest motives: it rushed a draft of the Common Fisheries Policy through the Council of Ministers in October 1970 just as the UK, Ireland, Norway and Denmark began negotiations for entry.

“This robbed the four, all big fishing nations with an 80 per cent share of western Europe’s coastal waters, of any say in framing a policy where their legitimate interests far outweighed those of the Six. The basic principle of the CFP – that fishing vessels of all member states could fish in each other’s coastal waters ‘up to the beaches’ – would have been rejected by the four had they been in on the negotiations. As it was, they were presented with a fait accompli” (Routledge Guide to the European Union, p. 176).

Norway refused the terms in a referendum in 1972. The UK, Ireland and Denmark reluctantly accepted. Since then the CFP has been revised and reformed several times, most recently in 2014, but its main provisions still are that the Union’s waters are open to all EU fishermen within a 200-mile limit from the Atlantic coasts, or up to a median line between countries, with the exception of a 12-mile inshore zone reserved for their own fleets.

The EU fixes “total allowable catches” at an annual meeting of the Council of Ministers. These are intended to prevent overfishing. The Union’s primary goal remains “by setting quotas, to redress the effect of long-standing overfishing and stock depletion, thereby ensuring sustainable fisheries and guaranteeing incomes and stable jobs for fishermen” (Routledge Guide).

Most UK fishing communities would say that the last of those goals, guaranteeing incomes and stable jobs for fishermen, is exactly what the EU has failed to do. A poll before the 2016 referendum showed that 92% of fishers backed the Leave campaign, “largely because of the perceived failures of the Common Fisheries Policy and under-allocation of fish quotas to the UK.” 1

They have a good case, on the face of it. There has been a collapse of the fishing industry and its communities that invites comparison with the destruction of the mining industry under Margaret Thatcher. Where there were once a hundred boats in the harbour, there are now twenty. Where there were twenty, there are none. The young people leave, the old are bitter. They ask why this has happened to them.

It’s the fault of Brussels, the British government has always replied, if it bothered to reply at all.

But John Sauven was quite right in saying it is London, not Brussels, that allocates fishing quotas within the UK. The EU sets the tonnage of specific fish that can be caught in EU waters, and divides this among member states. The quota each country receives is based largely on how much it fished in the specified areas before the CFP came into effect. This disadvantages the UK, which in the 1970s fished extensively in Icelandic waters, from which it is now barred.

Once the UK’s total has been awarded, it is up to the British government to allocate it to the national fishing fleet. British governments have a prejudice against small operators. Boats under 10 metres long make up the great majority of the UK fishing fleet, but receive a tiny fraction of the available quota. There was media outrage three years ago over the discovery that a giant Dutch vessel, the Cornelis Vrolijk, was taking roughly a quarter of the total UK catch; operating out of  Hull, it flew the British flag, but landed its entire catch in Holland.

“This system doesn’t work in favour of local, small-scale fisheries and the communities that rely on them,” says the New Economics Foundation.2  “Nor does it support sustainable, less profitable fishing techniques.”

The word “sustainable” is crucial here, and “profitable” is relative.

In 2012 the World Wildlife Fund estimated the European fishing fleets to be two to three times the size needed to catch the available fish. There is still huge overcapacity. Stocks are overfished: by everyone. Four out of every ten fish species have been exploited beyond safe biological limits. The UK plays its part: it comes sixth in the over-fishing league and sets quotas an average of 21% above scientific advice.

The WWF estimated that if European fish stocks were allowed to recover, the fisheries dependent on them could be five times more profitable. The figures quoted for the UK by the New Economics Foundation are startling: an increase in landings of 442,000 tonnes, 392 million euros in value and 6,600 new jobs. This would make the UK self-sufficient in fish and a net fish exporter.

The EU wants fishing in its waters to be sustainable by 2020. There has been an improvement; over the past ten years, unsustainability has dropped from 90% to 60%. Some fish stocks, for instance North Sea cod, are regenerating.  The 2014 reform of the CFP will ban discarding of fish. But the drop in unsustainability won’t hit the 2020 target, and the international Our Fish campaign claims that the whole industry needs to be restructured to ensure the recovery of stocks and long-term viability.

What effect would Brexit have on all this? Not as much as Leavers think.

