Slaughtering sheep and unicorns
Calls for a ‘people’s vote’ and a ‘coalition of reasonable minds’ are demands for a national government, writes Eddie Ford
With less than 100 days to go before what is supposed to be Brexit, there is a whiff of panic in the air. This week the cabinet agreed - though not entirely enthusiastically, it seems - to “ramp up” no-deal planning, with the treasury allocating an extra £2 billion to 25 Whitehall departments for the next financial year in order to prepare for a crash-out Brexit. Planned measures include hiring an extra 3,000 customer service and compliance staff in HM Revenue and Customs and recruiting hundreds of border officers.
We read that some cabinet ministers believe it is now time for ‘central command’ to start taking over no-deal planning, rather than the current, slightly anarchical situation, whereby departments have some degree of latitude as to when and what they spend. Michael Gove, the environment secretary, has been particularly busy - recently advertising for 90 staff for an ‘exit crisis centre’ to respond to emergencies following a possible hard Brexit. Nor are the issues solely financial: some relate to decisions on whether to transfer certain civil servants from important domestic priorities - such as social care or housing. Brexit is consuming everything.
Not exactly reassuringly, 3,500 troops have been put on “standby” - though what they are supposed to do in the event of a no-deal Brexit remains a bit of a mystery.1Apparently, citizens will be informed how to prepare through a “range of channels” that could include TV adverts and social media - maybe Facebook to the rescue. Downing Street has suggested that preparations could include reserving space on ferries in order to ensure the supply of food and medicines. Whitehall is considering the “mass slaughter” of sheep en route to slaughterhouses in the European Union, as livestock could be stranded in lorry queues that are expected to stretch back for 20 miles or more.2
During the marathon cabinet session on December 18, Amber Rudd, the work and pensions secretary, told her colleagues that preparing for a no-deal Brexit was a sensible precaution - “just because you put a seatbelt on doesn’t mean you should crash the car”. Sounding exasperated, justice secretary David Gauke - who said publicly at the weekend he would resign rather than be part of a government that deliberately pursued no deal - told the meeting that a “managed no deal is not a viable option” - this being the approach favoured by the likes of Penny Mordaunt and Andrea Leadsom. They envisage a“managed glidepath” of up to two years in order to facilitate a no-deal Brexit that would not destabilise the economy, in which theBritish government pays part of the £39 billion it owes the EU to “purchase” a status-quo transition period. Giving short shrift to such a notion, if we are to believe a cabinet source, Gauke remarked that a “managed” no deal is a “unicorn that needs to be slaughtered”.
Unsurprisingly, business is said to be ‘horrified’ by the very idea of a hard Brexit - as HMRC prepares a 100-page pack for all UK companies on preparing for no deal. Urging support for Theresa May’s deal in a joint statement, the British Chambers of Commerce, Confederation of British Industry, Federation of Small Businesses and Institute of Directors warned that “there is simply not enough time to prevent severe dislocation and disruption”. They go on to say that many companies had yet to make any preparations for what has until recently been seen as a remote possibility, and that it was far too late to start. Businesses of all sizes are “reaching the point of no return”, with many now putting in place contingency plans that are a significant drain on time and money - firms now pausing or diverting investment into stockpiling goods or materials, diverting cross-border trade and moving offices and factories out of the UK.
With absolutely no sign that parliament is able to break out of the gridlock, Britain does appear to be lurching towards the abyss. The country is in the midst of a profound political-constitutional crisis - something has to give soon.
Looking at what is going on in parliament - or not going on, you could say - and with the increased warnings from business about disinvestment or relocation, it is only to be expected that voices will be raised, urging people of ‘reasonable minds’ across all the parties to come together to sort out the problem and avoid an impending national disaster.
One of those recent voices is Tory work and pensions secretary Amber Rudd, who argued in the Daily Mail that Theresa May, and MPs as a whole, need to “try something different” toget a Brexit deal through parliament, after EU leaders predictably refused to reopen negotiations on the Northern Ireland backstop - even if the prime minister is still rather pathetically insisting that she can extract “legal reassurances” from the bloc about the backstop.3
What needs to be done, writes Rudd, is to “ignore the siren voices calling us to the rocks of no deal” and instead build a “coalition” behind a new Brexit plan, given that May’s deal is a dead duck. This means, she continues,being willing to “forge a consensus”. Rudd is part of the ‘gang of five’ alongside Philip Hammond, David Lidington, David Gauke and Greg Clark, who are reported to be urging the prime minister to hold a series of “indicative votes” on the various Brexit outcomes, including the possibility of another referendum or ‘Norway plus’, to find a plan that could command a Commons majority. Downing Street has so far dismissed the idea out of hand, but watch this space.
Rudd’s comments follow on from those by Nicky Morgan days earlier in a speech on Brexit to the House of Commons. The former education secretary suggested that “maybe we need to put together a special select committee of senior members of parliament to hammer out what we mean” - perhaps it might even be “time for some sort of government of national unity”. Similar sentiments have been expressed by other anti-Brexiteer Tories, such as Sir Nicholas Soames, who has said that, if he had his way, “we would have a national government to deal with” the “most serious problem this country has faced since the war”. The hardline Tory ‘remainer’, Anna Soubry, has been saying such things for some time now - her most recent advice being to “reach beyond” Labour and “encompass Plaid Cymru, the SNP and other sensible, pragmatic people, who believe in putting this country’s interests first and foremost”. In the same vein, senior Tory backbencher and former minister Nick Boles has stated that May must stop trying to “go it alone” and instead “open cross-party discussions” - he even indicated that he would vote with Labour against the government in a confidence motion if it meant sabotaging a no-deal Brexit.
