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Theresa May’s Brexit ‘strategy’ is a shambles

24 May 2018

8:12 AM

24 May 2018

8:12 AM

Dear Tory MPs and donors,

I’ve avoided writing about the substance of Brexit and the negotiations since the anniversary last year but a few of you have been in touch recently asking ‘what do you think?’ so…

Vote Leave said during the referendum that:

  • 1) promising to use the Article 50 process would be stupid and the UK should maintain the possibility of making real preparations to leave while NOT triggering Article 50
  • 2) triggering Article 50 quickly without discussions with our EU friends and without a plan ‘would be like putting a gun in your mouth and pulling the trigger’. Following this advice would have maintained the number of positive branching histories of the future, including a friendly departure under Article 50.

The Government immediately accepted bogus legal advice and triggered Article 50 quickly without discussions with our EU friends and without a plan. This immediately closed many positive branching histories and created major problems. The joy in Brussels was palpable. Hammond and DD (David Davis) responded to this joy with empty sabre rattling which Brussels is now enjoying shoving down their throats.  

The government’s nominal policy, which it put in its manifesto and has repeated many times, is to leave the Single Market and Customs Union and the jurisdiction of the ECJ. This requires preparing to be a ‘third country’ for the purposes of EU law. It requires building all the infrastructure and facilities that are normal around the world to manage trade. This process should have started BEFORE triggering A50 but the government has irretrievably botched this.

Having botched it, it could have partially recovered its blunder by starting to do it afterwards. No such action has been taken. Downing Street, the Treasury, the Cabinet Office and the Cabinet have made no such preparations and there is no intention of starting.

The Cabinet has never asked for and never been given a briefing from responsible officials on these preparations. Some of them understand this and are happy (e.g Hammond). Most of them don’t understand this and/or prefer not to think about it. It will be trashed in the history books as the pre-1914 Cabinet has been for its failure to discuss what its military alliance with France actually meant until after it was too late.

The few ministers who try to make preparations are often told ‘it’s illegal’ and are blocked by their own Departments, the Cabinet Office and Treasury. The standard officials device of ‘legal advice’ is routinely deployed to whip cowed ministers and spads into line. But given officials now know the May/Hammond plan is surrender, it’s hardly surprising they are not preparing for a Potemkin policy. 

The Treasury argues, with a logic that is both contemptible and reasonable in the comical circumstances, that given the actual outcome of the negotiations will be abject surrender, it is pointless wasting more money to prepare for a policy that has no future and therefore even the Potemkin preparations now underway should be abandoned (NB. the Chancellor has earmarked half of the money for a ‘no deal’ for the fiscal year after we leave the EU).

Instead, Whitehall’s real preparations are for the continuation of EU law and the jurisdiction of the ECJ. The expectation is that MPs will end up accepting the terrible agreement as voting it down would be to invite chaos. In short, the state has made no preparations to leave and plans to make no preparations to leave even after leaving.

Further, the Government promised in the December agreement to do a number of things that are logically, legally and practically incompatible including leaving the Single Market and Customs Union, avoiding ‘friction’ and changing nothing around the Irish border (as defined by the EU), and having no border in the Irish Sea.

The Government has also aided and abetted bullshit invented by Irish nationalists and Remain campaigners that the Belfast Agreement prevents reasonable customs checks on trade between Northern Ireland and the Republic. Read the agreement. It does no such thing. This has fatally undermined the UK’s negotiating position and has led to the false choice of not really leaving the EU (‘the Government’s backstop’) or undermining the UK’s constitutional integrity (‘the EU’s backstop’). Gavin Barwell promised ministers in December that the text did not mean what it plainly did mean. Now he argues ‘you agreed all this in December’. Whenever you think ‘it can’t be this bad’, the internal processes are always much worse than you think.

Parliament and its Select Committees have contributed to delusions. They have made almost no serious investigation of what preparations to be a third country under EU law should be and what steps are being taken to achieve it.

A small faction of pro-Brexit MPs (which also nearly destroyed Vote Leave so they could babble about ‘Global Britain’ in TV debates) could have done one useful thing — forced the Government to prepare for their official policy. Instead this faction has instead spent its time trying to persuade people that all talk of ‘preparations’ is a conspiracy of Brussels and Jeremy Heywood. They were an asset to Remain in the referendum and they’ve helped sink a viable policy since. A party that treats this faction (or Dominic Grieve) as a serious authority on the law deserves everything it gets. (I don’t mean ‘the ERG’ — I mean a subset of the ERG.)

All this contributes to current delusional arguments over supposed ‘models’ (hybrid/max fac etc) that even on their own terms cannot solve the problem of multiple incompatible promises. ‘Compromise proposals’ such as that from Nick Boles which assume the existence of ‘third country’ planning are just more delusions. It doesn’t matter which version of delusion your gangs finally agree on if none of them has a basis in reality and so long as May/Hammond continue they will have no basis in reality. You can dance around the fundamental issues all you want but in the end ‘reality cannot be fooled’.

