The Independent Group

For the past couple of years, the media has been endlessly excited about the idea of a realignment of British politics. Articles keep on appearing pontificating on how Brexit is the new political divide and speculating about how a new moderate party might emerge and capture all the votes available now that both the Conservative and Labour parties have decided to march off to their respective extremes — just as the Liberal Democrats have failed to do.

It was no surprise, therefore, that this excitement reached fever pitch on Monday when seven Labour MPs announced that they had quit the party and would now be sitting as a group of independents.

There have been plenty of comparisons to the SDP/Labour split in the 1980s, some of which are relevant but most not. The SDP was launched as a distinct political party with a Social Democratic agenda and set of policies. While this centre-left alignment appealed to disaffected Labour voters, not many Tories were convinced and the SDP ended up being accused of merely splitting the Labour vote and keeping the Tories in power. Unfairly, in my view — the likelihood of the very left wing Labour Party led by Michael Foot actually winning an election was close to zero, regardless of anything the SDP did or didn’t do.

The Independent Group, on the other hand, is being very careful to not describe themselves as a political party and their statement is the sort of blandly aspirational stuff that is difficult for anyone to disagree with. I am assuming that this vagueness is a deliberate attempt to encourage moderate Conservatives to join them before they start committing to actual policies. It’s also possible, of course, that their action is driven more by frustration with the many failures of Labour under Corbyn and they don’t really know where they want to go from here.

On the face of it, a centrist party that is able to attract moderate voters from both sides of the divide should be able to make an electoral impact. It worked for Macron and, in the UK, polling suggests that around 40% of voters think that neither of the two main parties represent them and a new party would be a good idea. The acid test, of course, will be when this not-yet-a-party starts hammering out actual policy positions and asking voters to support an economically and socially liberal agenda.

This is where we hit on the problem with that word, “Centrist”, because it can mean different things to different people. Nick Barlow touched on this back in September and Flip Chart Rick has expanded on the point more recently. Both posts are worth reading but the shorter version is as follows.

Most people don’t spend too much time thinking about politics. Most people who don’t think much about politics would describe themselves as centrist, is asked. When asked about specific policies, however, most people’s opinions are not opinions that the commentariat would describe as centrist.

That said, I am cautiously optimistic, especially with yesterday’s news that three Conservatives have joined the group of (now eight) Labour MPs.

If any issue is big enough to break the sclerotic state of the UK’s electoral system, it’s Brexit. If there’s a time to try, it’s now when both of the main parties are embracing their extremes and leaving many people disenfranchised. But it’s not enough for the Independents to tell us what they are against or to remain vague and expect to pick up votes by default.

If they want to succeed as a party, The Independent Group will need to take a leaf from the Macron playbook and not only develop a positive, outward looking agenda that addresses actual concerns and about which people can start to feel enthusiastic. They will then need to go out and sell this vision and to convince people that their ideas are worth trying in and of themselves, and without reference to what the other parties may be doing or saying.

Britain’s first past the post electoral system makes it difficult for new parties to gain any traction, but not impossible. The Independent Group has a challenging future ahead of them, but I hope that they do manage to make a difference — the country needs it.

High on Brexit

So on Tuesday evening, Theresa May won the backing of Parliament to renegotiate an agreement that isn’t up for negotiation.

I have been avoiding Brexit news a bit recently — May is still pandering to the fantasists in her own party, the rest of Parliament is refusing to engage with reality and it’s all going to go horribly wrong — but Rafael Behr came up with such a good analogy that I can’t resist:

British politics now follows the tortured pattern of addiction. Inside the addict’s head the most important thing is getting to the next Brexit fix, scoring the best deal. But from the outside, to our European friends and family, it is obvious that the problem is the compulsive pursuit of a product that does us only harm. On Tuesday night Theresa May thought she had scored: a slender majority in parliament voted for an imaginary agreement in Brussels, stripped of the hated “backstop”. Tory Eurosceptic ultras and the DUP pledged conditional allegiance to the prime minister if she delivers “alternative arrangements” for a seamless border on Northern Ireland. But no one has any idea what those might be and the EU has already ruled out a renegotiation on terms that might satisfy the hardliners. The transient buzz of Tory unity will yield to the chilly comedown of Brexit reality, as it always does.

Understanding what the political class thinks it’s doing with regards Brexit has become pretty much impossible. Politicians argue among themselves over procedural manoeuvrers and clever ploys all designed to ensure that their preferred unicorn is the unicorn everyone will receive just as soon as Britain completes its trade deal with Narnia.