In the midst of all this May has been trekking up and down the country, doing a whole series of meetings and interviews. Why is she doing this? If she was going hammer and tongs for a second referendum, or even another snap election, then it would start to make sense. As things stand, however, with no referendum on the cards - though that could quickly change in such a volatile situation - she clearly needs to secure her own party and actively court the Labour right. Yet, rather inexplicably, she is not doing that. Indeed, she is ignoring Labour - and just about everybody else, for that matter.
However, politics abhors a vacuum and what appears to be happening is that the People’s Vote campaign is doing the job - to one degree or another - of uniting the Tory and Labour ‘remainers’, and others. In reality though, PV is much less of a campaign for an actual second referendum and much more of a call for a national government. Unless Theresa May does a fairly spectacular U-turn - which cannot be entirely ruled out - there has to be a government legislating for another referendum. MPs or the Commons cannot just make it happen by some magical process.
But if you do have a coalition coming together in the Commons, securing support around a growing new consensus and going on to form a government, from the viewpoint of the establishment this could be the dream scenario, enabling them to kill two birds with one stone: knocking out Brexit and Jeremy Corbyn at the same time. There is little or no chance of a Corbyn government if Labour is split in this way. Clearly, the top figure in such a government would have to be someone like Philip Hammond, Greg Clark or Amber Rudd, with the likes of Chuka Umunna, Hilary Benn, Sir Keir Starmer, etc - genuine ‘remainers’ whom the establishment can trust - being offered juicy posts such as chancellor, deputy prime minister and home secretary. According to this eminently plausible scenario, such a government could win a thumping majority in a snap general election, standing on a platform of ‘national unity’ to save the country from disaster - like what happened in 1931.
The main difference between now and 1931, however, is that today it would have to involve some sort of split - not necessarily organisational - in the Tory Party. In other words, there would not only be a repeat of National Labour (under which Ramsay MacDonald stood in 1931), but also National Tories as well. At the risk of getting too speculative, with the current balance of forces you would roughly have 117 Tory MPs standing on a Brexiteer programme (ie, the number who voted against Theresa May in last week’s confidence motion) and about 200 ‘national government’ Tories. While National Labour MPs would presumably stand in various constituencies, official Labour would field candidates in all constituencies (except Northern Ireland). That is, there would be a non-aggression pact between the National Tories and National Labour - which would have the distinct advantage, if you are part of the Labour right, of possibly keeping your seat and, more importantly still, keeping your career. As this would not be a Social Democratic Party-style walkout, but a national emergency - you can imagine them winning handsomely and ‘official’ Labour being reduced to a rump, well and truly seeing off Jeremy Corbyn and the radical Labour left.
In which case, you would expect a renewed anti-Corbyn campaign from within Labour and the trade union bureaucracy - he has led the party to a disaster unparalleled in post-war times, and must be replaced immediately. Whether the likes of Len McCluskey and the Labour rank and file would back such an agenda is an entirely different matter, of course, but the thought of that sort of situation must be enough to make the establishment salivate at night. However, it is also quite possible that Labour’s 500,000-plus mass membership would not take kindly to this act of treachery.
What would also be guaranteed in the above scenario is an increase in deeply reactionary forces - possibly a revived or reconfigured UK Independence Party, which does not have much of a chance electorally at the moment, given its reorientation to the streets. But maybe 117 Brexiteer Tories, combined with Nigel Farage and other odds and sods, is the form that this could take in parliament.
Meanwhile you would have Tommy Robinson and the ‘new’ Ukip on the streets screaming ‘National betrayal!’ - which could become a very potent idea, as everything can be blamed on not making a clean break with the EU and its perfidious foreign ways. Scapegoats are always useful. In this narrative, a second referendum will be a con-trick based on false information and fake news - the once proud nation sold down the river to Brussels by metropolitan liberal backstabbers out of touch with the ordinary populace.
Nigel Farage last week told a Leave Means Leave rally to be “prepared” for a second referendum. Brexiteers need to “move into a different gear”, he declared, and “start forming branches and active groups all over this country”. Amongst those at the same event were Tim Martin (the owner of JD Wetherspoon), Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Democratic Unionist Party’s Sammy Wilson, and Labour MPs Kate Hoey and Graham Stringer.
Though some might not like hearing this, I suspect that Farage is as intelligent as you and me, and when he hears the word “coalition” he understands what it means - a national government that is quite capable of holding a second referendum. According to the latest polls, very approximately, public opinion is split into three: one-third for ‘leave’, one-third for ‘remain’, and one-third ‘don’t know’ or undecided. Anyhow, what the hell does ‘leave’ mean now - Norway plus? Norway minus? Canada plus, plus? Theresa May’s deal?
Whilst there was always an outside possibility of a hard Brexit being walked into by accident - something that still cannot be completely dismissed - the main point is that Brexit, in all its promoted variants, was always illusory. The left should have been saying, from the beginning, that nothing progressive can come out of such a nationalist project. The Morning Star/Communist Party of Britain’s idea that a Brexit under David Cameron or his replacement would be anything other than a Tory Brexit was just plain dumb.