Britain would become an independent coastal state under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. This does not mean we could do what we like. Under this Convention and the UN Fish Stocks Agreement, the UK would have to co-operate with neighbouring states in sustainable management of shared and trans-boundary fish stocks. (Fish move around. Nobody owns them. Nations have to co-operate.) We would need to negotiate membership with the North East Atlantic Fisheries Commission. The waters in the region of the Irish border would need to be fished with particular care. Nor would we have the fish all to ourselves. Several EU countries have been fishing in what will become UK waters for centuries, and Denmark and others are arguing that under UNCLOS they will still have the right to do so.

Might they? The UK has a strong legal case, but enforcing it could lose us friends who can’t be spared. In February a leaked memo from the European Parliament’s committee on fisheries insisted that the granting of UK access to the EU domestic market after Brexit “should be conditional on continued EU access to UK waters.”

We need that market: we export most of the fish we catch, and the EU takes two-thirds of it. We have a fish-processing industry, dependent on EU trade, that is even more important, economically and socially, than the fishing itself. What are we prepared to exchange for access?

And then there’s the really big thing. The EU, for all its failures, is at least working towards sustainability. What guarantees are there that a post-Brexit UK government would do likewise?

Brexit could in theory be an opportunity for much-needed restructuring. It’s a question of whose hands Brexit is in. The present crew are wreckers. Corporate-loving, bent on deregulation, they are the last people to be entrusted with a fragile and complex ecosystem. Nor does any British government have a good record on environmental pollution.

In the end it is not the EU, and not the British government, that will set the quotas we can catch. It is the sea.

If we have any sense at all, we will look after it.

 

1 Economic and Social Research Council, Post-Brexit Policy in the UK: Fisheries, Seafood and the Marine Environment, 2017. 

2 New Economics Foundation, A Fair Fishing Deal for the UK,  2017.

 

Tick, tick

 

 

 

I am put in mind of Captain Hook, who was haunted by a ticking clock. Inside a crocodile, if I remember rightly.

Theresa May said last week that there can’t be a transitional arrangement (she calls it an implementation arrangement) with the EU until the final trading relationship between the EU and UK has been settled.

“The point of the implementation period is to put in place the practical changes necessary to move to the future partnership,” she said in the Commons, “and, in order to have that, you need to know what the future partnership is going to be.”

Well, obviously. If we’re in transit, we must decide where we’re going. If we’re implementing, we must know what we’re implementing.

Yvette Cooper asked Mrs May if she meant that there wouldn’t be a transition deal if no longer-term UK-EU trade deal was agreed by this time next year. (As there would have to be, if we were to have a trade deal by the time we left in March 2019. And as there can’t possibly be: it is only parts of the Government and certain mad people who think a trade deal with the EU can be done within a year from now.)

Mrs May then said, with her invariable talent for obscuring what has just been clarified: “An implementation period is about a period that is adjusting to the future relationship. That’s the basis on which I have put it forward to the European Union and that’s the basis on which we’ll be negotiating an agreement.”

There was consternation. Not at the Prime Minister’s failure to answer a question, which is routine, but at her apparent certainty that we couldn’t negotiate a transitional agreement, which business needs desperately, until we had negotiated a trade agreement, which the Government needs desperately and hasn’t begun to negotiate because it is still stuck in the starting gate.

The public reaction prompted a rethink by the Government. Theresa May had not meant what she said. Or perhaps she had but it was hypothetical. One must always remember that words mean nothing to this government. Its utterances fall apart like the seed-head of a dandelion when the wind blows. Unfortunately, words are all we’ve got with which to hold it to account.

What she had said, before Yvette Cooper asked that inconvenient question, was, “You need to know what the future partnership is going to be.” What does “know” mean?  How do you know you know? Does your future partner also have to know? Does your future partner have to agree? If your future partner does not entirely agree, what then? And so on.

And what did she mean by “settled”? “Settled” could mean hammered out in detail. Or it could have the meaning of “settled on”, as in, “Let’s settle on the Canada option then, since at least most people around the table have heard of it.”

On Monday she appeared to say something unequivocal: “If no final deal has been reached by this time next year, then there would be no transitional deal.” “Reached” here definitely means “hammered out.” And that means no transition.

Michel Barnier then said, contradicting her, that, while a transitional agreement could be possible before March 2019, a future trade deal would have to be negotiated over several years.

That seems clear. What a blessing the Gallic intellect is.

