Week in Review: Trump, Putin and the Brexit subplot

Brexit and Trump have always had a weird relationship. They’re not the same thing, no matter how some outraged liberals think of them. There are plenty of valid reasons for wanting to leave the EU, whether you agree with them or not. There are no valid reasons for supporting the president-elect.

And yet, there is a connection. Both events were driven by the same troubling global spread of authoritarian nativism, an instinctive aversion to difference and diversity, a love of control and walls.

They have always had a more direct practical relationship too. Trump tried to stamp his brand on Brexit by flying into (Remain voting) Scotland and pretending he'd played a big role in the whole thing. He predicted his victory would be Brexit "plus plus plus". He invited Nigel Farage to whip up the crowds for him on the campaign trail, then had him trundle along behind some Breitbart journalists to Trump Towers after the vote, and then tried to publicly pressure the prime minister into making him US ambassador.

Liberals see Brexit and Trump as part of the same story. And so does Trump.

This week that relationship swung round again, as the Brexit subplot threatened to play a key role in the Trump drama. The US is still reeling from the release of a dossier of allegations against Trump. On the crude end were unverified allegations about what he got up to sexually. On the more serious end were claims that people in his camp were working with the Russians in a conscious effort to tilt the election in their mutual favour. If the dossier were shown to be true, it would suggest that Russia had succeeded in installing its puppet as president of the United States.

The dossier came from a former MI6 operative who conducted research on public figures for clients. It was first compiled for Republican opponents, then Democrat opponents of Trump. Russia is suggesting he remains an MI6 operative. The man has reportedly gone into hiding, in fear for his life.

When reports emerged that US senator John McCain had been handed the dossier by a former British ambassador to Moscow, it felt like the Brexit-Trump connection was coming full circle again. Tim Barrow, who was recently made British ambassador to the EU after the dramatic resignation of van Rogers, was British ambassador to Russia between 2011 and 2015 and had previously worked with the MI6 operative. These connections look inaccurate however. In the end it seemed that Andrew Wood, another former ambassador to Russia,was consulted about it by McCain at a conference in Canada shortly after Trump won.

But the real connection between Brexit and Trump, in this regard, isn’t about individuals. It’s a broader story about destabilisation and the strange new right-wing love for Vladimir Putin.

The news is now full of allegations about Russian meddling in western affairs. It's not a new story - the KGB would always be looking to compromise presidential candidates - but it does seem to be taking place in a far more effective manner than was previously the case. In part this is due to technological change. The fake news and trolling operations being used are only possible now. In part it is also about domestic Western politics. None of it would work were it not for the disenchantment in Britain, America and elsewhere with the political class. But it is ironic that now, as Russia’s economy is falling apart, it is wielding such extraordinary influence.

Most Brexiters are not fans of Putin and nor are most Republicans. But the numbers are growing. Back in July 2014, just ten percent of Republicans held a favorable view of him. By September 2016, it had grown to 24%. Today it’s 37%.

Ukip has long had similar instincts. In 2014, Farage said Putin was the world leader he most admired. Last month he praised the former KGB man as "mature". Current Ukip leader Paul Nuttall told BBC’s Sunday Politics that in the Middle East the Russian leader was "generally getting it right". Diane James, who was Ukip leader for all of five minutes, used at least some of that time to confirm him as one of her political heroes, alongside Churchill and Thatcher.

France National Front leader Marine Le Pen sings from the same hymn sheet, saying Putin is "looking after the interests of his own country and defending its identity".

For some people, the links are deeper. Some suspect the Kremlin funds hard-right groups like Ukip in Europe - although there has never been any evidence of a direct link between them and the British eurosceptic party.

Perhaps the hard-right sees something they like in the optics of Putin - the constant visual expressions of strength, the strong-arm KGB political tactics used domestically and internationally, the focus on control as an irreducible political virtue. Or perhaps there is a more practical web of cooperation in which Russia and its fellow travellers on the hard right cooperate. Or maybe it is more serious than that and, as that dossier implies, the West's hard-right, which is about to take power in Washington and wields increasing influence in London, is being actively maintained by the Kremlin.

The full story is coming out. But already it's clear that Brexit and Trump share much more than just their ability to play havoc with western democratic assumptions. They are part of a phenomenon which is threatening to reshape the world.

We may never find out what Corbyn's position on Brexit is

After 24 hours of statements, retractions, hesitations, reformulations and briefings, Labour’s position on Brexit seems to have turned 180 degrees, then U-turned again to its original formulation, then made a half U-turn on the original U-turn to end up in a position like the one it was in before it started U-turning but slightly different. Maybe.

If Jeremy Corbyn’s aim was to clear up his position on Brexit then it’s safe to say it was not a success. The question now is not whether the public like his position, or whether it can hold the party together, or whether it would stand any chance against European negotiators. It is: Can his position actually be discerned? The answer is no.

