Archive for the 'BREXIT' Category


Why the Brexit divisions are here to stay

Saturday, January 12th, 2019

When you stop and think about it, voting is a very low information form of communication. We get nothing about the certainty of the voter’s view, nothing about the enthusiasm of the voter, nothing about the considerations that led the voter to that view. All we get is a single recorded choice.

As a result, every so often a political truth is so stark staring obvious, so central to British politics, that it is almost entirely missed. We are at such a moment. On this occasion it matters because a lot of politicians may be fatally miscalculating as a consequence.

What is this important truth? Simply this: people are invested in their Brexit position to a degree that we are completely unaccustomed to, and far more than they are in other political positions.

We have a lot of evidence of this. 44% of the public self-identify as very strong Remainers or Leavers. If you include fairly strong supporters, this rises to 77% of voters. By way of comparison, just 9% of the public are very strong party supporters and even if you include fairly strong supporters this rises to just 37%. Brexit has become a facet of people’s personalities.

You don’t buy it?  OK, here are a few other findings to consider. 62% of the public unprompted name Brexit as one of the three most important issues facing Britain. 52% name it as the most important issue.

Nor are they in a compromising mood. In 2017, YouGov recorded that 61% of Leave voters thought that significant damage to the British economy would be a price worth paying for bringing Britain out of the EU. A plurality thought that Brexit causing you or members of your family to lose their job to be a price worth paying for bringing Britain out of the EU. Last summer we had a poll showing that 58% of Leave voters rated Britain leaving the EU as more important than maintaining peace in Northern Ireland. 

This last week we found out that more than half of Leave supporters would see a 30% drop in house prices as a price worth paying for Brexit.  A third of Leave supporters would accept an 8% fall in GDP. So to be clear, roughly 1 in 6 voters are prepared for a crash more severe than any in living memory for Brexit.

YouGov did not poll on the prospect of deaths caused by lack of medicines but I expect that we would see a similar picture there. These would no doubt be seen by a sizeable chunk of the population as casualties of war, to be mourned and regretted, rather than require a change of strategy.

In case you’re wondering, Remainers are actually more likely to identify as very strong supporters than Leavers are. So don’t go looking for reasonableness there either.

Very strong supporters of either side were more likely to vote in the last general election than average. So the electorate is disproportionately comprised of zealots.

Politicians are used to dealing with a public that is now not emotionally attached to their party. They deal with it by triangulating between the hardline positions and giving retail offers at elections, looking to buy their votes. That is unlikely to work in relation to voters who see politicians acting in a manner hostile to their identity.

This poses real risks for many politicians who are doing the opposite.  Jeremy Corbyn is the most obvious example. A lifelong hardliner on many subjects, oddly he is triangulating on the one subject where a large chunk of the public is brooking no compromise. More than three quarters of Labour’s current voting support are Remain supporters. 9 out of 10 Labour party members would vote to stay in the EU in a second referendum. If he is seen as not having fought hard enough to end Brexit, he will be in real trouble.  

There are plenty of signs that many of his former supporters are losing faith and much of his online media outriders’ efforts at present are devoted to attacking the anti-Brexit crowd, under an internal party pressure that is unfamiliar to them. This is a coming battle and one he should think about very carefully before fighting.

He’s not the only one in danger of making a mistake. Conservative MPs considering how to vote on the meaningful vote would be blundering if they thought that their decision could be finessed with their electorates. It won’t. They should make their decisions in the knowledge that whatever they do will not be forgotten by their voters.

That might not mean what those MPs think it means. Many of them are confusing their own intensity of feeling about the form of Brexit with the public’s intensity of feeling about the fact of Brexit. Much of the Leave-supporting part of the public see done as better than perfect. Brexit, as our Prime Minister so wisely said, means Brexit. While there is little palpable enthusiasm for the deal, it seems more capable of attracting a broader base of support than leaving without a deal, and if MPs imperil Brexit by pursuing the best at the expense of the good, they might find that their decision boomerangs with the voters that they were chasing.  

More generally, MPs are going to need to get used to the idea that Brexit is embedded in voters’ personalities for a long time to come and instead of triangulating and bribing voters, politicians will need to explain to voters how their choices can be reconciled with their beliefs. That will mean that for the while politics is going to be very different from what they have been used to for the last couple of generations. So far, few politicians have yet caught up.

Alastair Meeks


Corbyn would be taking a huge gamble going into an election so out of step with LAB voters on Brexit

Friday, January 11th, 2019

Yesterday in what was billed as his “big Brexit speech” LAB leader Corbyn called for a general election should TMay lose fail to win backing for her Brexit deal in the vote next week. But he’s been far more reluctant to allow Labour to give any backing to the increasing clamours for a specific referendum on the deal.