What Barnier didn’t say was what stage the trade negotiations need to have reached for a transitional arrangement to be agreed. Nor have I found this crucial information anywhere else. David Davis says he is confident a transitional agreement will be reached early next year. He did not say what his confidence was based on. Theresa May now says that she expects trade talks and the transition talks to proceed simultaneously; this doesn’t help either, when nobody knows when trade talks will start.

In fact, nobody seems to know anything. Except the cut-off date. 29 March 2019. Tick, tick, tick.

David Davis is bullish about all this. On Wednesday he was talking with relish at a Commons committee hearing about the probability of the talks going to the wire, as though keeping one’s nerve through this process were a heroic military exploit. “The way the Union makes its decisions tends to be at the 59th minute of the 11th hour of the 11th day, and that is precisely what I would expect to happen…If there is a time limit on negotiation the union stops the clock, it assumes that it’s still at 11.59… sometimes over the course of 24, 36, 72 hours…

“It will be a lot of pressure, very high stress, very exciting for everybody watching.”

If the Secretary for Exiting the European Union thinks it will be exciting for EU nationals in Britain and UK citizens in Europe to be biting their nails into the small hours while they wonder what the fate of their marriages, their children, their jobs and their homes is, and for business leaders to watch helplessly as the ground erodes under their investments while he plays poker with Barnier, he should be thrown out of office.

However, that was not what created outrage. He had been asked, in a Commons committee, about the vote MPs are supposed to be getting on the final deal with the EU. He was effectively saying there wouldn’t be time for it, and it would have to be held later.

At PMQs the Chamber erupted. Stephen Kinnock asked the Prime Minister to explain “how it is possible to have a meaningful vote on something that has already taken place.”

Theresa May hastened, against howls of derision, to give her minister an escape route, but it was difficult when he had nailed himself so exuberantly into the coffin. The last few days have seen a limping series of explanations. The word “hypothetical” has been thrown around a great deal. It has been pointed out that the scenario Davis depicted cannot happen because six months have to elapse for the deal to be ratified by the 27 member countries before it is signed.  (These days, the fact that something can’t happen does not mean it won’t.)

It is perfectly apparent that the Government doesn’t know what it’s doing. It is incompetent on the most basic level: it can’t get its dates in a row. The trouble is, the calendar is vital to these negotiations. That is something David Davis seems never quite to have got on top of. His negotiating strategy is to keep everything in the air until the last moment, when it will all come together by a magnificent act of intuition or of God. He began by attempting to make discussion of the Irish border dependent on discussion of customs. He now wants to make everything dependent on everything. If it is, then naturally it can only come together at the last moment. Hence his enjoyment of the scenario he painted at the Commons committee hearing.

He has doubtless employed this strategy in many negotiations before. They were business negotiations. He hasn’t grasped the difference. He will also remember that the Good Friday peace agreement was reached in the small hours, that the negotiations with the IRA circled perpetually around demands the granting of which was always dependent on the granting of something else, and that the same is true of the negotiations between Israel and Palestine. There are precedents aplenty. But they are irrelevant.

He hasn’t fully grasped – or he has given the wrong weight to – the fact that, in these negotiations, time itself is a wasting asset. He can’t admit that there is a discrepancy in the power balance and it is not in his favour. He won’t take seriously that a sequence has been stipulated for these talks in which Part A has to be completed satisfactorily before Part B is embarked on, and that this stipulation over-rides the EU’s own “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.”

If Part A has to be completed first, it is not possible to keep everything in the air until the last minute, is it?

Deny, deny. The Government is now trying to reverse the sequence: progress on Part A will depend on progress in Part B. It would be interesting to see what would happen if the EU agreed to this, because starting trade negotiations would make no difference to the Government’s ability to sort out the money, citizens’ rights or the border. This is because the problems it has with those three issues are problems with its own party, the electorate and (in the case of the border) the nature of reality, not with Brussels. The EU should call the Government’s bluff – and indeed perhaps it is getting ready to do so, with its hints about the “scoping” of trade talks.

Keeping this game going as long as he can is Davis’s only hope. Make everything dependent on everything else. Like that children’s game in which you get in a circle and all sit on the knees of the person behind. The circle stays up for much longer than you’d expect. In the end, of course, it falls down.

Tick, tick.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Economical with the truth

 

British governments love secrets, and hang on to them.