The Government effectively has no credible policy and the whole world knows it. By not taking the basic steps any sane Government should have taken from 24 June 2016, including providing itself with world class legal advice, it’s ‘strategy’ has imploded. It now thinks its survival requires surrender, it thinks that admitting this risks its survival, it thinks that the MPs can be bullshitted by clever drafting from officials, and that once Leave MPs and donors — you guys — are ordering your champagne in the autumn for your parties on 30 March 2019 you will balk at bringing down the Government when you finally have to face that you’ve been conned. Eurosceptics are full of shit and threats they don’t deliver, they say in No10, and on this at least they have a point.

This set of problems cannot be solved by swapping ‘useless X’ for ‘competent Y’ or ‘better spin’. This set of problems cannot be solved by listening to charlatans such as the overwhelming majority of economists and ‘trade experts’ who brand themselves pro-Brexit, live in parallel universes, and spin fantasies to you.

This set of problems derives partly from the fact that the wiring of power in Downing Street is systemically dysfunctional and, worse, those with real institutional power (Cabinet Office/HMT officials etc) have as their top priority the maintenance of this broken system and keeping Britain as closely tied to the EU as possible. There is effectively zero prospect of May’s team, totally underwater, solving these problems not least because they cannot see them — indeed, their only strategy is to ‘trust officials to be honest’, which is like trusting Bernie Madoff with your finances. Brexit cannot be done with the traditional Westminster/Whitehall system as Vote Leave warned repeatedly before 23 June 2016.

Further, lots of what Corbyn says is more popular than what Tory think tanks say and you believe (e.g. nationalising the trains and water companies that have been run by those who Hammond says ‘we must defend’). You are only at 40 per cent in the polls because a set of Ukip voters has decided to back you until they see how Brexit turns out. You only survived the most useless campaign in modern history because Vote Leave killed Ukip. You’re now acting like you want someone to create a serious version of it.

Ask yourselves: what happens when the country sees you’ve simultaneously a) ‘handed over tens of billions for fuck all’ as they’ll say in focus groups (which the UK had no liability to pay), b) failed to do anything about unskilled immigration, c) persecuted the high skilled immigrants, such as scientists, who the public wants you to be MORE welcoming to, and d) failed to deliver on the nation’s Number One priority — funding for the NHS which is about to have a very high profile anniversary? And what happens if May staggers to 30 March 2019 and, as Barwell is floating with some of you, they then dig in to fight the 2022 campaign?

If you think that babble about ‘the complexity of the Irish border / the Union / peace’ will get you all off the hook, you must be listening to the same people who ran the 2017 campaign. It won’t. The public, when they tune back in at some point, will consider any argument based on Ireland as such obvious bullshit you must be lying. Given they already think you lie about everything, it won’t be a stretch.

Yes there are things you can do to mitigate the train wreck. For example, it requires using the period between summer 2019 and autumn 2021 to change the political landscape, which is incompatible with the continuation of the May/Hammond brand of stagnation punctuated by rubbish crisis management. If you go into the 2022 campaign after five years of this and the contest is Tory promises versus Corbyn promises, you will be maximising the odds of Corbyn as PM. Since 1945, only once has a party trying to win a third term increased its number of seats. Not Thatcher. Not Blair. 1959 — after swapping Eden for Macmillan and with over ~6 per cent growth the year before the vote. You will be starting without a majority (unlike others fighting for a third term). You won’t have half that growth — you will need something else. Shuffling some people is necessary but extremely far from sufficient. 

Of course it could have worked out differently but that is now an argument over branching histories for the history books. Yes it’s true that May, Hammond, Heywood and Robbins are Remain and have screwed it up but you’re deluded if you think you’ll be able to blame the debacle just on them. Whitehall is better at the blame game than you are, officials are completely dominant in this government, ministers have chosen to put Heywood/Robbins in charge, and YOU will get most of the blame from the public.

The sooner you internalise these facts and face reality, the better for the country and you.

Every day that you refuse to face reality increases the probability not only of a terrible deal but also of Seumas Milne shortly casting his curious and sceptical eyes over your assets and tax affairs.

It also increases the probability that others will conclude your party is incapable of coping with this situation and, unless it changes fast, drastic action will be needed including the creation of new forces to reflect public contempt for both the main parties and desire for a political force that reflects public priorities.

If revolution there is to be, better to undertake it than undergo it…

Best wishes,

Former campaign director of Vote Leave

Ps. This explains part of what needs to be done and, as you will see, it will not be done by a normal UK party operating with the existing Whitehall system –‘a change of perspective is worth 80 IQ points’ and ‘how to capture the heavens’.

PPS. I should also add there are many officials who wanted to deliver government policy and MPs have let them down appallingly too. The less I say about that the better for them.

This letter originally appeared on Dominic Cummings’s blog


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