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We will have to queue to go to hell in a handcart

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Geraint Talfan Davies


This article was originally published in the 20th August 2019 edition of the Western Mail.

This year the usual August silly season has been far from silly. You could be forgiven a feeling that the country is falling apart.

Power stations collapsing, the lights going out literally and metaphorically, just as the Chancellor visited the National Grid training centre. Traffic lights on the blink. Trains halted. British Airways’ computer going down for the umpteenth time. Other planes on standby – at immense cost – for emergency airlifts of medical supplies.

This is but the prelude. The Government’s own Operation Yellowhammer ‘no deal’ dossier predicts even worse – in detail, and in full technicolour. Logjams and delays at ports and airports. Disruption of fuel supplies. Vulnerable medical supplies. The closure of some oil refineries (Milford Haven, beware). Rising costs for social care.

It is a chilling document. A peacetime Government, by choice, is spending untold billions to put the fifth largest economy in the world on a war footing and even so has grievously underestimated the challenge. We will have to queue even to go to hell in a handcart.

And all of this is diverting us from the fact that not only is the UK economy already stalling, but the much-lauded German economy is also doing likewise. Sterling is sliding. Investment and productivity are both weak. In fact, we are told the whole world is on the brink of another recession, but with no concerted international plan to avoid it. Such is the Brexit preoccupation, our own government hasn’t the time to notice.

In Downing Street a government disgracefully free for nearly two months from Parliamentary scrutiny, led by a Prime Minister who will not subject himself to media interviews, seems keen to box itself in, intent on taking things to the wire with Europe, with no suggestion of any area of possible compromise that would avert a ‘no deal’ exit from the EU.

It sets up a fund of undisclosed size to help small firms whose prospects might be wrecked by this eventuality, and then has the cheek to complain that any expression of concern about the consequences of ‘no deal’ is simply ‘Project Fear’. Too damn right. Let you into a secret, folks, I’m scared. And so should we all be.

This febrile August will end, and so must the recess for all the governments of this disunited kingdom – in Cardiff and Edinburgh as well as Westminster. We need all democratic hands on deck for this storm.

Jeremy Corbyn has run up his own flag, in a letter to leaders of other opposition parties and in his speech yesterday, but many in both his own and the other parties are reluctant to salute it. Jo Swinson, the newly-elected Liberal Democrat leader, has been notably unequivocal, though some would say also lacking in guile. The SNP and Plaid Cymru, on the other hand, have been more cautious, though less than enthusiastic.

The core of Mr Corbyn’s proposal is as follows:

“Following a successful vote of no confidence in the Government, I would then, as Leader of the Opposition, seek the confidence of the House for a strictly time-limited temporary Government with the aim of calling a General Election, and securing the necessary extension of Article 50 to do so.

“In that General Election, Labour will be committed to a public vote on the terms of leaving the European Union, including an option to Remain.”

The response of other parties will depend on their assessment of his priorities and his trustworthiness on this issue. Predictably, Mr Corbyn has not helped his own cause.

That said, Mr Corbyn is the Leader of the Opposition. He has a perfect right to make this proposal, indeed he had a duty to do so. This is what Leaders of Her Majesty’s Opposition are for. His party is the second-largest party in the House of Commons and it would be odd indeed – if a vote of no confidence against the Government were to carry – were the Leader of the Opposition not to offer to form a government.

That much is uncontentious. The issue is what he would do once in office. From a position of arithmetic weakness in the Commons (not to mention the opinion polls) he is, in effect, asking for the support of other parties for the prioritisation of a General Election over the holding of a referendum.

The General Election would be the bird in the hand, the referendum and rest of Labour’s manifesto birds in the bush. They would both be delivered only if Labour could win the election. 

That is asking for a considerable leap of faith by his wished-for allies. Labour’s showing in the recent European elections and in the Brecon and Radnorshire by-election are not exactly encouraging.

Trust is also an issue. Given Mr Corbyn’s dismal track record on Europe, he must have known he would have an uphill task to conquer the suspicions of parties of the centre and left, let alone to reach out to potential Conservative rebels. The promise of a radical socialist government comparable to the 1945 Atlee Government is hardly designed to appeal to the latter.

All in all his proposal as stated in the letter leaves much room for manoeuvre and, some fear, betrayal.

The temporary government would, of course, be a Labour Government – albeit with a leadership at odds with the majority of his own party. The declared time-limited nature of that government is presumably a concession designed to reassure sceptics, but that self-limited period is undefined.

Those sceptics will know that any Government, however constrained in its duration, will have a considerable capacity to sculpt the process to a desired shape and ends, and in its own interests.

Moreover, in this situation doubters still cannot point to a clear statement of the position of a Corbyn-led government on the central, defining issue for this country’s future. Although Labour’s manifesto would commit to ‘a referendum, with Remain as an option’, he has refused to say what his Government would recommend or campaign for in that referendum.   

There is then the question of time. The proposed order of events – General Election first, then a referendum – would require a longer period to get to a resolution of the European issue than if it were the other way around.

Any new Government would be able to embark on planning a referendum immediately, but if the prior commitment is to a General Election, that would add several months to the process, and still with no guarantee of any outcome at the end of it.

All in all, there are few signs that Mr Corbyn and his advisers have undertaken a thorough risk assessment. From his current position of weakness in the polls, his indeterminate position on Europe is more likely to lose his party votes and seats and boost the fortunes of Plaid Cymru, the Liberal Democrats, and the SNP.

He is also taking a massive risk with his planned radical manifesto. There are many who will share his view that Britain currently is in desperate need of radical economic and social reform. But our departure from the EU, especially if happens without a deal, is going to make it more difficult not less difficult to achieve such a change.

For all these reasons it is perfectly understandable why other parties, naturally sceptical of another party and equally mindful of their own interests, would want more transparency about the duration and objectives of Mr Corbyn’s proposed government, as well as guarantees against possible avenues of retreat. The whole country needs full and further particulars. 

The preeminent objective in the national interest must be to resolve the Brexit crisis as quickly as possible. The first priority must be to prevent a ‘no deal’ exit from occurring either by design or accident. That inevitably means wresting control of the timetable and the process from a government bent on ignoring or circumventing Parliament.

The next priority must then be to put the matter once again to the people, on the basis of all the information that is now available but which was not at hand in 2016. Having taken that decision, and only then, should we put the government of the country to the test of a General Election. 

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