THE LOG-JAM IS BREACHED. We may take it that May’s indicative votes will be pulled or have no effect on Parliamentary sentiment; and that she will lose her second reading. No-one has a motive to rally to her: Labour wants to maximise Tory instability and hard Leavers to see off Farage after the Euro Elections. So she will resign shortly thereafter, kicking off Tory hustings. Just as May has tested “soft Brexit” to destruction, the new team may do so with “hard Brexit”; no-one can be sure that they will achieve their objectives.
The default assumption would be that the Tories go for Johnson, as maximising their appeal in an early election. But strategic considerations may alter this view. An incoming leader must choose between going to the country before 31 October to get a majority and soldiering on to that date without Brexit legislation. This may make sense on a view that there is no need for Parliamentary action, since the conditions of the Cooper-Letwin Act apply only if:
“…the Prime Minister [is] seeking an extension…”
and Article 50 contemplates an extension only if
“…the European Council, in agreement with the Member State concerned, unanimously decides to extend…”;
In other words a new extension cannot be imposed and without one, the Cooper-Letwin Act lapses. So the best policy could be Fabius’ caution against Hannibal, as the dictionary has it “carefully avoiding decisive contests…a policy of delays...”
This could include:
• Disarming Parliamentary Leavers and distracting the Commons with a programme of wound-binding “One Nation” legislation, for example social care, green energy and regional infrastructure, daring Labour to oppose them.
• An early budget, declaring an end to austerity, disarming Labour and attracting the hard-pressed; plus reducing corporate taxes to disarm industrial opposition.
Is Boris the man for such manoeuvres? If so, his “Brexit cabinet” might also include Rees-Mogg and Raab, with other Cabinet members including “reach out” Leavers like Gauke, Rudd and so on, though not in sufficient number as to frustrate Brexit policy.
Whoever wins the hustings will need to:
• disarm May, Hammond, Remainers in the former Cabinet, plus similarly-inclined Tory backbenchers, with the carrot of the Lords, the stick of deselection and the objective of loyalty in the lobbies and silence elsewhere.
• neutralise industrialists, disclaiming any promises made by May and Hammond, without being provocative. The carrots would be fiscal and regulatory concessions, the stick the threat of future inattention. The objective would be a reversion to industry’s customary stance, public reticence.
• if possible (and this could be tough), engineer a new Speaker and Governor of the Bank of England.
• repair relations with Ireland, at the outset with hard cash and soft words, if need be venturing into greater robustness.
• finally and obviously, stagily beef up no-deal preparations. If the new team goes to Brussels to renegotiate the withdrawal agreement (WA), it will help to start off with a position along the lines that the UK.
• has low expectations and can live with a breakdown.
• repudiates Barnier’s WA (much better optics than “May’s deal”) as so one-sided as to absolve the UK of the obligation of “sincere cooperation”
• is to suspend payments to the EU from 29 March to 31 October, undertaking to pay an agreed sum on final departure.
• declares that a WA is only acceptable on the basis of no prolonged jurisdiction for the ECJ; no backstop; and lower payments, staged in return for the EU’s future co-operation.
It is also essential that a new government devotes itself to cultivating its reputation. This is likely to involve bringing in outsiders and in the first instance addressing UK Remainers, with the initial message:
• Let’s learn from three years of mistakes all round and make this work together
• WTO terms and a clean break are no disaster.
• Let’s bind wounds and move beyond Brexit.
• It won’t always be plain sailing, but we’re committed to minimising any disruption. • We can’t always let you in on everything, but we’ll never lie to you.
Other critical messages would be:
• To UK industry: we're offering the best fiscal and regulatory regime in the hemisphere.
• To EU member-states and private parties: what’s at stake; Barnier’s deal was unacceptable to an independent nation.
• To Brussels: what’s at stake; Barnier recklessly overplayed his hand.
• To third countries: early FTAs are welcome; the UK is attractive; Barnier’s deal took advantage of the UK’s commitment to orderly conduct.
Finally, the new administration should revisit the “machinery of government”, with measures including:
• a detailed timetable for the period to 31 October, to be administered by someone with Baker’s skill-set.
• daily meetings and WhatsApp messaging to promote unity among the core group of ministers.
• an opportunity for senior Civil Servants to “conscientiously object”, that is to transfer to other work or take early retirement, if unable whole-heartedly to commit to Brexit policy.
• military standards of security until 30 October for Brexit-related matters.
In the nature of things these are preliminary thoughts, but they stem from the experience of the last three years. Let us see now how much they might be reflected in the Tory Party hustings.