Week in Review: The hunt for Brexit traitors continues

Once upon a time, Britain wasn't like this. I once spoke to a political figure during Margaret Thatcher's government. At the time of the Falklands war, he had a Spanish-speaking wife and was critical of the decision to try to retake the island. But not one person, he told me, had questioned his patriotism. It was treated as a matter of policy disagreement.

That is no longer the political culture we live in. Today, even those who have signed up to hard Brexit outside the single market are routinely accused of treason.

It's not surprising. Brexit is primarily an emotional movement. It has very little evidential political content. Where evidence does exist - such as in the government's sectoral impact assessments or the legal advice on revoking Article 50 - it is kept secret.

When the great Brexit mission is thwarted by reality, as is happening now, it quickly transforms into a narrative of betrayal.

We saw this very early on, with the treatment of Remainers who refused to support Brexit. We saw it in the headlines about judges being "saboteurs". We saw it in the perpetual descriptions of Michel Barnier punishing Britain (in truth, his hands are so tied by the Council he could barely punish anyone). Boris Johnson, who once presented himself as an affable, liberal figure, now warns the young have "genuinely split allegiances" and says even soft Brexiters, who support the project but want to stay in the single market, have a "dismal lack of confidence in this country".

The reality of Brexit keeps getting worse and worse, but it can't be the fault of the project itself - so someone must be blamed. This week alone, Barnier said there had been a "disturbing" lack of progress in divorce talks, meaning we were still stuck in the first round of negotiation and unable to move onto the future trade arrangements. In response, Brexiters demanded the government talk up the possibility of no-deal. It's all a long way away from the promises made during the referendum campaign - of Europe needing us more than we need them and the German car industry knocking on the door of Downing Street cap in hand.

The frustrations of the situation have led Brexiters to find a new target: Philip Hammond. The chancellor is not a Remainer - he backs the Brexit project. He's not even a soft Brexiter. He wants to leave the customs union and single market. On the surface, they distrust him because he wants to maintain some degree of regulatory harmonisation outside the EU. But in reality it's deeper than that. He hasn't swallowed the nationalist potion. He is not a true believer. The holy spirit has not entered him. He still speaks in a cautious, rational manner, as if he were discussing a difficult and protracted negotiation rather than a mythical national origin story.

They want Philip Hammond to start opening the purse strings for no-deal preparation. There are a few problems with this. Firstly, he already lost two-thirds of his £27 billion Brexit war chest this week when the Office of Budget Responsibility finally downgraded its forecasts of productivity in the British economy. Spending more on customs check-points we may never need is not high on his list of priorities. Secondly, no-deal prep is largely useless on its own terms. Hammond could start expanding roads in Ireland, setting up infrastructure in Dover and all the rest, but he doesn't know what to do because the customs arrangements have not been negotiated yet. And even if we had, setting up things on our side won't save the situation - it's what happens on the other side that matters. Completing work on the British side will help us take European goods, but nothing will make them take ours.

Recognising this requires Brexiters to accept a fact they have ignored throughout the debate: that this is about what other people want too. It's not just about us. When your entire political mission is based on pretending it is an affront for countries to ever share control, it is not surprising that you fail to understand the practical basis on which they must do so.

Instead of taking that idea on board, the accusations of treason and betrayal have started up once again. The tabloid knives came out for Hammond early this week. Tory MP and leading Brexiter Bernard Jenkins said the Treasury had been "co-opted" by the EU. Former chancellor Nigel Lawson said what Hammond was doing was "very close to sabotage". John Redwood demanded that Treasury forecasts be made to look more like the pictures he sees in his head, tweeting: "Get the Treasury to have more realistic, optimistic forecasts and to find the money for a successful economy post Brexit". Conservative commentator Julia Hartley-Brewer even demanded Hammond be tried for treason. She did not appear to be joking.

These are still early days. The full repercussions of Brexit have not been felt yet. When they are, and the stark reality of what it entails becomes clear, it will get worse.

May's nonsense on Brexit conceals a cynical strategy

Quite apart from anything else, Theresa May's government is guilty of crimes against language. Her statement in the Commons today took her Florence speech and contorted it so violently that no sane person could possibly have understood what she was trying to say.

Back in Italy, she'd promised that Britain would accept all EU rules during transition. Occasionally, she reiterated that today, saying: "We expect that the implementation period will be based on current rules and regulations."

That means European Court of Justice (ECJ) jurisdiction would continue, freedom of movement would continue, and the rules of the single market and customs union would continue. After all, that's the point - to minimise disruption to business and avoid the cliff edge. There's no time to negotiate a bespoke transition and no interest in doing so in Brussels. Her admission of this was one of the first moments of realism from her since she'd entered Downing Street.

But if that's the policy, how come her ministers are saying that in 2019 free movement will end and Britain will leave the single market and customs union? After all, these certainly come under the "current rules and regulations" of the EU. 

If you are confused by this, it is because you have an overly traditional belief that words have meaning and that political speech should be comprehensible to voters.

Here and there, May sprinkled crucial little caveats into her speech. Freedom of movement "as we know it" will end in 2019, she said. The words just popped up there at the end of the sentence, smiling innocently. What this probably means is that the UK government will try to register EU migrants coming after that date. In fact, this is entirely within EU rules. It is so entirely within EU rules that the UK is one of the few EU states which has not done it.