Spycatcher is cited with some glee by people who enjoy seeing an overbearing government making a fool of itself. It was a book written by a former M15 officer about the supposed goings-on in that establishment, and was published in Australia in 1987 because it had been banned in Britain. It alleged that MI5 had conspired to undermine the premiership of Harold Wilson, had bugged Commonwealth conferences, had plotted to assassinate President Nasser, and that its former Director General, Roger Hollis, had been a Russian mole.

It was a rather bad book written by a man aggrieved about his pension rights, and the government would have well advised to let it lapse into obscurity. However, the Prime Minister at the time was Margaret Thatcher, in whose nature such a course of action did not lie. A great deal of legal bigwiggery descended on Sydney with the object of suppressing the book. The only thing anyone can remember about the case is an expression used by Sir Robert Armstrong, Mrs Thatcher’s cabinet secretary; in one of his replies he said that he had not lied about the matter in question, he had been “economical with the truth.” The roar of ribald Aussie laughter is still echoing.

The British Government lost the case, and appealed. While the appeal was in progress the book, which all along had been available in Scotland, was published in the USA. The American publishers, Viking Penguin, set up stalls selling copies at airports where flights were departing for the UK.  A lot of copies made the trip and were not stopped at customs.

The Sunday Times started publishing extracts. Other newspapers printed reviews. The Government lost its head and threw injunctions about. Sales had reached two million. By the time the Law Lords ruled that no law had been broken because the book no longer contained any secrets, there were copies in every bookshop in the land. The final humiliation for the Government came in 1991, when the European Court of Human Rights ruled that it had breached the Human Rights Act by attempting to gag the press.

Peter Wright recouped his pension and died a millionaire.

The Thatcher government was just doing what it knew. Five years earlier, during the Falklands War, an Argentine Exocet missile had struck HMS Sheffield amidships, causing a devastating fire. Twenty sailors died and a further 24 were injured. The disaster was reported in the press, but not in any detail. The report of the Board of Inquiry was suppressed.

Thirty-five years later, the full, unredacted account has just been released (Guardian 15 October). It is a miserable catalogue of inadequate command, warnings ignored and procedures omitted. The anti-air warfare officer was having a cup of coffee in the wardroom when the missile struck; twelve minutes later he was still insisting it had not been a missile. This was partly because the intelligence assessment he had been given was bulky and difficult to read. The radar was being used for another transmission, and a warning from a sister ship that Argentine fighter jets were approaching was not heeded. The firefighting equipment was inadequate. There is a lot more.

No court martial was held. Two officers who had been found guilty of negligence by the Inquiry were “spoken to.” There was fear of “creating the wrong atmosphere in the press and souring the general euphoria,” in the words of the Commander in Chief, Admiral Sir John Fieldhouse. A senior civil servant (Clive Ponting) described it as “too great a catastrophe to be made public.”

The Admiral’s words are perfectly credible to anyone who remembers the public jubilation after the Falklands victory, and knows how indebted to it Mrs Thatcher was for her victory at the subsequent general election. One imagines the conversation around the polished table: nothing could bring the sailors back; publication could always wait. It would compound the grief of the families and do the MoD no good. National security was involved.

National security is always involved when the government wishes to cover something up.  It is the argument that never fails because it cannot be challenged: the would-be challenger lacks the information that would serve to challenge it. That information is secret. The stratagem is neat, but because it is so waterproof and so frequently invoked it commands little respect among the populace. However, that doesn’t matter, because the populace can do nothing about it.

Current circumstances allow Theresa May a new variant of “national security,” but it is essentially the same idea. It is that to divulge any information she doesn’t want to divulge about Brexit would “prejudice the Government’s negotiating strategy”. She has used this ever since becoming Prime Minister. David Davis used it last week when he refused to release the more than 50 studies the Government had commissioned into the effects of Brexit on different sectors of British industry.

That the Government had enquired at all into the effects of Brexit on the economy was news to most of us: it had always affected an insouciant optimism. So it should have been reassuring that the Government had done something. More than 50 seems rather over the top, but it had surely done the sensible thing.

Now it is doing the next sensible thing, and keeping the information to itself.

