We have learned something more this week about Brexit, and a lot more about British politics. Not, alas, thanks to Mrs May’s speech.
About Mrs May’s Mansion House address, and her poorly received encore at Davos, we can be brief. I am afraid that our Prime Minister does not do ‘big occasions’. In a devilishly dangerous situation, the rhetoric needed to be of a Churchill or the sorely missed Tsarina of the Suburbs. But Mrs May’s tone is invariably that of a perennially irritated railway clerk dealing with peevish customers, ‘Well, I’m sorry but you’ll just have to wait. The incoming 14.37 from Ruislip left late.’
And, in truth, the notion that this speech was somehow ‘hard Brexit unmasked’ gave the illusion that there could ever have been something else on offer. Once the government made it clear that the June 23rd ‘mandate’ was tantamount to a refusal of free movement and a rejection of the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice and an affirmation of the UK’s right to conclude trade agreements with third countries without restriction, then it was clear that the UK would leave the Single Market and the Customs Union and could not be eligible for membership of the European Economic Area. This interpretation of a referendum based on lies and the wilful exploitation of public ignorance is audacious. But our government has been consistent in its approach and in its supine kowtowing to UKIP, the rampant right-wing of the Tory party and the press moguls.
For the rest ‘global Britain’ will seek a comprehensive trade deal with the EU to get as ‘unfettered’ access as possible to the market. As everyone with any knowledge of these matters has told us, any agreements in this area take time, not least when one of the parties has yet to rebuild an expertise in international trade negotiations after a forty year break. Any agreement will be ‘mixed’ requiring not just unanimity of the 27 governments and the approval of the European Parliament, but ratification by all the parliaments of all the member states according to their own domestic constitutional arrangements. This can be time-consuming and complicated. Just ask the Canadians.
Industry and commerce united in a cool reaction to the Mansion House speech, large banks planning to move more staff to France. Toyota hesitates about its investments in the UK. Even Nissan, which we thought to have been bought off with Mrs May’s secret deal appears to be having second thoughts.
Not to be deterred, up pops Dr Fox to tell us that 12 countries are queuing up to negotiate deals with ‘liberated’ Britain, although even taken together they only represent a fraction of the GDP of the EU.
The United States is a different matter.
President Trump tells any passing British politician (although Mr Johnson is relegated to the cafeteria) that he loves the UK, wants a quick trade deal and is banking on the imminent collapse of the ‘German-led’ EU. But his trade advisers seem to view Brexit rather more as an occasion to pick juicy trading scraps off the carcass of the UK economy. In the end the business of the US will be business. The President has made clear in his inaugurals that he is an extreme protectionist regarding free trade deals as a form of theft.
Negotiating with the UK which has a trade surplus with them is unlikely to improve our commercial opportunities: and the negotiations will, like those with TTIP, come up against some delicate problems (GMOs, health, environmental and safety standards, just as starters).
For the future Article 50 negotiations themselves (revolving principally around ‘heritage’ issues including eye-watering financial liabilities) and on the separate discussions on global or sectoral trade agreements, the negotiating stance of the UK government remains shrouded in insult and bluster. Mr Johnson is rude to the French and brings up WW2. And Mr Hammond and Mr May issue threats. This is the way you get in the end neither hard Brexit nor soft Brexit but ‘out-on –your-ear, see-you-in-Court Brexit.’
But it was the nature of threats from the Chancellor (with his interview with Welt Am Sonntag’) and then taken up by the PM which makes for the revelation of the week. For the two main figures of the government now look to a different social and economic model for the future of the UK economy outside the single market and in the absence of an EU/UK trade deal. This would be in short a tax haven, like Singapore – the new idyll for the Tory right – undercutting the EU with the lowest business taxes and fewest regulations to attract inward investment, despite facing possible tariff barriers with the 27.
Singapore is an interesting model to choose. William
Gibson’s ‘Disneyland with the Death Penalty’ is a small city state with 10% of the UK’s population. It is of course heavily dependent on immigrant labour (40%). It has no formal minimum wage, and sky-high levels of inequalities. It is a democracy but with authoritarian, conformist edges.
Making the UK more like Singapore will be quite an undertaking. Having an Asian tiger economy as your model sits ill with your professed concerns about ordinary people being left behind and your interest in a ‘shared society’, but then that was never positioning, just posturing.
And leaving aside the UK’s commitment to the G20 agreement on tax avoidance and evasion, it is a curious time to envisage slashing government revenues by £30 billion at least when its Office for Budgetary responsibility is telling us that ‘the UK’s financial health’ is unsustainable because of unprecedented government debt. Unless of course you intend taking a meat axe to public spending on the social services and deregulating the UK economy, freeing it of all those noisome protections for consumers, the environment and at the workplace.
And here an opportunity is at hand. In parallel with Article 50 the government will be pursuing the Great Repeal Bill, the first stage in giving the UK Parliament the right to amend or abrogate all those EU laws. What was initially presented as a technical legal exercise – repealing the 1972 European Communities Act which established the supremacy of the European Court – is now looking like an intensely political one, unravelling Britain’s social and economic legal framework and the welfare state consensus which has prevailed since WW2.
This takes us back to the core of the Brexit campaign. What those who bankrolled the Leave campaign (the hedge funds, the Dysons and the Weatherspoons, and their allies in the media, the Murdochs, the Dacres, the Barclay Brothers) and those on the right-wing of the Tory party really wanted was Brexit as first stage in a process which would free Britain from any restraints whatsoever on their capacity to make as much money as possible and to pay as little tax as possible, without any nonsense about product safety, job security, minimum wages and conditions, safety at the work place or environmental protections. And now the May government has been enlisted to their cause.
For the Opposition, these statements should have been the start of total war. But Labour cannot see an open goal without missing it. The first reaction of Sir Keir Starmer, who has the political acumen of a wombat, and of Mr Corbyn was to present Mrs May’s speech as a kind of victory because of the professed aim of still wanting as much tariff free access to the single market. It took the leader of the Opposition 24 hours to realise that there might be some concern about the adjacent and scarcely hidden threat to the welfare state.
Then adding to the existing confusion about immigration where Mr Corbyn has his mind changed for him every other day, a new mess has been created by his threat to oblige Labour MPs to vote for Article 50 followed within hours by his office backtracking and saying that this was just a ‘suggestion’.
Labour MPs should on the contrary be opposing to the death the triggering Article 50 on the basis of Mrs May’s prospectus. If nonetheless the article is triggered, the government should be harried every inch of the way during negotiations. And if concluded on Mrs May’s terms, the deal should be rejected.
And they should fight with their last breath the Great Repeal Bill, the mechanism by which the welfare state can be destroyed.
If Labour does not understand and oppose Mrs May’s Brexit as the existential threat to the welfare state and the NHS it did so much to create, one wonders what Labour is for.