Friday, 14 September 2018

Exhausted Metaphors

Seeing Owen Patterson on the platform as the European Research Group launched its report on the Northern Ireland border recalled to mind one of the more striking metaphors of recent years. Asked in 2013 about a badger cull that he had been responsible for as Secretary of State for the Environment, he explained that the cull had failed to meet its targets because "the badgers have moved the goalposts". This was a metaphor both mad and strangely beautiful in its originality. Metaphors have been much in the news of late, with Chuka Umunna criticised for using "call off the dogs" in relation to Labour Party members seeking to hold MPs to account, and Boris Johnson criticised for referring to Muslim women as "letterboxes" and calling Theresa May's commitment to the Northern Ireland backstop a "suicide vest". Umunna's canine comparison probably wasn't as deliberately insulting as some imagine, but it also lacked any hint of irony or self-awareness given the hounding of Jeremy Corbyn. Reducing people to inanimate objects is literally dehumanising, but Johnson's crack about veiled women was at least an attempt at humour, however ill-judged, while he has a point about the potentially fatal nature of the backstop: it must compromise either Brexit or the constitutional integrity of the UK. My own view is that the latter is mostly myth anyway, but that is not a view shared by the DUP and they hold the key to the next act of the Brexit drama.

The optimum moment for the Brexit ultras to challenge Theresa May and force a no-deal "clean break" came and went in the first quarter of this year, once it was clear that she was edging towards maximum alignment as the only strategy that could satisfy the terms of the provisional agreement made with the EU last December. While the recent Chequers statement remains a dog's dinner that is unacceptable to the EU27 in its current form, it was a public statement that maximum alignment is now the only game in town. The resignations of David Davis, Steve Baker and Boris Johnson proved to be less the trigger for an insurgency and more the concession of temporary defeat. This doesn't mean that May is now secure as Prime Minister. There is a chance that she will be defeated in the Commons on the "meaningful vote" on the withdrawal terms, which could lead to a vote of no confidence and an early general election, and even if she survives that first vote there is a strong chance that the Conservative Party will push for a "true-beleaver" thereafter to manage the negotiation of the future trading relationship during the transition period. She remains terminally damaged by the 2017 general election and few expect her to lead the party into another.

That the ultras passed up the opportunity to challenge May earlier this year proved that they, like the Tory remainer "rebels", are all bark and no bite. This means that the fate of Brexit and the government will be decided by the coming Commons vote on the withdrawal terms, assuming May manages to steer the ship into port. The encouraging words from Michel Barnier suggest this is almost certain to happen, though what floats in on the tide may not look particularly seaworthy. Much of the "deal" will remain deliberately opaque, particularly with regard to the future trading relationship and the role of the ECJ, but the substantial issues will be clear enough, simply because the EU27 will insist on clarity around its red lines, notably Ireland. This will probably mean a de facto and indeterminate continuation of the customs union and some elements of the single market in order to avoid a hard border. It will be sold by May as "Canada plus" - the UK's position as a rule-taker and ancillary to the EU dressed up as a free trade agreement between equal powers - but it will be interpreted as Brexit in name only by many on both sides of the argument.

The ultras will probably split (they already appear to be at loggerheads over attempts to firm up their counter-proposals). The "pragmatists", probably led by Gove within the government, will insist that the deal is a glass-half-full and that the potential for future divergence has been secured. They will attract enough ultras to reduce a Tory rebellion to a hardcore, which may be as few as single figures if the threat of a general election defeat remains likely. The chance of remainers such as Soubry and Grieve finding reason to oppose the government is negligible. For all the talk of the epoch-defining nature of the vote, self-preservation will be uppermost in many minds. The DUP is the most volatile element in the government's Commons majority, and the one bloc of votes that could trigger a general election through a no confidence motion, but they will find it difficult to publicly oppose a deal that avoids a hard border. That said, they have a long tradition of finding obscure reasons to thwart Number 10 and their game-plan all along has been to encourage a breakdown in negotiations so that a hard border could be blamed on the EU. Their absence from this week's ERG press conference simply indicates that they are holding their cards close to their collective chest.