Is anyone surprised? This is Britain. This is a Government that has always refused to explain its plans for Brexit (it “means Brexit”). And this is a Government, hanging on by a tiny, bought majority, that is entirely preoccupied by internal battles and its own imperilled status. Such a government may, possibly, have a perception of where the interests of the country lie, but it is not going to follow it. Probably it does not have such a perception at all: its thinking is captive to its need to survive. The only thing it is free to do is protect itself.

This is why the studies were commissioned. They weren’t to help us prepare ourselves for the effect of Brexit. They were to help the government prepare for the effects of Brexit on us.

The Government’s nonsense over its negotiating position needs to be called. It is behaving as though predictions of what will happen to the UK economy after Brexit are a military secret, instead of a matter of legitimate concern to many countries. Anyone is free to research the economic facts, and the EU has doubtless done so. And we are not at war. If the Government thinks we are, that is because it is at war – with itself, a sizeable section of the electorate and the bogey-figures it has conjured up in Brussels.

If the studies Mr Davis is trying to suppress belong to anyone, they belong, not to the Government which has commissioned them, but to the people Brexit will affect.

What’s more, our taxes have paid for them.

There are several possible responses to an abuse of power. In some countries they riot in the streets. Here, we usually prefer a legal challenge. Molly Scott Cato, Green MEP for the South West and Gibraltar, and Jolyon Maugham, QC, Director of the Good Law Project, who supported Gina Miller in her Article 50 case against the Government, are bringing an action against David Davis to force him to release the papers.

If the Government follows form, it will refuse at every stage. If the court rules against it, it will appeal upwards to the Supreme Court. But this will focus attention on something it will certainly not want attention focused on; it could backfire as spectacularly as the attempt to ban Spycatcher. This is not an obscure and complex issue like the Withdrawal Bill (to which 300 amendments have been tabled, to the Government’s despair). This is something a child can understand: the Government knows what is going to happen to our money, and it isn’t telling us.

It is obvious that the information in the documents point to Brexit’s being an economic disaster. Now, it is true that the OECD has just predicted that it will be an economic disaster and the Government seems to have ridden out the storm; but while it is possible to dismiss the findings of the OECD (“another European think tank”), it is not possible to dismiss findings the Government has itself commissioned. Particularly if it has spent months refusing to publish them.

Published, they will definitely create the wrong atmosphere in the press and sour the general euphoria. They might even bring about the catastrophe of a demand for a second vote. Yet, the more tenaciously the Government hangs on to those findings, the worse things will look if eventually it has to give way. It must know this, but won’t know what to do. No half-way house is possible: it cannot publish excerpts. And when it deigns to tell us, as it has promised it will, which sectors of the economy the documents are about, this will only increase demand for the documents themselves.

It just has to pray that the court rules in its favour.

If the court does, one thing is certain: no-one will see those documents for 35 years.

 

 

The hypnotist’s fingers

 

We are being softened up for a no-deal Brexit.

The rhetoric about leaving without a deal has fluctuated. At first it was a hubris-inflected “See if I care!” with an aura of slammed doors. It was accompanied by talk of offshore tax havens. Sometimes there would be a Michael Howard gunship in the background.

It quietened down as the Government realised it had to pretend to start negotiating even if it had no idea how to do so. But now the topic is back in the news, the tone has become only marginally more civilised, and two white papers on trade policy and customs which declare the Government’s readiness to prepare, among other things, for Brexit without a deal have been published.

On Wednesday (11 October) the Today programme featured an interview with two businessmen, Karan Bilimoria, CEO of Cobra Beer, and Christopher Nieper, CEO of David Nieper, the womenswear company. They were asked what they thought would be the effect on their businesses of “crashing out” of the EU. Mr Bilimoria said it would be very difficult, because the huge and tariff-free market to which he at present exported “seamlessly” would be gone. Mr Nieper said it would make no difference, it might even be an opportunity because the fall in sterling would help him to export even more. Mr Nieper’s view is shared by only 2% of UK businessmen, but the BBC wasn’t going to tell us that.

An eight-page paper by Nick Clegg, International Trade and Brexit, published in September 2016, gives a bleaker view of what would happen under “no deal.”