The press is not much better, reporting on the Westminster soap opera almost entirely in terms of who has what advantage in which party, and completely ignoring any wider consequences.

It’s not all Parliamentary fun and games. As Chris Grey points out:

Whilst all this is going on, there is some really serious damage being done. As has been planned for a while, the European Medicines Agency has moved from London to Amsterdam. With it will go not only 900 jobs but a central part of the ecosystem of the pharmaceutical and biomedical industries – which are strategically crucial for the UK and in which the UK has been a leading global player. It’s worth recalling that in April 2017 the first Brexit Secretary, David Davis, opined that there should be no reason why it couldn’t stay in Britain post-Brexit. Like so many other Brexiter claims, it was known to be nonsense by experts but their knowledge was dismissed and mocked.

We now have companies spending huge amounts of money on stockpiling goods in warehouses in case of there being no deal, and almost every day brings news of another company moving its Headquarters out of Britain. The entire P&O fleet is to be re-registered in Cyprus. A group of leading food retailers has written a letter to MPs warning in stark terms of the dangers of food shortages. In any other time that would be seen as extraordinary. Now, it barely survives one day of the news cycle. And, of course, as with every other warning it is immediately trashed as Project Fear or, with the cynicism of the unworldly, as an excuse by supermarkets to unnecessarily raise prices.

Meanwhile, in Europe, Margot Wallström sums up what is increasingly the attitude of the rest of the EU to the UK’s antics:

She called Britain’s approach to the issue “dangerous” and “badly handled,” adding “I just think that they’ve made such a historical mistake and they’ve really created a problem for all of us.”

The rest of the EU is fed up with Britain and the way in which the British political class has behaved over the past two years. They are exasperated and exhausted and are reaching the point — if they haven’t reached it already — of telling Britain to stop wasting any more time and just go.

Tellingly, the rest of the EU is also a lot better prepared for Britain crashing out with no deal than Britain is.

Whatever you think of Brexit, the way that both of the major UK parties have approached it has been both incompetent and dishonest and has reduced Britain to a laughing stock. And still, too many MPs and too many commenters are unable to bring themselves to admit that the country is wilfully rushing towards an utter disaster and that none of these Parliamentary shenanigans will do anything to avert this.

Personally, I think that Article 50 should be revoked and the whole mess brought to a halt. Alternatively, you can recognise that the withdrawal agreement negotiated by Theresa May is the only deal available given the red lines that May herself has drawn.

These are the only options and Parliament needs to recognise this and make a decision. Preferably sooner rather than later.

Change the default

With Brexit looming ever closer, the prospect of Britain crashing out of the EU with no deal looks increasingly probable. MPs keep on saying that they don’t want to crash out, but as things stand this is the default position: Britain leaves the EU on 29th March and if, as looks likely, Parliament fails to make a decision then that exit is going to be both disorderly and extremely damaging.

Spinning Hugo suggests, therefore, that the most vital step now is to change the default.

The government cannot rule out no deal Brexit, that requires legislation. Further as a matter of Parliamentary tactics it may wish not to do so as the only way of applying pressure to obtain more support is to leave no deal Brexit as the default.

However, unlike all other options, there should be a majority in Parliament for an amendment to the European Union (Withdrawal) Act along these lines.

X. Duty to revoke notification of withdrawal from the EU

(1) If Y days before exit day no approval of the outcome of negotiations with the EU has occurred in conformity with section 13 of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, the Prime Minister shall notify the European Council of the United Kingdom’s revocation of its intention to withdraw from the European Union under Article 50(2) of the Treaty on the European Union.

(2) Upon such notification, the sections of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 specified in schedule Z shall be repealed

Schedule Z

1 For the purpose of section X(2), the relevant sections are [all of them except 13].

This would make Remain the default result. This should obtain the support of all those who favour a Labour led Brexit, a referendum, and May’s deal over no deal Brexit. It enables all those who favour the only Withdrawal Agreement there will ever be to say “I backed the government’s deal to achieve that” whilst avoiding a no deal Brexit.

Clearly, neither the Government nor the opposition will table such an amendment, so it falls to the saner backbench MPs in Parliament to propose and support such an amendment as a matter of urgency.

This could well prove to be Britain’s only way out of this mess.

On Brexit

I was listening to the radio this morning and, inevitably enough, they were discussing the prospect of Theresa May’s deal passing and the consequences of it being rejected. The (Labour) MP being interviewed was asked if he was worried about rejecting the deal leading to the UK crashing out of the EU with no deal.

