Sunday, 6 August 2017

Brexit: The Tories are failing us, but don't blame Hammond

Rather like choppy seas, the Tory Party machine can be pretty unforgiving. They remind me a little of Chelsea in that they'll do whatever they see fit in order to stay on top of British politics. When backbenchers and cabinet ministers smell blood, they can be pretty ruthless. Any former leader will attest to this.

Certainly Philip Hammond would, a man looking increasingly likely to be the latest in a long line of victims brought to their demise from within. But are those, such as Andrew Bridgen, right when they call for the chancellor to be sacked? Now doesn't appear to be the right time. Mr Bridgen was usefully tenacious during last year's referendum campaign, but what most stands against him is that nobody has a clue who he is.

He doesn't quite have the same effect as, say, an Iain Duncan-Smith, who brought endless fits of laughter to Vote Leave HQ with his entertaining tirades against George Osborne. I think it was probably the dry tone he used to berate the opposing campaign that was most funny. That and perhaps the fact that he seemed utterly fearless.

Mrs May didn't remove Philip Hammond from his post upon re-election for a reason. I don't quite know what it was, but I am assuming it had something to do with the prospect of internal backlash. I am, though, glad that she didn't. Mr Hammond, as any rigorous chancellor ought to, is doing something few other cabinet ministers have bothered to: assess what kind of Brexit is best for our economy.

What is being translated by the horrific experiment as 'Brexit betrayal' is actually the little known art of thinking. Hammond is looking for economically pragmatic solutions to complex legal problems, and seems able to recognise that leaving the European Union is a process and not an event. This has been reflected by his assertions that the UK will need a transitional arrangement in the event of the now almost-certain prospect of the Article 50 period not being long enough to finalise anything especially concrete.

(Which reminds me, why must the country foot an exit bill as part of our EU departure? Article 50 eludes to no such requirement and nobody in Brussels can point to anything substantive in the Treaties which demand we hand over billions as part of our Brexit deal. Historically, of course, the UK and the EU have tussled extensively over the issue of financial contributions, but always with the view in mind that British membership would be permanent and that things could always be revisited.)

I don't know what Team Sack Philip Hammond think is the endgame here. Surely they, more than most, will recognise that creating constitutional deadlock in domestic politics damages the productivity of negotiations in Brussels? Just look at what this year's election achieved. And it isn't just the occasional Conservative MP at fault here. Many purporting to be staunchly pro-Brexit (forgetting almost invariably that many who seek to retain EEA membership are too) outside the party also do not seem to realise this. Leave.EU, ever the awful pantomime in this whole saga, are also utilising petitions (which, somebody should remind them, are seldom, if ever effective) an rallying support for his dismissal.

If only they understood that the problem is far broader than simply the jurisdiction of one, largely separated politician. Even veteran MPs like Peter Bone recognise that his role in negotiations is limited. A far more interesting picture of things can be drawn simply by following important journalism. Take Laura Kuenssberg's analysis of negotiations in Brussels thus far, for instance. She writes, with good access to informed sources:

"There's a sense that the government has just not made enough of the big decisions to allow the talks to really get going. There's concern the reticence is because Number 10, in particular, has just not made it clear what they actually want, and where the PM might be willing to compromise. There is frustration that ministers are still relying on tropes like "frictionless border", or "the days of paying vast sums are over", rather than pushing on with the details.This lack of pace therefore makes, it's feared, the possibility of crashing out, or the talks breaking down in the autumn more likely. 
If the Tory party, and more importantly the public, aren't prepared by their leaders for what the eventual compromises could be, whether that is keeping some elements of freedom of movement to guard against economic problems, paying tens of billions to keep trading inside the single market, seeing planes unable to fly across Europe or Chinese ships dock at Tilbury if the deals have not been concluded, they could face a very heavy political price. Senior Tories are well aware that if they mess this up they could be punished for generations."

When I read her take on proceedings, I was immediately reminded of the infamous William Harcourt quote, which rings ever true particularly in the context of Britain's relationship with the European Union. He said many decades ago that "the Conservatives, mark my word, never yet took up a cause without betraying it in the end". The EU issue encapsulates this perhaps more than any other political quandary in Britain. Divided for years over whether or not to join the European Community, then propagated avidly for ever closer union, then when the opportune moment came, pretended to be against the whole project in order to rescue their electoral standing.

No wonder so many Tories have seen their political legacies stained by it all. And no wonder Britain is struggling to hurdle obstacles being thrown its way from the continent. It isn't the fault of Philip Hammond, it's the fault of a party which never thought Leave would win the referendum and thus never supposed it needed to think beyond the triggering of Article 50. As unreasonable as a divorce bill is for the UK, for years a net contributor to a club it didn't want to be fully part of, you'd think it would at least have provided the government time to cement its positions on a substantial number of issues.

If you think talks are slow now, wait until the really juicy stuff begins in the autumn. So much to do and so little time in which to do it.

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