Labour will oppose the deal, both because it's likely to be a hot mess and in order to topple the government, but some on the right of the party may be unable to resist the temptation to put "country before party" and so support May, arguing that half a loaf (and the distant prospect of reaccession) is better than none. That Labour will probably be offering a larger portion of the same loaf will be dismissed by reference to the bird in the hand being worth two in the bush, and thus an implicit claim that Labour under Corbyn cannot win a general election. This will no doubt convince the centrist commentariat but will go down like a bucket of cold sick among the vast majority of Labour Party members, including those on the right. For this reason there will probably only be a handful of rebels, including those whose days in the party are already numbered, such as Umunna, and eccentrics like Kate Hoey (who will probably follow the DUP line) and Frank Field (who may have been formally expelled by then anyway). There isn't going to be a British En Marche but nor is there going to be a new National Labour.

It is impossible to predict the number of rebels, but my guess is that they will be small on either side. If Labour commits to a more formal relationship, such as membership of the customs union or the EEA, perhaps with the proviso of a second referendum to ratify a revised deal, then this could reduce the numbers even further. The prospect of a defeat for the government would then depend on whether any Tory remainers would vote against the whip. History suggests that only Ken Clarke would have the guts to do so, in which case the vote will largely follow party lines and, assuming she keeps the DUP onside, May will have achieved her immediate goal. However, this won't tighten her grip on the premiership. Instead she will be more vulnerable to a leadership challenge as the new priority for leavers will be to ensure there is one of their own in Number 10 ahead of the final negotiations on trade. Boris Johnson's rhetorical focus on trade deals has been transparent all along, though I think he has pissed-off too many Conservative MPs to be sure of making the final shortlist for a vote of the membership.

Assuming they don't bottle out, the handful of Labour "rebels" around Umunna will lose the whip. I doubt they'll join the Conservative Party, though there will be plenty of encouragement from media centrists talking up the need for a government of "national unity" (or even "all the talents", God help us) as we face the transition. More likely is that they will form a groupuscule in Parliament that will seek an electoral accommodation with the LibDems (the first time as tragedy etc). Hoey, like Field, would probably sit as an independent. None will survive the next general election. I also doubt there will be any Tory MPs defecting to UKIP, not just because of that party's move to the far-right under Gerald Batten, but because of their desire to stay within the Conservative fold and exert maximum pressure for divergence. Given the deal's ambiguity, there will be scope for a hardening of the terms between March 2019 and December 2020. With Johnson and Davis busted flushes, Michael Gove will seek to place himself at the head of the ultras, though there will be resistance to this given his track-record. There will also be friendly articles in The Times and Daily Mail suggesting that Gove's treachery towards Johnson in 2016 has proven to be justified by subsequent events.

The choice of metaphors tells us something about the speaker. Johnson's are colourful, excessive and casually brutal. The Northern Ireland backstop is less a suicide vest than an admission that the Good Friday Agreement moved the constitutional goalposts (something that the anti-agreement Gove has never been shy about admitting). The defence of Umunna by his supporters, that "call off the dogs" is a figure of speech devoid of any animus, is an inadvertent admission that he lacks imagination and originality. Of course, it would be the same even if he deliberately set out to insult ordinary party members. His recourse to shrill hyperbole - calling the Labour Party "institutionally racist", for example - suggests a man who is less than careful in his choice of language, though this won't stop the Orwell-botherers in the press rooting for him. One dimension of the gradual shift in public sentiment over the last couple of years has been the exasperation with tired and empty language, from "Brexit means Brexit" to "strong and stable". Though the public harbours doubts about both Corbyn and McDonnell, one thing they seem to like is their plain-speaking. After a quarter century of the messianism and PR-speak of Blair and Cameron, perhaps there is nostalgia for the "dull and uninspiring" rhetoric of the Major and Smith years.

1 comment:

  1. This all sounds very plausible. The only thing I question is might the Brexit ultras reject the deal to force a no deal Brexit. We assume that they wouldn't do anything so reckless - and as you say they've been all mouth no trousers so far - but for these people hatred of the EU may override other considerations.