He lists the effects with which we are now gloomily familiar – immediate tariffs on exports to the EU, bureaucratic customs checks, loss of passporting rights, non-tariff barriers – but also notes:

“It is, for example, hard to see how any significant animal and animal product exports to the continent could continue, given that imports to the EU have to pass through designated Border Inspection Posts, of which there are precisely none on the other side of the Channel… ”

He provides a link (http://leavehq.com/blogview.aspx?blogno=128) to the website of the Leave Alliance, which gives a grimly fascinating insight into exactly what border checks can mean when the paperwork has ceased to be valid: “Your container inspection is typically about £700 and detention costs about £80 a day for the ten days or so it will take to get your results back.  Add the testing fee and you’re paying an extra £2,000 to deliver a container into the EU.”

It won’t work simply to drop our own tariffs to the EU to zero and challenge it to reciprocate. For one thing, says Clegg, the EU couldn’t; WTO rules would compel it to apply the Common External Tariff. For another, if we drop tariffs on EU imports to zero we will be obliged to do the same for every other country in the world, and bang goes our negotiating capital.

Nor is it possible to put in place a simple, “quick and dirty” FTA covering essential sectors and leaving others for future negotiations. “The WTO rules require any FTA to be ‘comprehensive,’ covering ‘substantially all’ the trade between the transacting parties.”

Clegg concludes that an interim trade deal with the EU has to be in place by the time Britain leaves the EU. That will take several years and we haven’t started yet.

That we haven’t started yet is being blamed on the EU. It is accused of being rigid and unimaginative. The reality is that our negotiators cannot negotiate their brief.

The talks are stalled. There has again been no progress this week. M. Barnier is using the word “deadlock” of the financial settlement. Something is stopping the negotiations like the swinging pendulum of a hypnotist. And stopping them at the earliest stage. We are nowhere near getting to the trade talks for which the Government is desperate. Three matters – money, citizens’ rights, the Irish border – have to be dealt with first, and although the first two are tricky they are not impossible. Yet all that happens is a tidying-up around the margins.

It’s as if the real cliff-edge exists, not on the other side of a failed negotiating process, but within the minds of the negotiating team. At a certain point in the thinking, the ground gives way. A chasm appears. It cannot be bridged.

And this, I think, is the truth. The negotiations throw up difficulties of two different kinds. The first kind is a political problem, and it affects the financial settlement and citizens’ rights. The Government does not want to give ground on these issues because, after all its high-sounding talk, it doesn’t want to present a compromise to the British electorate. With intelligence, honesty and political courage, progress could be made. We do owe money. EU citizens here should be given an unconditional guarantee. But the Government is lacking in those three qualities.

The second kind of difficulty is a logical problem and it concerns the Irish border. This the Government cannot solve because it is insoluble. A border will come into existence, de facto, when the UK leaves the EU, but it has to be at the same time invisible and immaterial for the purposes of keeping the peace in Ireland, and visible and material for the purposes of keeping the EU’s customs union inviolate.  Any solution will be a fudge of one kind or another; since it is a fudge it will, under pressure, fall apart (which in the circumstances is highly dangerous); and for all these reasons the proposal won’t get past the EU anyway.

Together, these difficulties compose a Himalayan range of which the negotiations are still pottering around the foothills.

The Government’s main tactic for dealing with the impasse, apart from sending out a snowstorm of official papers which do not grapple with any of the difficult points, is to blame the EU for everything. It calls on it to be “flexible,” by which it means the EU should abandon the negotiating position that has been agreed between 27 member states for their common survival. Following Theresa May’s damp squib of a speech in Florence, it declares that the ball is now in the EU’s court.

It has one other tactic. It has tried to meld the Irish border issue with its customs union proposals, perhaps hoping to bamboozle the EU into talking about customs when the EU has said it won’t, or at least to muddy the question of whether the border has been sorted out or not. The EU has refused to play. Rightly: if it allows the UK to blur the lines on this, the UK will do it again, and the talks will descend into a fog in which everything becomes something else.

Fortunately, this makes it possible to blame the EU again.

So the team representing the national interest sits in Brussels angry, checkmated (self-checkmated) and effectively twiddles its thumbs. Time passes. Nothing terrible has happened yet. Something will turn up to save it. Perhaps, it thinks, walking out without a deal will save it.

And it will: it will save both its skin and its face. That is why no deal is becoming increasingly inevitable. But there is a vertiginous price to pay for no deal. It is not just trade that will go over the edge: everything will, starting with the lives of more than four million people who will find themselves, overnight, plunged into chaos because they have woken up in the wrong country.