As is widely known Corbyn has been anti the EU just about all his political career and he’s not going to change now – a position that could be very dangerous at a general election whenever it is held. For the vast majority of those who vote for his party have a very different view of the EU from him.

The chart above is based on data from the mega-poll with a 25k sample from YouGov that was published a few days ago. The question featured is how LAB voters would vote if there was a new referendum.

    I’d suggest that a party leader who is so out of line from what the bulk of his party’s support base wants is treading a very difficult path.

At GE2017 Corbyn was very much helped by the general perception tha LAB didn’t stand an earthly and he came under very little scrutiny. Next time that will be very different.

Mike Smithson


On the Betfair exchange its now a 69% chance the the UK WON’T exit the EU at the end of March

Thursday, January 10th, 2019

And a 35% chance that 2019 will see a Brexit referendum

Mike Smithson


What happens when the anti-Brexiteers are united – those who want it are split

Wednesday, January 9th, 2019

This week’s latest Westminster scorecard : The Executive NIL Parliament TWO

By any standards the events that we are seeing at Westminster over the process of the government’s EU Exit legislation are completely unprecedented. Generally parliament is very much there to follow what the executive rules and Westminster’s structures and rules are designed to achieve that end.

The two defeats for the government that we’ve seen yesterday and today are designed to eat away some of the executive’s power in relation to the biggest constitutional changes in decades

In many ways TMay’s has brought this on itself by seeking to take as much of the decision-making away from Parliament. Her move before Christmas to postpone the vote on the deal has very much raised temperature for this week’s considerations.

This afternoon’s motion was about the control of the timetable for what happens. This was unprecedented in that the Speaker agreed to it apparently against the standard procedures of the House. Its passage means that if, as is likely, TMay’s deal is defeated next Tuesday then she has to bring something back within 3 working days. This is instead of the three weeks that would have happened under normal procedures.

All this is set against a backdrop of the government having no majority on the issues for the deal and not wanting to end up with No Deal

Until this afternoon I thought that this TMay’s strategy of wearing the Commons down until there was no real time left would succeed in getting her deal through. Now I am much less convinced.

    If Brexit was supposed to be about Parliament taking back control well that is exactly what has happened but not in a way that those who invented the slogan might have appreciated at the referendum.

Quite where this goes is hard to predict but we could get to situation where a Commons motion calling for a second referendum is carried. Mrs. May could ignore that but I think she would find it very difficult.

Mike Smithson


After a dramatic day in the Commons punters on Betfair make it a 64% chance that the UK will NOT leave EU by March 29th

Tuesday, January 8th, 2019

The Commons defeat for the government with the almost unprecedented cross-party nature of the vote has seen punters being even less convinced that the UK will leave the EU as planned on March 29th.

The election Maps Tweet above shows the party breakdown which looks set to be a good indicator for future votes.

Quite where this goes now is hard to say but I think that the betting markets have got this right.

Mike Smithson


Trying to work out what is Britain’s European Strategy

Tuesday, January 8th, 2019

Other than, arguably, joining the US in the second Iraq war in 2003, the worst post-war strategic mistake made by any British government was the decision not to join what became the EU in 1958 at the start. Had it done so it would have played a leading role and would have helped shape it into an organisation with rules, aims and a culture with which it could have been much more comfortable. Rather than being seen as a foreign institution, it would have been seen as a British one it helped create, shape and govern. Ah well. All too late now. Does any of this really matter? Yes. Here’s why.

Britain has no European strategy

What’s Brexit, then? Well, whatever it is it is not a strategy. It is a reaction – to problems within the EU itself, globalisation, the faltering of the capitalist model since the financial crash, changed migratory patterns, an uncaring arrogant elite, snotty Londoners, take your pick. But what is the strategy? Why did Britain hold back in the 1950’s, rather reluctantly and sniffily sending a civil servant to Sicily to observe what the Continentals were up to?

Lots of reasons: a desire to retreat home and build Jerusalem (there is an echo in this of Labour’s wish now to concentrate on every day issues rather than Brexit), exhaustion, a mistrust of grand schemes, a political class still in thrall to Imperial and Atlanticist pretensions (another echo there, which even Trump’s evident uninterest in all matters British has done nothing to dispel).