At six minutes past four in the afternoon yesterday, Labour sent out extracts of his speech. One section read:

"Labour is not wedded to freedom of movement for EU citizens as a point of principle. But nor can we afford to lose full access to the European markets on which so many British businesses and jobs depend."

This was interpreted as Corbyn finally turning his back on free movement, thereby satisfying the right of his party and signalling Labour support for a hard Brexit outside the single market. But was it? After all, he immediately followed it up by saying that this had to be balanced with the economic needs of the country, which suggests you would stay in the single market.

That is very different to Theresa May’s position, which is that free movement must end regardless of the effect on the economy. She has said it countless times: it will end (she doesn’t say the sentence which must logically follow from that, which is that we are leaving the single market, but everyone understands that it does logically follow).

Corbyn’s comments suggest that he instead wants her to try to reform freedom of movement, but that if that failed we should stay in the single market.

That impression was confirmed on Good Morning Britain with the awful Piers Morgan earlier today. "If the EU, as is, says access to the single market requires the continuation of free movement, then there’s a choice to be made," Corbyn said. Then he was pressed on which option he'd choose: ending free movement or leaving the single market? He replied: "I would say economically, we've got to be able to trade with Europe."

On the Today programme, he was asked what kind of reforms to free movement he'd be prepared to countenance. "That depends on what the offer is on free market access," he replied.

That view seemed to be cemented one final time when he made the speech this afternoon. Corbyn changed the section which had been briefed to the press nearly 24 hours earlier. This time it read:

"Labour is not wedded to freedom of movement for EU citizens as a point of principle, but I don't want that to be misinterpreted, nor do we rule it out."

In other words - we're going to try to reform free movement rules so we can stay in the single market, but we’re not going to say, as May has, that we’re definitely getting rid of free movement.

This has formally been Labour's policy for some time. The party's Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer, clearly envisages Britain trying to reform free movement and then staying in the single market (through the European Free Trade Area agreement on the European Economic Area). Here he is speaking to Politico saying we should try to secure "some change to the way freedom of movement rules operate"and here he is in a speech towards the end of last year saying "changes to the way freedom of movement rules operate in the UK have to be part of the Brexit negotiations".

Note the wording. Theresa May always says that control over immigration will be brought back to Westminster. That is not reform of freedom of movement, it is its abolition. But Starmer wants to "change" the way it "operates". Which means it’s still operating. Which means Britain is still in the single market.

The difference sounds minor, but it is very significant: it’s the difference between trying to change or ending something. And it’s potentially the difference between a very significant economic change and a very minor one. Many believe we'd be unlikely to suceed in trying to reform free movement, but let's leave that to one side for now. This is just about the Labour tactic, not whether it would actually work.

So there we have it. Everyone is confused and unfair and Corbyn has been perfectly consistent, right? Well, no. Because behind the scenes Labour sources are talking absolute madness.

Take the word 'access' to the single market. Usually this is code for hard Brexit, because it's short of promising membership. But it's not clear either Corbyn or Starmer are using it that way.  

Last year in that Politico interview Starmer said the term 'membership' doesn't apply:

"There's been a discussion about whether one should aim for membership or access. At the moment our membership is because we're a member of the EU. That membership will have to lapse. That's why I have used the phrase fullest possible access to the single market.”

It's not obvious what Starmer is trying to do here. Perhaps he is talking technically. More likely, he finds it useful to use this phrase so that he doesn’t have to commit to a position and can keep his options open. Maybe - this is my interpretation - he's saying that the term encapsulates the full range of options from a free trade deal to single market membership. 

Either way, it seemed like Corbyn was using 'access' in the same way.

Maybe. Or maybe not. One source close to the leader tell me that "full access" to the single market referred only to tariffs. That's a bizarre argument. Tariffs are a tiny part of the single market jigsaw. Much more important is the mutual recognition of standards, which allow goods to pass between countries as if they were in the same one. Or free movement of people. Or services. Tariffs are the kind of thing you sort out relatively quickly at the start of a free trade deal.

Then look again at Corbyn's comments during his morning round of interviews:

"I would say economically, we've got to be able to trade with Europe."

This is such a strange comment. Anyone can trade with Europe. You just send them a thing and they buy it. And then they send you stuff. America trades with Europe and it certainly doesn't have free movement with it. Does Corbyn understand the difference between trade, free trade deals and the single market? It's not clear.

It gets weirder. When you mention this to them, Corbyn figures sometimes say there is no such thing as membership of the single market. This isn't a one off. I've been told it and someone obviously told it to the Guardian too because it's in there.

God knows what they're getting at when they say this. It's not much less mad than saying the table you're eating your dinner on does not exist. This idea is thought to have come from Seamus Milne, Corbyn's Stalinist henchman. It is not clear what the function of saying it is. Does he believe it? Or is it some strange sort of political tactic to deflect questions or maximise flexibility? If the latter, why be so precise - and so hopelessly wrong - about the single market being just about tariffs?