That may not matter too much to some Brexiters, but, when the cost becomes apparent, it will destroy the Conservative Party.

That matters.

What could break the paralysis?

The only thing that can unlock the Irish problem is for the UK to stay in the customs union, but the Government is pledged not to do that. Or it could keep Northern Ireland in the customs union and move the border to somewhere in the Irish Sea. The DUP won’t allow it to do that.

The pendulum swings.

On Tuesday the Prime Minister gave an extraordinary interview on LBC radio which in any other circumstances would have signalled the immediate demise of the politician who gave it. Asked three times by Iain Dale whether, if there were a second vote, she would vote for Remain or Leave, she started by saying she didn’t answer hypothetical questions and, after much prevarication, evasion and hesitancy, stammered out, “Iain, I could sit here and I could say I’d still vote Remain or I’d vote Leave just to give you an answer to that question.

“I’m being open and honest with you.

“What I did last time around was I looked at everything and came to a judgement and I’d do exactly the same this time around. But we’re not having another referendum, and that’s absolutely crucial.”

She then said twice more, clearly seeking refuge in the statement, that we were not having another referendum.

Throughout this stumbling but dogged refusal to endorse her own policy, she looked terrified.

She is still Prime Minister, and the transcript of the interview has vanished from the website of the Guardian, which published it in full.

This unreal stasis cannot last. The pressure of the real world is growing. The hypnotist’s fingers will click, the patient will wake up. The house will fall down.

 

What’s it worth?

 

In the past three weeks, Theresa May has made two major speeches, of which the first failed of its intended effect and the second was a disaster. Boris has drawn provocative red lines in places that were not his business, and made an ass of himself in places which were. The Cabinet has skidded from one crisis to another and is trying to avoid unintentional suicide. The European Parliament has voted that not enough progress has been made in the Brexit negotiations for talks to proceed to the next stage, which renders largely pointless the Prime Minister’s speech in Florence.  Official figures showed the UK at the bottom of the G7 growth table; productivity has fallen for two consecutive months. And The Lancet has published a nine-page paper on the effect Brexit will have on the NHS.

The most important of these is the last.

Of all the facets of British life that Brexit will affect, the NHS is unique. It arouses not just passion, but unanimity. On immigration the nation is divided; on sovereignty there is room for endless argument. There is no room for argument about the NHS. It has to be protected. Even people who in their hearts would like to dismantle it dare not say so. During the referendum campaign an emotional voter told the BBC she would “literally go mad” if Boris Johnson’s £350 million per week for the NHS did not materialise. Her husband needed complex medication. I do not know what her mental state is now.

The Lancet’s paper, “How will Brexit affect health and health services in the UK?” (http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S0141-6736(17)31926-8), surveys the risk to health-related issues in the UK of three scenarios: soft Brexit, hard Brexit and failed Brexit (no deal).  Its bleak conclusion is that each scenario poses substantial threats, that failed Brexit would be the riskiest outcome, and that the greatest threat facing the NHS will come from the impact of Brexit on the national economy.

Starting with the recruitment problem, it says it will be very difficult for the UK to be self-sufficient in the NHS or social care workforce in the foreseeable future. “Over 6,000 people from non-UK EU countries work in the NHS and 90,000 work in adult social care. One in ten doctors in the UK is a European graduate…” Moreover, “EU membership greatly enhances the attractiveness of the UK as a place to build a career in research and clinical roles.”

Or it did. The authors go on to discuss the ways in which Brexit would make the UK less attractive to these workers by undermining their legal entitlements.  Already in March, the Guardian  reported a 92% drop in the number of EU nationals registering as nurses in England, which the Royal College of Nursing blamed on the Government’s failure to provide them with any security about their future.

About 190,000 people who receive British pensions live in the EU and depend for health care on reciprocal UK/EU arrangements. The authors note that “the post-Brexit deal could continue this system and the UK Government appears to want to do so, although how this system can be reconciled with leaving the future jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice is unclear…The summary of negotiating positions on citizens’ rights shows no agreement on this crucial issue.”

It is indeed crucial, although the British Government did not at first think so and did not include it in plans for the talks. It also represents a bargain for the taxpayer: the UK pays about £650 million per year for care provided to British people in EU countries (about £500 million is for pensioners) and receives about £50 million for the care provided to EU-insured nationals in the UK. The amount paid by the UK is less than 0.5% of the total NHS budget and is “good value for money, because the average cost of treating pensioners elsewhere in the EU under these arrangements is about half the cost of similar treatment within the UK.”