His answer was symptomatic of a fundamental problem with all of the Brexit discussions in the UK in that he blithely asserted that a no deal wouldn’t happen because Parliament doesn’t want it to happen.

This is all well and good but the MP in question appears to have no comprehension that the UK is not the only party in these negotiations. The other EU member states, as well as the European Parliament all have their own priorities and concerns and are not going to offer anything that crosses their own lines.

Parliament can demand that the Prime Minister goes back to Brussels to ask for more, but there is nothing else on the table and no matter what she does, May is going to come back empty handed.

If May’s deal is rejected, no deal is the default option and Parliament would need to decide to do something in order to avoid it. And quickly.

As things stand, the UK will leave the EU on 29th March regardless of whether a deal is agreed it not. This leaves only two months to either revoke the Article 50 notification or ask for an extension of the negotiation period.

Just asking for an extension doesn’t mean that it will be granted. The EU27 have been quite clear that the current agreement is the only one on the table. They are not willing to reopen negotiations — especially given that Britain still doesn’t know what it wants to achieve. Not to put too fine a point on it, the rest of the EU is thoroughly fed up with the behaviour of the UK and have reached the point at which they just want the whole sorry mess to be over.

EU countries are preparing for a no deal Brexit.

An extension to ratify the deal or run another referendum may be possible but even here, time is limited.

The European Parliament Elections are in May and the new Parliament will meet for the first time in July. If the UK is still chasing it’s own tail at this point the EU will have to deal with the legal difficulties arising from the UK being in the EU but with no MEPs.

The UK’s approach to Brexit so far has been defined by isolationist and wishful thinking. If — as looks certain — May’s deal is rejected, MPs and the press will need to recognise that, because of the incompetent manner in which the UK has approached this, the available options are now very limited indeed.

No deal. No Brexit

So this is interesting:

MPs will attempt to force the government to return with an alternative to Theresa May’s Brexit deal within three days of her plan being defeated in parliament.

MPs are planning to table an amendment to a business motion that anticipates Theresa May’s deal being rejected and says: “a minister of the crown shall table within three sitting days a motion … considering the process of exiting the European Union under article 50”. This is to prevent the government from sitting on their hands after the expected defeat and then resubmitting the deal once time has run out for all other options.

Obviously, the amendment may not make it into the bill, but if it does, just letting the clock tick down ceases to be an option. But there aren’t many other options out there.

The EU have made clear that they are not willing to re-open negotiations into the withdrawal agreement and, even if that was not the case, anyone who tells you they can renegotiate this in the two and a half months left to go is either dishonest or delusional.

I don’t see the EU agreeing to extend the Article 50 negotiation period unless the UK suddenly comes up with a very clear idea of what they are trying to achieve. So we can rule that option out, unless the government that they really do want to put the existing options (May’s deal, no deal or no Brexit) to the public in a second (third, if you count 1975) referendum.

And if time runs out for a referendum, then the only option I can see is for Parliament to decide to revoke the Article 50 notification itself and cancel Brexit.

The hard Brexiters have broken their own Brexit. It remains to be seen whether Parliament will finally take back control.

Sane Conservative says something sane

The Guardian reports that Chris Patten, the former Conservative party chairman is the latest Tory grandee to come out in support of a second Brexit referendum, or People’s vote.

What struck me, though, was this:

The whole sorry shambles began with a decision to call a referendum in order to try to manage the English nationalist right wing of the Conservative party.

I have said it before, but the main problem with the Conservative Party is that most of its members — and a significant proportion of its MPs — are not conservatives. The One-Nation Tories and pragmatists have been largely sidelined by a post-1980s crop of rabid libertarians and English nationalists.

And it’s because the Tories have discovered ideology that Britain is in the mess it is today.

Democracy in action

The Belgian local elections back in October saw the mainstream parties losing out to the margins — the Greens and the far-right Vlaams Belang being the big winners. Most of the coalition agreements are now in place and new mayors are taking their places in councils up and down the country.

Not everything is settled, though, and we are still seeing the fall-out from the far right’s revival, most notably in the east Flemish town of Ninove, where Forza Ninove (the local iteration of Vlaams Belang) won most of the seats. Most of the seats is not a majority and none of the other three groups were willing for enter a coalition with the extremists.