But the overarching reason was that Britain still held onto the European strategy which had more or less served it well since the Middle Ages – ensuring no one power dominated the Continent to Britain’s detriment. With Germany defeated and divided and US forces on European soil to keep Communist Russia at bay, what need was there for Britain to give a moment’s thought to Europe?

Eventually, of course, it decided to join but nearly two decades too late, as a supplicant, from a position of humiliated economic weakness. So, having joined the new dominant European power, what did it think this meant? Was Britain now a European power? Should its focus be on this emerging new organisation? And, if so, what did this mean for Britain itself, for British domestic and foreign policy?

The history of opt outs, of being half in, half out, never really on board with the European destination, of seeing the EU as a foe to be battled with, of cultivating a relationship with the US which was “special” in the way that a besotted fan has a “special” relationship with a celebrity whose film they’ve watched 000’s of times, suggests that an answer to the question of what Britain’s European strategy should be has never been found.

In this it was beautifully mirrored by the EU itself which never properly realised that having a country such as Britain with its different history, political and legal culture and approach as a member required a step change in its approach and thinking, beyond simply shuffling up a bit to make room for a few more chairs round the table.

Why Britain didn’t want a dominant European power

To listen to some Brexiteers now you’d have thought that Britain’s sovereignty was some golden thread running through its history since Alfred the Great and that any diminution or sharing of it is an emasculation of some essential Britishness. But the reason why Britain was concerned about this was because it didn’t want any enemy interfering with its ability to trade, with its trade routes, its control of the seas, its colonies.

Sovereignty was a means to an end. Trade and commerce were what mattered above all.  And they still do matter.  So what happens now given that much of that trade is with Europe and much of Britain’s trade with the rest of the world is mediated through the EU?

The EU is not an enemy

The EU may – at its worst – be many infuriating things: arrogant, complacent, sometimes venal, often deaf to concerns, inflexible, insensitive, self-interested, defensive, obstructive, unimaginative, overly bureaucratic, with a tendency to overreach, sometimes undemocratic etc.  But it is not an enemy. This should not need saying but it does. It is dominant in Europe, likely to remain so for the foreseeable future and, essentially (despite all its faults) friendly and benign. It is certainly in Britain’s interests that it should be so.  How then should Britain interact with it?

A close relationship

Ah yes – the fabled close relationship. What Britain is now realising, very late in the day, is that if the relationship is close, Britain does what it is told by the EU and has no say in the rules it has to follow. If joining an organisation after the rules were written was humiliating and unworkable in the long run, how much more so will such an arrangement be. If it is not close, Britain will need to earn its living elsewhere.

It will end up largely doing what it is told by other countries: China, the US, Asian nations, Pacific nations, even eventually emerging African nations. It will have a bit more say in other negotiations but the days of Britain bestriding the world imposing its rules, its language, its laws, its will on other countries are long gone.

Again, this should not need saying but it does. Britain dominated global trade in centuries past because it was able to dominate, militarily if need be, anyone who stood in its way and could outcompete others. It will be much more of a supplicant now and one without a once winning card, namely, easy entry into the EU market. All of this is doable but it is not an easy cost-free option and will involve trade-offs and sacrifices (ISDS tribunal jurisdiction, anyone?) at least as hard, if not harder, than those required by EU membership.

What now?

Currently Britain’s approach to the EU might best be summed up by Sybil Fawlty’s description of her permanently enraged husband: “You never get it right, do you? You’re either crawling all over them, licking their boots, or spitting poison at them like some Benzedrine puff adder.”

Let’s assume some form of Brexit goes through on 29 March.  A brilliant slogan – “Take Back Control” – will have achieved its aim – departure. What it won’t have achieved is any idea of where next nor what control Britain will be taking back and for what purpose.  What is still missing is a realistic strategy for Britain’s relationship with a dominant Continental power. Departure does not render this question moot. It makes it more urgent than ever. A little late you say?  I agree. Still, if not now, when?



Coming up at 2100 GMT on Channel 4 – Brexit the movie

Monday, January 7th, 2019

PBers in the UK, no doubt, will be glued to their TVs

Join the discussion while it happens here. I’ve little doubt it will cause controversy and maybe shape perceptions of what happened. It, of course, comes at the most critical time for the Government as it desperately tries to secure the agreement of the Commons on the Brexit deal.

The writer, James Graham, made a big name for himself a few years back with his National Theatre play “This House” about the 1974-79 LAB government which extraordinarily managed to last for nearly five years. It covered a period in my career when I was working at Westminster and I thought it brilliantly caught the drama and madness of that period.

I’ll be watching and the following thread looks set to be interesting.