Does Boris know this, one wonders?

The fall in sterling is already making imported medicines more expensive. “Events that affect the UK economy are likely to have a substantial impact on NHS finances,” the report notes. The Economist Intelligence Unit estimates that NHS costs will increase by £7.5 billion a year. It adds that “The overwhelming consensus of economic forecasts… is that Brexit will have a substantial long-term negative impact on the UK economy.”

As part of Brexit, we are leaving the European Medicines Agency, which had its offices at Canary Wharf, and which authorises and standardises medicines across the EU. This seamless system makes it possible to bring new medical products to the market more quickly and cheaply than would otherwise be possible. “In Switzerland and Canada, which have separate approval systems, medicines typically reach the market six months later than in the UK.” Perhaps we could pay to continue participating in it, but we will lose any power to influence it. (And how many other things will we have to pay to participate in, and why don’t we just stay where we are?)

The UK has its own Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency, which at present is incorporated in the EMA. It will need to be beefed up, the report says, but “this process will be challenging, as the agency derives a substantial proportion of its income from the EU… and…it is likely to face difficulties in attracting specialised staff from other parts of Europe.” (My italics.)

Boris?

Furthermore, “A failed Brexit” (which would throw us on to WTO trade rules) “would cause immediate disruptions to importing health products whose trade is not governed by WTO rules. There is a major threat to the availability of radioisotopes for diagnosis and for cancer therapy, which the UK imports mainly from the Netherlands.”

Moving on to public health, the report casts a caustic eye on the UK government’s record on air quality. In 2015, only two London boroughs met EU standards for nitrogen dioxide concentrations. It’s not too good on water quality, either, although, prodded by the EU, it has improved. “This trend suggests that, in the absence of EU legislation, UK environmental standards could slip further.” There is a risk that the UK could become a prime target for the tobacco industry post Brexit, “as is the case in Switzerland.”

Did we know that the UK lags behind comparable economies in investing in research and development? The report tells us so. “It is a net beneficiary of EU research funding, attracting substantially more funds than it contributes to the common pool, and the loss of this funding would have severe consequences.” (My italics).

Why has it been left to a paper in a medical journal to say things that should have been on every billboard in the referendum campaign?

Whatever the form of Brexit, “vast areas of EU legislation will need to be adopted and adapted into national law and then potentially revised; the harder the Brexit, the greater the volume of legislation needed.” This task, say the authors, “risks overwhelming parliament and the civil service,” and they have grave concerns about the lack of scrutiny that is likely to result.

They are talking about the Withdrawal (or Repeal) Bill. Health is only one small part of the huge body of legislation involved. And health is something to which the Government seems to have given little consideration. It excluded the Department of Health from the negotiating process.

What hope in that case that, staggering under a mountain of directives and regulations about workers’ rights, safety of shipping, anti-competitive practices, farming, waste disposal and countless other matters, MPs will be able to give their minds to the importing of isotopes?

For the NHS workforce and EU/UK citizens who find themselves in the wrong place when Brexit strikes, “the impacts will be… potentially devastating,” the report believes. “However, the largest impact on the health system is likely to come from Brexit’s impact on the wider economy, on the ability of the state to function, and thus on the ability of the UK to finance the health service.

“Given the apparent lack of capacity of the government to rise to this challenge, we argue that the wider health community within the UK must work together to address these issues.” (My italics.)

Those last two sentences are extraordinary. When was something like this last said in a professional journal by scientists? It amounts to saying that the Government is not capable of protecting society from a grave harm and that the people must take charge.

The rest of the world seems to know this. Confidence in the UK economy is dropping like a stone. Inanimate objects know it: letters drop off the set behind the Prime Minister as, coughing convulsively, she attempts to “reset” her premiership. The psyche of our leading politicians knows it – hence the increasing inappropriateness of Boris Johnson’s antics, the Edwardian pastiche of contender-in-waiting-for-the-crown Jacob Rees-Mogg, and that self-immolating cough.

All of them point in the same direction: the sun is setting on the UK.

It doesn’t have to.

In Catalonia the people are in the streets. They know what they want and what it is worth to them.

What is the NHS worth to us?