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Why No-One Knows How To Spring The Brexit Trap

13/08/2017 20:35

In politics as in life so much lies in the timing.

Right now the UK is on vacation and few grown-up journalists are around.

So stupid briefings are taken as serious.

The latest joint statement by Philip Hammond and Liam Fox, given wide Sunday media coverage is not about Brexit. It is about the succession to Theresa May.

In the Observer David Miliband writes: "Delegating to May and Davis, never mind Johnson and Fox, the settlement of a workable alternative to EU membership is a delusion, not just an abdication."

But he then heaps praise on Philip Hammond :"I never thought I would say this, but Philip Hammond is also playing an important, even valiant, role. A transition of the kind he has advocated is vital."

Miliband is one of the most brilliant men on policy to surface in recent years but the crude workings of personal raw ambition and hunger for power are not part of his CV.

Hammond is utterly cynical and in 2015 said Brexit "would light a fire under Europe." He is part and parcel of the 21st Century anti-EU fronde in the Tory Party.

Since July 2016 he has to represent the Treasury which is in despair over Brexit and he has to reassure business. As long as economic actors, i.e. the business community in the broadest sense, refuse to come out clearly and cleanly against Brexit there is no real pressure on the Tories.

Unfortunately Corbyn as leader of the revived Labour Party is a huge help to the Brexit camp. No economic actor is going to say or do anything that appears to be preferring Corbyn to a Tory government. If Corbyn can find words that imply accepting the Single Market/Customs Union then that changes the dynamic. We shall see what happens in the party conference season of September/early October.

So Hammond has room for manoeuvre. He knows how fragile May is and how much Tory MPs want a new leader not the woman who lost so many of their colleagues their seats on 8th June and made Labour the Lazarus party - back from the dead.

Fox was the kingmaker in the 2005 Tory leadership campaign. He gave 40 votes to David Cameron in exchange for Cameron agreeing to pull out of the European Peoples Party, the federation of centre-right parties in Europe. This was the first political exit from Europe paving the way for the much bigger Brexit amputation with economic, trade and political Europe enshrined in EU Treaties.

Now Fox has told Hammond that he can have 10 Downing Street in exchange for a guarantee of hard Brexit and a big promotion for Fox in a Hammond government.

If Paris was worth a mass for Henry IV of France, then Downing Street is worth a hard Brexit for an ambitious Philip Hammond.

Anne McElvoy, a liberal rightist Economist senior editor (Eurosceptic but never a Ukip-Gove Brexit fanatic) also writes in the Observer in praise of those "determined to limit the worst damage from a hard Brexit in the wider interest. Those slogging away at that aim, notably Philip Hammond as chancellor, are doing the more responsible thing."

So Hammond is seen as both responsible and talking "transition" language and, simultaneously, thanks to his new alliance with Fox is also seen as the man ready to take the UK out of the Single Market and Customs Union.

If May goes in the next period Hammond is likely to succeed her with both Tory Remainers and Leavers able to read into him what they want.

But that is today's interpretation.

In two months' time who knows?

The mood is uneasy, unsettled. The UK has no previous example of getting out of a disastrous policy blunder based for the first time in British history on a plebiscite decision, especially one which has yet to take place in the sense of leaving the EU.

Past blunders like Suez, the Poll Tax, or Iraq were solved by cutting losses and in the first two examples swiftly removing a Prime Minister as a sacrifice. But the Brexit decision was taken by a plebiscite, and has yet to be given effect.

David Cameron has gone and Theresa May will probably go but that does not provide a solution to working out what is an appropriate political solution. There is no previous precedent. The text-books of political history provide no answers. Perhaps our constitutionalists can come up with some ideas?

Bookstores are snowed under with Brexit books. Most are post-mortems and few offer a way forward. The kind of speculative discussion on finding a political solution to what is clearly a bad decision for Britain is not something our political journalists are good at.

In this void politicians maneuver for power. It is what they know best.

Denis MacShane is the UK's former Europe Minister and author of Brexit, No Exit. Why (in the End) Britain Won't Leave Europe published by IB Tauris

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