Then came the nonsense on the single market and customs union. We would be leaving "full membership" of these two systems, apparently. We would then be able to make "practical changes" to the system as we approach "the end state" of the transition period. This seems limited to setting up a new arbitration system.

One of two things is happening here. Either May is misleading the public or she is misleading herself.

In all likelihood, it's the former. Free movement will continue as before, with the government using registration to pretend something has changed when it has not. We will abide by all customs union and single market rules, with the government using it's disingenuous formulation of "full membership" to pretend something has changed there, when in fact it has not. 

There's one offer to the Europeans, on consistency. There's another offer to the Brits, on change. And by abusing language into meaninglessness, she hopes to refer to both things at the same time using the same words. 

The only other interpretation is that May actually believes this stuff. She really thinks she can move on from phase one of negotiations, which the government shows no signs of achieving, then negotiate one of the most complicated and far-reaching trade agreements the world has ever seen, and then agree a bespoke transitional deal. All before October 2018, when talks end and go to the European and British parliaments for approval.

Presumably she does not believe this. Presumably she knows that the trade deal will take many more years than that and that the only transitional period possible is one which keeps things exactly as they are right now. If not, we're really in trouble. It's far better to have a cynical prime minister than a stupid one, although one should not rule out the possibility that we've been landed with both.

Regardless of what she's playing at, May continues to make the same mistake she has made many times before. It is a revealing mistake, because it suggests that she believes she's living in the 1950s, which indeed seems to be her preferred cultural destination. The mistake is this: She behaves as if the internet does not exist. Her strategy seems to presume that European leaders cannot see the things which she says in Britain. But they can. They can see everything.

So when May tries to mislead her British audience, that is heard by Europeans too. They can hear this nonsense about ending "full membership" of the single market and the wibbly-wobbly garbage about free moverment. The offer May made in Florence therefore sounds like it is being rescinded.

It's really not clear who May is fooling here: her MPs, the British public, European officials or herself. Maybe it is everyone all at the same time. In Florence she made a commendably simple and realistic offer to kick-start talks. That realism and simplicity is now lost. No wonder the government is starting to plan for no-deal. Its own actions are making it all-but inevitable.

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

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: End of May reopens Tory Brexit wounds

Who wins from a Tory leadership contest? The usual assumption is that it is Remainer Tories, who finally have a chance to get rid of a hard Brexit prime minister and replace her with one of their own. "The plot is by Remain MPs to topple the PM, destroy Boris and put a Remain leader in place to delay and possibly destroy Brexit," Conservative backbencher Nadine Dorries tweeted this morning. Ukip's Patrick O'Flynn clearly smells a plot as well. "Is there a single Tory backbencher who supported Leave in the referendum who now wishes to ditch the PM before spring 2019?" he asked.

But it's not at all clear that a Tory leadership battle would push us away from hard Brexit. For a start, May has started to tentatively advance a more pragmatic agenda in recent weeks. She is now supportive - just about, with some hesitation - of a decent transition period on the current terms of EU membership. Boris Johnson's various difficulties at the Tory conference even allowed soft Brexit Cabinet members to get on the front foot and start pushing to extend the transition.

A new leadership contest could easily undo that good work. It might become a bidding war on hard Brexit for the Tory rank-and-file, with each candidate making ever more desperate promises to secure the support of a hardline membership. Or perhaps the odd dynamics of the parliamentary party would provide two softer figures - Philip Hammond and Amber Rudd, say - to be sent out as the choice to members.

The contest itself also changes the dynamics of the Brexit negotiations. For a start, it would rob the government of any direction or leadership for another few months - precious time urgently required for talks by the severity of the Article 50 deadline. And it would contribute to a sense that the British are basically unable to act as credible negotiating partners in Brussels.

Or, who knows? Things could improve. Perhaps those two final names on the ballot paper sent out to members would reflect both sides of the Brexit divide - those who want regulatory harmonisation with Europe and therefore to continue with as minor a change as possible, and those who want regulatory divergence from Europe and therefore to fundamentally change how this country operates.

May has proved completely unable to address this either/or question. She is in the land of cake-and-eat-it and has been throughout, pretending that Britain can both 'take back control' and enjoy unchanged trade relations. This is not possible and never has been, but she either hasn't realised this or isn't prepared to admit it publicly. We've been stuck, for over a year now, in the land of fairy tales. Europe has gone from sadness, to anger, to exasperation, to boredom, waiting for us to make sense.

Boris Johnson once was once a cake-and-eat-it man too, but recently he has put his marker down in the divergence camp. Hammond is the most prominent figure in the harmonisation camp. A leadership contest between these two - or other people willing to advocate for one side or the other - would at least have the benefit of creating a coherent British position on Brexit. It seems pathetic that this should be something we are still aiming for so long after the vote, but that is where we are.

If this was resolved, it would be worth the delay. But would it happen? Who knows. There are too many known unknowns. How would the Conservative parliamentary party respond? Who'd end up on the ballot? What would the European response be? The variables are so severe that both sides of the Brexit debate within the Tory party are frozen in indecision. If either really felt confident they could advance their agenda by toppling May, Grant Shapps would not be struggling to find names for his letter. But they aren't, so he is.

Theresa May's greatest attribute is that her party, and indeed probably the country, is struck by the same hesitancy and division which she reflects in her judgement. We are all in a puddle of indecision. And that suits an indecisive prime minister.

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

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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