And even that strange hallucinatory definition is not shared across Labour. Other Labour sources say 'full access' means membership of the single market. Others that it means whatever Starmer says it means. No-one seems to be able to agree.

Is this all some genius tactic meant to keep the party together while telling each side what they want to hear? Is it part of some complex political game by Milne to tilt us out the single market while not making it clear? Is it just the failure of people in the team to be properly briefed on what these terms mean and when to use them?

Who is in charge here? What's going on? God knows. They are an unspeakable shambles. I would go into a rant here about the total absence of responsibility or scrutiny at a key moment in British political history, but you can pretty much fill that bit in for yourself.

Ian Dunt is the editor of Politics.co.uk. His book - Brexit: What The Hell Happens Now? - is available now from Canbury Press. 

The opinions in politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

Week in review: New year, new you, new political disasters

New year, new you. Have you gone to the gym? Are you liquefying and downing kale in an attempt to add a few more miserable years to your life?

And how did that go? The wheezing on the treadmill, the ganky sour taste of an ugly vegetable made bizarrely popular by Californian narcissists? Terribly badly I presume. But fear not: you are not alone. If Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn have any sense, they will have also made new year resolutions, the former not to allow Brexit to collapse into a disaster of Biblical proportions and the latter to present a borderline viable image as leader of the opposition. And guess what? They did about as well as you did at the gym, you lazy overweight monstrosity.

May began the year by losing her man in Brussels, Ivan Rogers, he of the 'it'll take ten years to sort this nonsense out' fame. It turns out that he wasn't really impressed with the quality of decision-making from ministers or the Brexit plan from Downing Street, on the basis that neither existed. His resignation letter to staff was a masterclass in gentlemanly civil service knife wielding. "Continue to challenge ill-founded arguments and muddled thinking", he advised. Whatever could he be alluding to?

Anyway, Rogers was subject to the standard treatment afforded by the press to anyone who questions the great religious zeal of the hard Brexit missionaries: He was libelled, over and over again, by commentator and minister alike. Too pessimistic, in league with his "mates" in Brussels, too untrustworthy, an elitist, someone whose patriotism was open to question.

In a mark of how seriously No.10 took the situation, a replacement - the exquisitely tailored and bearded Tim Barrow - was selected in around 24 hours. But the Rogers resignation, and his detailed, plainly exasperated letter, had confirmed the worst fears of critics of the government's Brexit strategy: no plan from No10, no understanding from ministers, no appreciation of the scale of the task on the government benches, a systemic politicisation of problem-solving and little negotiating capacity.

Things got worse for May as the week wore on. By the time the Economist was published on Thursday, it felt like it encapsulated the growing media interpretation of the prime minister. Above a stark black and white photo of the Tory leader, it read: "Theresa Maybe: Britain's indecisive premier". The article listed her U-turns or watering-downs: workers on boards, lists of foreign workers in firms, grammar schools, the list goes on. And it highlighted her chief internal problem - that it was unclear if she had majority Tory support for either a hard or a soft Brexit. Perhaps this figure, who looked upon entering Downing Street like a sturdy and reliable matron to clean up the mess the men had made of everything, was actually a perpetual ditherer with no credits to her name?

First impressions stick - they did for Gordon Brown when he was attacked with the same charge at roughly the same moment of his premiership - so this is a dangerous moment for team May. Her response will see her make a Brexit speech this week, her first substantive addition to the debate since the one opening the Tory conference in October and probably the last before she reveals more detailed Brexit plans ahead of Article 50.

She should be in major trouble but she has the undoubted advantage of being opposed by a Labour leader who barely seems present. Jeremy Corbyn is like the invisible man. He didn't say a word over the Rogers debacle. Let that sink in a moment. Not a word. About the government's EU ambassador. Quitting. Seemingly in protest. Just before the most demanding negotiations this country has faced in a generation. With the EU.

Not a word.

But he did say something about that Economists cover. He welcomed it. But also, because he is Jeremy Corbyn, he fitted in a bit of snark:

Standard Corbynism: Put the anti-media bit before the political attack bit. It's not even burying the lead. The anti-media bit is the lead. As some have pointed out, Donald Trump just won an election while berating the media all day long, so this stuff isn't necessarily damaging, but it's unclear if that will work for Corbyn. And by unclear, I mean vanishingly unlikely.

Realistically Corbyn's chances of looking like a viable political leader are looking no better than May's attempt to construct a non-suicidal Brexit plan. But you - you beautiful thing - are doing far better. Get some kale in you. Horrible isn't is? Juice it, down it, pretend it isn't happening. Pretend none of this is happening and your country's political system hasn't become a hollowed-out joke of imbecility and sustained delusion. The reduction in stress and despairing thoughts will likely be better for your health than that trip to the gym you're anyway going to avoid.

Ian Dunt is the editor of Politics.co.uk. His book - Brexit: What The Hell Happens Now? - is out this week from Canbury Press.

The opinions in politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

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