The Rules of the Game

08/07/2016 15:09 | Updated 08 July 2016

The tactics of the dispute within Labour and the Brexit negotiations.

It may be the great speeches which become recorded as history but, in truth, politics are often governed by mechanics. Take the struggle in the Labour Party as an example. Mr Corbyn has clearly lost the support of his parliamentary party and yet will probably be held in place by the votes of the members, many of whom joined to put him there in the first place. The grandees may roar and bellow all they like, his ratings may collapse in the polls, but until his support in the membership declines, as leader he will stay. The rules say so.

The British left has always been fond of playing the rules. In the GLC elections which led to Ken Livingstone becoming leader for the first time, the campaign was actually run on the basis that the much more moderate figure of Andrew McIntosh would head the new administration. Immediately the election was over, the Labour members deposed McIntosh in favour of Livingstone who they produced as a fait accompli to the British people. No, it was not what the public had voted for but no doubt it was all in accordance with the letter of the rules.

The present contest between Mr Corbyn and his opponents will depend on rules at two levels. Under the party rules for the leadership, Mr Corbyn's survival depends on his retaining his majority among the membership - here much may depend on the political complexion of members who have signed up since his election. Then, can the leadership of the party achieve the deselection of rebel members and prevent their being selected as Labour party candidates at the next election? That depends on a different set of rules.

This second set of rules is likely to prove academic. If the rebels cannot oust Mr Corbyn, they will almost certainly form their own party and the struggle for dominance of the left will be deferred to the next election when Corbynite Labour candidates face candidates from the new central group at the polls. How different it would all be if, at the time of their last leadership election, they had had a rule that anyone who had joined recently was ineligible to vote. It is understood that the Conservatives have something of this nature which will prevent entryists influencing their leadership contest. On such small points of drafting is the fate of nations decided.

Rules are also going to govern the negotiations with the European Union over the British exit and here the crucial question is when the two-year countdown to departure is formally triggered by a notice under Article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon.

Leaving aside the entirely unexpected (quite a brave thing to do in the topsy-turvy world of the last couple of weeks), there is little doubt that that notice will in the end have to be given. When you remember that the 52% who voted against the continuation of EU membership included a preponderance of those who feel excluded by the political process, it is not difficult to see how any manoeuvring around the referendum result would play. The honest workers of the north cheated of their democratic rights? No, it would require something quite extraordinary to make that acceptable. Nonetheless the timing of the notice is a matter for Britain and neither Mrs May nor Mr Gove envisage it being served early. That means that everyone, foreign investors in the UK, foreign nationals living here, UK nationals living abroad, EU businesses whose lifeblood is their trade with Britain, UK businesses who trade with the continent, all will be left in in a state of uncertainty.

Negotiation is a science and it has natural rules. The most important of these is that if you wish to negotiate successfully you need to keep your cards close to your chest and leave the other side to do the talking. Mrs May clearly understands that and her refusal to confirm the position of EU nationals already resident in Britain is a good illustration of the approach. Of course we all hope that in the end they will stay here but to confirm that now, before the EU has agreed the position of UK citizens living in their territories, would be little short of idiotic. So would it be to serve the article 50 notice early just because the EU would find it helpful. To run a successful negotiation you have to keep the other side worried and a concession on either point would remove a source of anxiety for the EU, a downside out of proportion to any corresponding gain.

This hard-nosed approach runs counter to many people's natural instincts. "Couldn't this type of intransigence merely irritate the EU?" they ask. Might we not wear down the patience of Angela Merkel, always a source of sanity in EU politics? To approach matters in this way is to misunderstand the nature of the negotiation. In the end, all the parties from Mrs Merkel to Mr Hollande will do what they think is best for their own citizens. How could they do otherwise? They have to face those citizens at election time and justify their actions. It follows that any idea that one of them is some sort of "friend" in the negotiation is an illusion. In some respects they may think that it is important to work with Britain and they will then advocate doing so. That will be, however, because of perceived advantage and not because of "friendship" or because we have been "nice" to deal with.

From a tactical point of view too, deferring the notice makes plenty of sense. Mrs May's point that we shouldn't serve it until we have determined our strategy is an obvious one but there is another thing too. Brexit and the issues which accompany it will reverberate around the EU for some time. Initially the result has been to reinforce the support for membership in those countries where the population had doubts. That is a very early reaction, however, and as the financial implications of the loss of a net contributor begin to dawn and if migration from the Eastern states to the Western rises, it could change. Perhaps it will. Perhaps it won't. Probably not, but there are a lot of other things like the approach of third countries which have yet to be tested. There is a lot to be said for waiting a time and seeing what happens.

It is worth looking at the candidates in this light. Mrs Leadsom is certainly knowledgeable about EU institutions although, if her previous colleagues are to be believed, her business career was rather less stellar than we were led to think. Listen though to her on the podium stating how we would not use the position of EU citizens resident in the UK as counters. Really? What if they throw out the UK citizens resident in the EU? She thinks we should get on with the service of the notice and the negotiation. That isn't a true negotiator's position. What will she blab next? She is a fine woman with excellent political and religious principles but you have to wonder if this is quite her moment. What about Gove then? A reformer clearly, and the potential to be a great one, but is he sphinx-like? Is he a man capable of keeping the other side guessing as to what he really cares about? A difficult trick for a reformer, that. Normally their instinct is to talk to all and sundry.

When you come to Teresa May, of course you don't know. No one really knows what makes her tick and yet, having held down the difficult position of Home Secretary for many years, she is obviously competent. I am not sure what Teresa May would do but I'm sure of one thing. That is the very reason why I would not care to have to negotiate against her. Perhaps it is a sense of this that has made her favourite among her fellow Conservative MPs.

Republished from the Shaw Sheet