Mike Smithson


How the EU has bungled Brexit

Monday, January 7th, 2019

As Britain is going through the final stages of a psychiatric breakdown over Brexit, not much attention is being given to our surroundings. Time to take some slow shallow breaths and look around. How does the world look like from the EU?

The EU looks pretty ropey just now. At every level it is enervated. Its Commission is serving out its final months, a lame duck administration. The European Parliament is divided and set to get more so. The national governments are just as weak. Germany has a lame duck Chancellor. France has an unpopular president besieged by extra-Parliamentary protest. Sweden has no government.

Many of those countries with a functioning government are functioning to cause the EU hierarchy serious problems – Italy, Hungary, Poland and Romania are all causing headaches.

And then there is Brexit. The EU is due to lose one of its largest member states. This substantially damages the EU in at least eight ways. 

  1. Reduced heft – in a world of power blocs, the smaller the bloc, the less the power.
  2. Increased division against common adversaries. There’s a reason why Russia is pushing Brexit hard. 
  3. Reduced access to London’s financial markets. This is potentially a further drag on an already-anaemic European economy.
  4. The loss of Britain’s cultural contribution.
  5. Detachment from Britain’s contribution to learning (its universities rank far better than most in the rest of Europe, its Nobel Prize record is outstanding).
  6. Don’t laugh, but loss of access to Britain’s bureaucratic skills.
  7. Loss of Britain’s international connections – Britain is a leading member of many international networks, of which the permanent UN Security Council seat is only the most obvious.
  8. Loss of military puissance. Britain and France dwarf the rest of the EU’s capabilities. An EU army is not going to compensate, especially at a time when the USA is putting the hard squeeze on its NATO allies.

(And all this is without mentioning the loss of Britain’s financial contribution, which in the grand scheme of things is trivial.)

You would have thought that the EU would have approached Brexit negotiations so as to minimise some at least of these downsides. It has done the opposite.

It claims to have prioritised the integrity of the EU as a system in the drawing up of its negotiating position. This would not have been inconsistent with minimising some of these downsides. 

To take a small but telling example, Britain was excluded from nominating European Capitals of Culture for 2023 because it would have been ineligible under existing rules. But non-EU cities were eligible and Istanbul and Reykjavik have already held the title in the past. A minor rule change would have offered a small symbol of continuing cultural links. Instead, the EU chose to symbolise its attachment to mindless bureaucracy.

There was always a high risk of Britain leaving the EU on alienated and hostile terms. By their stance, the EU hierarchy have done their damnedest to ensure it. Even a late reversal of Brexit is likely to cause at least as many problems as it solves. This state of affairs is no more in the EU’s interests than in Britain’s. 

Fortunately, the careers of the culprits on the EU side have suffered appropriately. Jean-Claude Juncker will cease to be President of the European Commission later this year. He will not be missed. Arguably he should have resigned in 2016, as David Cameron did, his authority shot to pieces by the failure of a central plank of his campaign.

Instead he lingered on fairly pointlessly. His most newsworthy interventions in recent months have been to have a needless argument with Theresa May and to paw at a colleague’s hair.

His elevation had been controversial in the first place. Endorsed by the EPP as their Spitzenkandidat (nominee for the presidency) for the last European elections, Jean-Claude Juncker’s lack of suitability had been much-discussed even before the European Council met to consider the appointment. David Cameron had fought a fierce and utterly unsuccessful battle to resist the concept and the man

Ironically, the mood among European leaders seems to be shifting: Emmanuel Macron is in the majority of the European Council that has voiced opposition to the idea of automatically picking the Spitzenkandidat of the leading bloc in the European Parliament. Commission President Juncker has managed to discredit himself to the extent that the mechanism by which he achieved his position is now in serious jeopardy.

His chief Brexit negotiator will be hoping the Spitzenkandidat system does collapse. Michel Barnier had made no secret of his ambition to become Commission President. He had stood against Jean-Claude Juncker in 2014. His ambitions for 2019 were trailed far in advance. As a man in his late 60s, this must be his last chance.

But his failure to promptly agree a Brexit deal wrecked his chances of securing the EPP nomination. His best chance now looks for the 2019 European Parliament election to produce a chaotic result and for him to emerge as a compromise candidate from the mess. The chaotic result looks very possible but with the EPP Spitzenkandidat an ally of the German chancellor, his chances of being the compromise candidate do not seem particularly strong.

The EU will survive the year. It is unlikely particularly to prosper or to finish the year stronger than it started it. It urgently needs to find more visionary leadership.

Alastair Meeks