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Maastricht Redux

May 26th, 2019

Once upon a time there was a stubborn female PM annoying the hell out of her colleagues. A junior Minister was even overheard calling her “a cow” and wishing she would resign. She was determinedly pursuing and arguing for an initially popular pledge – abolition of the rates – by means of a ferociously unpopular policy: the poll tax. No-one was convinced. Tory MPs looked nervously at their majorities, their annoyed constituents and wondered why she would not listen.

A feeble attempt to unseat her had recently failed. She ignored the warning signs. Then an argument about European policy (ERM membership and the EU’s plans for Economic and Monetary Union) combined with her brutal treatment of loyal colleagues and a recession, led to her departure. Tears were shed. The long-standing blond favourite – self-promoting, prone to flamboyant gestures, nakedly ambitious, a darling of the members for his theatrical speeches and with a flouncy resignation out of Cabinet to his name – was waiting in the wings. He was beaten by a less flashy, largely unknown successor who promised to unite the country and make it feel at ease with itself.

There was, alas, no happy ending – for the successor, the party or the country.  The successor stuck with ERM membership, despite the economic pain it was inflicting. He became hubristic – especially after his election victory – even suggesting in a TV interview that summer of 1992 that the pound would one day be as strong as the Deutschmark and might replace it as the ERM’s anchor currency. Oh dear.

Much as happened to other British Ministers since, this delusion about Britain’s importance was brutally dispatched by the German Foreign Minister in his TV interview shortly after. Nemesis followed: humiliation in Europe, billions spent pointlessly, a reputation for economic competence (already wearing thin) thrown away, hand to hand combat in Parliament over the Maastricht Treaty with a vociferous group of his own MPs, convinced that the EU was the source of all the country’s problems.

No matter that ERM membership had been supported by a majority, including opposition parties. Its consequences (high interest rates, lost jobs, homeowners with negative equity) were not at all what voters wanted or expected.  The government was blamed.  It limped on – in office but not in power – until finally put out of its misery by a toothy, grinning newcomer with a gift for the pithy phrase and making people feel good about themselves. It was 23 years before it won a majority again.

Surely things are different now?  But no.  Mrs May – a bloody difficult woman, determined yet unpersuasive, only at her departure finally understanding that politics is the art of the possible – has, like the first female PM before her, been felled by her party’s inability to handle yet another European issue.  So what now?

Party vs country.

In 1990 MPs decided on the leader; this at least had the virtue that they knew close up the strengths and weaknesses of the candidates and would have to live with the consequences of their decision. Now it has been delegated to circa 150,000 members, mostly at or near pensionable age, a significant proportion of whom may not even have voted Tory in the Euro elections, unrepresentative of the wider electorate, and who will not have to live with the consequences in Parliament.

An odd way to choose a leader who, as PM, needs to command a majority in the House but who may not have commanded a majority of their MPs.  There may not be much difference in practice.  Members gave the Tories Ian Duncan-Smith; MPs chose May.  In both cases, the electorate gave scant thought to the country’s needs. They seem intent on repeating that mistake.

It is not enough to be different to one’s predecessor.

May has no charisma, Boris plenty.  May lost a majority, Boris won London twice.  May never believed in Brexit, Boris does (we hope). Tory voters have deserted the party for Farage so we must offer what Farage is offering. So Boris it must be. This seems to be the thinking (to be kind) of those Tories desperate for a way out. Boris has cut his hair and promised to be more disciplined.  This is leadership Just William-style.

Perhaps other candidates could outbid him by promising to have regular baths and say their prayers before bedtime.  Little thought is given to how to resolve the problem which confronted Mrs May and will confront any new leader – how to leave the EU on good terms and get support for this in the EU and Parliament.

May’s failure is put down to her character and lack of belief not the complexity of the task.  JFDI [1] seems to be all that is required.  If leaving on bad terms is what that means, too bad. It is a quite extraordinary approach for a party with “conservative” in its name.

Politics is about more than reacting to what you don’t like.

Black Wednesday and the Maastricht Treaty are often seen as when Euroscepticism gained a hold in British politics.  But something more insidious also developed: the art of knowing what you are against but not knowing what you are for.

So busy was Major fighting for an opt-out from the euro and the Social Chapter, so exhausted was he coming up with a compromise which would keep the party together and dampen down any discussion about the EU’s trajectory, so focused on the process of winning Parliamentary approval, that he utterly failed to explain or make the case for what Maastricht did change: the start of the creation of a European identity for its citizens and their ability to move, live and work freely in all its member states.

The case for Freedom of Movement, for a European identity, for the EU which was being created was never made until it was far too late, a point which scuppered Remainers long before the referendum campaign’s start. They too adopted the tactics of the Eurosceptics: only they were against those who wanted to leave the EU.  Hard not to make that look like contempt for voters and their choices.  It has been the rocket fuel for Farage’s comeback.

Now they are at it again. Everyone hates the Withdrawal Agreement, the Irish backstop.  Not a proper Brexit.  Nor what the people wanted, apparently.  Some even now hate the Good Friday Agreement (a major diplomatic triumph whose foundations were built by poor doomed Mr Major).  Others simply hate the idea of having any sort of agreement at all with the EU because it would involve compromise. The Brexiteers have adopted Maggie’s “No. No. No.” and turned into a manifesto. Others hate a No Deal Brexit or Brexit at all and plot to get it stopped.

Have a plan for the future.

How does one leave the EU?  You’d have thought that those agitating for it so vociferously and for such a long time would know by now.  But no. It’s as if departure from the EU is the end state, now seemingly without even a transition to ease the passing from the status quo to, well, what? All the focus is on the exit door, not what’s on the other side.

How a country built around EU membership for 46 years can suddenly go from that to non-membership literally overnight is never explained. We are meant to take it on trust that there is an economic Eden there just waiting. There may be some disruption says Theresa Villiers but, when asked on The Week in Westminster how much disruption was acceptable, she declined to answer.  It cannot be long now before we get a fresh airing of “If it’s not hurting, it’s not working.”

It is not even clear whether a deal of any type with the EU will be acceptable or even sought. We are meant to believe that the EU, having been snubbed over the transition, will bother to start the tortuous process of negotiating an FTA.  It’s assumed that Brexit will be done once Britain departs when surely it will be the start of something new and unprecedented. None of its proponents seem to have given the slightest thought to or, if they have, bothered to communicate to voters what this new beginning will mean.

The most important lesson is perhaps this: any significant change in the country’s course needs more than Parliamentary approval or passage as the legal default to gain support.  It needs it from as many of those who are initially opposed or indifferent or sceptical as possible.  Without it, any change will be vulnerable to its first difficulties. Without it, it will not last.

If it is so hard to gain acceptance for departure with a transition deal, might some reflection be advisable?  Apparently not – at least for ardent Tory Brexiteers. There can be only one answer to that question. No. They now seem close to their No Deal Brexit but have little to say about what happens next.  They think the voters will reward them even if it turns out not to be a success.  Or as bad as some fear.  It’s a brave assumption to make.  And a shaky basis on which to build a lasting consensus.

[1]Just F*cking Do It

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