The N-VA’s two councillors chose to sit this one out creating a stalemate in which neither the far-right nor the proposed Liberal-Socialist coalition was able to command an overall majority. This stalemate was broken last week when one of the N-VA councillors split with his own party to support the liberal-left coalition. This means that Ninove now has a new municipal council, and the far right have been excluded from the cabinet.

All good stuff, but on Thursday various far-right groups got together to have a march and a whine.

When I saw this, I first thought of the Paradox of Tolerance, which was defined by Karl Popper and can be summarised as:

We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant.

But I don’t think that this really applies in this case because the so-called March for democracy is inherently disingenuous.

It is quite reasonable for a political party to decide, on the basis of very divergent values, that no deal with another party is even worth considering. Moreover, Belgian politics has a long established principle of the Cordon Sanitaire in which mainstream agree to not deal with the far right — this was an explicit agreement in the case of the now defunct Vlaams Blok and remains as an understanding when dealing with Vlaams Belang.

No-one prevented Forza Ninove from putting up candidates and campaigning in the local elections. No-one was prevented from voting for Forza Ninove.

If no-one wants to deal with your party, this is not an attack on democracy but a reflection of the obnoxiousness of your politics.

The strange rebirth of Liberal Europe

Over at Thinking Liberal, Matthew Green asks if 2019 will be the year of the Liberal backlash.

This liberal backlash is based on two things. Firstly that younger people don’t hold with the anti-liberal movement. For them global warming is a real threat, and diversity a real asset. This needs qualification: less educated youngsters are picking up on the right-wing attack, and indeed they are behind a lot of the associated violence. But they form a lower proportion than they used to, and are prone to apathy. Meanwhile a large part of the original backlash comes from older people. This gives the potential for the pendulum to swing back. Time may be on the liberals’ side.

I’m not entirely convinced. While it is true that illiberal and anti-liberal populists rely on an angry but shrinking demographic, these people still appear to be willing to give a pass to their leaders. Given that the more committed people are to a worldview, the harder it is to turn away from it I think that the retreat from authoritarian thinking will be long and slow.

This, however, is very true:

[I]t is clear that the anti-liberal populists don’t have long term solutions for the main problems afflicting society. In fact, beyond the headlines, their solutions involve the breaking down of democratic institutions to provide cover for crony capitalism in league with a crony state.

Populists don’t have solutions. They are adept at channeling (often legitimate) anger in order to win power but once they gain power the paucity of their programmes quickly become apparent. The speed with which many Brexiters fled the scene once the referendum was won is a reflection not only of this paucity but also the extent to which they know that they have nothing beyond a few well-chosen slogans.

I don’t share Matthew’s faith in the strength of democratic institutions — the ongoing disaster of the Trump presidency shows just how weak these institutions can be — but these can be rebuilt.

The populist tide will recede but I don’t think this is going to happen quickly or consistently across countries. Emmanuel Macron demonstrated that it is still possible to defeat the far right with liberal, optimistic and internationalist programme. We need more of this.

No-deal Brexit ferry company owns no ships and has never run Channel service

The above headline comes from The Guardian, via Liberal England and sums up the the state of the UK’s Brexit preparations.

One of the companies contracted by the government to charter ferries in the event of a no-deal Brexit does not own any ships, has not previously operated a ferry service and is not planning to do so until close to the UK’s scheduled departure date from the European Union, it has emerged.

Concerns have been raised about Seaborne Freight, which was awarded a £13.8m contract to operate freight ferries from Ramsgate to the Belgian port of Ostend if the UK leaves the EU without a deal, after a councillor for the Kent town queried whether it would be possible to set up the new service by the scheduled Brexit date.

The government has signed three such agreements — without a tendering process — in order to ease congestion on the Dover-Calais crossing in the event of a no-deal Brexit.

The thing is that the ports of Dover and Calais have, over the past forty years, become really efficient when it comes to handling large quantities of cargo. Neither Ramsgate nor Ostend will come close to making any difference to the cross-channel congestion at all.

This is probably why the government’s delusional plans are so dependent on a delusional company that has no ships and no trading history.

Oops

Having collapsed the Belgian government by walking out of the coalition over a non-issue, the super-geniuses of the N-VA have just realised that this means some of the legislation they wanted implemented is also cancelled.

So now they are planning to propose much of the legislation that was in the coalition agreement but is probably now no longer going to happen.

The N-VA has 31 out of 150 seats in the Belgian parliament and, with the end of the coalition, there is no reason for their former partners to help them out here.

So they are going to have to convince the Socialists, the Greens and others to vote for a reduction in unemployment benefit.

Yeah, good luck with that.