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Johnson and Hunt are blind to the six dead ends

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Geraint Talfan Davies
This article was originally published in the 19th July 2019 edition of the Western Mail.

Those who are fond of the surreal are having an exceptional summer – and I am not just talking about the five-hour down-to-the-wire Wimbledon final, or even the nail-biting ‘all but a draw’ cricket win over New Zealand.

We also have an American President – so-called leader of the free world – indulging in racist tropes to goad opponents into a polarised debate that he thinks suits his purpose. Abraham Lincoln, himself a Republican President,  must be turning in his grave.

Here at home, two Conservative candidates indulge in endless repetitive fantasies to secure one of smallest mandates in the democratic world – and the keys to No 10 – while the Leader of the Opposition palpably fails to manage his own party, or even his own inner circle, driving support ever downwards. 

Political leaders used to aspire to be statesmen. Not any more. Statesmanship is for the birds. ‘Divide and rule’ is back in fashion. The tribe trumps nation, and damn the consequences. 

Last week Boris Johnson, in a television interview with Andrew Neil, confirmed that he is not a man for too much homework, preferring to busk it. Someone had clearly told him that paragraph 5b of the World Trade Organisation law, GATT24, suited his purpose. It deals with interim free-trade agreements.

Johnson marched boldly on to tell us all that his government would rely on 5b. Unfortunately for him, Andrew Neil – who is given to quite thorough homework – asked with faux innocence, “But what about paragraph 5c?” Johnson, caught out like a naughty schoolboy, eventually had to confess he did not know what was in 5c.

This was rather an important lacuna in his preparation since 5c effectively says that 5b does not apply unless you have an ‘agreed plan and schedule for a free trade area within a reasonable length of time’. Such is the lack of depth of our likely future Prime Minister – a lack of depth that proved very costly to the citizens of London when he was its Mayor, and could prove even more costly to us all. 

Mr Hunt, superficially more managerial in his approach, may eschew Mr Johnson’s bluster, but over recent weeks he has pursued a crab-like course, edging more and more towards Mr Johnson’s ‘no deal’ stance. This puts both candidates in the position of accepting the possibility of a ‘no deal’ even if Mr Hunt does so with a heavier heart. Entrepreneurial or not, he has not managed to find a way of reining in his wilder colleague. 

The one danger in all this is that a ‘no deal’ departure from the EU becomes accepted as a serious option for the country, rather than the most outlandish, extreme, fanatical and self-harming option of all.

Meanwhile, Philip Hammond, the country’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, purportedly a member of the same party as the two contenders, says he will do everything in his power to stop a ‘no deal’ exit. Being the Chancellor, he can count – votes as well as money. He is not alone.

The debate among economists is not about whether the economy will be hit, but by how much. The Office of Budget Responsibility, much the most optimistic, says we would forgo 18 months of growth. The Bank of England says the economy would shrink by 8% in the immediate aftermath of a ‘no deal’ exit. Others calculate that we could be between 5.5% and 9% worse off over the next dozen years. This week’s fall in the pound tells you what the markets think.

In short, the ‘no deal’ option is one that no country of sound mind would ever contemplate, and one that this country – even the proponents of Leave – certainly did not contemplate for a moment in 2016. 

It has been left to a cross-party duo – Dame Margaret Beckett MP, a former Foreign Secretary and Deputy Labour Leader, and Dominic Grieve MP, a former Conservative Attorney General – to bring us back to reality and remind us of some hard facts.

In their joint report – Six Dead Ends, One Cliff Edge, Only One Way out – you hear the sound of adults talking. They detail the harsh facts that will be faced by a Prime Minister with no personal mandate pushing a policy for which there is no public mandate.

The six dead ends they foresee are: 

  1. The Northern Ireland backstop. It will be fruitless to try to negotiate this or to attempt to limit its duration. This is one point on which the EU is adamant. One has lost count of the number of times European leaders have made this plain. Boris Johnson claims there are “abundant technical fixes” to solve the border issue, but cannot name one. He knows as much about this as about paragraph 5c.
  2. A Northern Ireland-only backstop. The idea of putting a border down the Irish Sea – an idea totally unacceptable to the DUP, and with unpredictable consequences for Irish politics, peace and security.
  3. Forcing the Withdrawal Agreement through the Commons. This is an agreement that has already been rejected three times by the Commons, and the DUP’s spokesman has said his party will vote against it “a thousand times”. In any case, Johnson and Hunt have both ruled it out.
  4. A General Election. All polling suggests that calling an election before delivering Brexit, would be disastrous for the Conservatives, and would result in another hung Parliament. Among the seats at risk would be Boris Johnson’s own seat. Even a coalition between the Conservatives and the Brexit Party would probably not be sufficient to create a dependable majority.  ERG diehards would be against it.
  5. Revoke Article 50. Legally, this is still an option. Some opposition parties favour it and six million people have signed a petition in favour of revoking. But no Conservative Prime Minister is going to propose it, and there is probably not a majority for it in the Commons. It was rejected by 292 to 191 last April.
  6. Extend Article 50 for further negotiations. Statements by EU spokesman only yesterday made plain that this is a non-starter. They see an extension as justified only if there were to be a general election or another referendum

That has left Dame Margaret and Mr Grieve, staring at two options: Leave with no deal or a new referendum – a People’s Vote. They reject the ‘no deal’ option as “this country’s biggest ever step away from free trade, leaving “no parachute for our importers or our exporters”. There would be no WTO safety net, while the thought that this could be pushed through by the Government having prorogued Parliament, they regard as a “democratic outrage”.  The Government would not survive.

They are forced to the conclusion that any specific form of Brexit will be opposed by Parliament and that faced with this situation a new referendum will be seen as “the least-worst choice”. It would likely take place in Spring 2020.

The combination of this logic, Commons arithmetic and the opposition of people who do their homework, may yet bring down our next blustering Prime Minister – probably the Busker of the Year. It may also rescue us all. 

Geraint Talfan Davies is Chair of Wales for Europe and author of Unfinished Business: Journal of an Embattled European.