It is said that there are few inevitabilities in this life: death and taxes, chiefly among them. Yet at least recently, there seems to be a third, Conservative MPs choosing to completely ignore the catastrophic consequences, and the very real possibility, of a No Deal exit from the European Union at the end of the Transition Period on January 1, 2021. After all, it is partly on the support of those supporting No Deal on principle that the Government stands today. Thus, it should come as no surprise that when members of the European Research Group numbered as much as 52 of the 320 or so Conservative MPs in the hung Parliament of 2017–2019 that their demands of as clean a break from Europe as possible are being met, if only because of: 1) the genuine squeeze that supporters of even modest withdrawal from Europe faced in pressing their demands and 2) the advancement of key members of that group into Cabinet.
Evidence of the No Deal squeeze and the continued institutional questions of what exactly the United Kingdom ought to go toward in terms of the withdrawal agreement easily be seen in the jockeying over the Internal Market bill. The Internal Market Bill provides a unique insight into the Brexit debate, a debate, at least between the UK and EU that never seemed to be headed toward any sort of positive resolution-at least not a resolution which would genuinely protect both British jobs and the British economy. Take, for instance, this statement made by Alexander Stafford, MP Rother Valley, regarding the bill’s language regarding problems that might exist at the end of the Transition Period as regards regulatory frameworks:
“Why do we have to legislate for everything? Why do we have to legislate for every could, should, and would? SNP members keep trying to portray the worst-case examples, saying ‘Oh, you know, the asteroid might hit us. Why does this bill not talk about the asteroid and how we could deal with it?’ We cannot think about all these coulds and shoulds; we have to deal with what is in front of us.”
Notwithstanding the ludicrous argument made here by Mr. Stafford that the United Kingdom shouldn’t be planning for the worst-case scenario when it comes to things such as the problems in preserving an agreed upon minimum in food and environmental standards; it also drives home the point here that the bare minimum of planning for externalities is completely and utterly lost on at least one member of the 2019 intake of Conservative MPs. That has very dangerous consequences for the future of any planning if members of the Government cannot seem to understand why we ought to plan ahead.
An excellent point was made later in the same debate by Wendy Chamberlain, the MP for North East Fife, who also notes the issues the bill had regarding another externality of the Bill, its consequences for the UK’s constitutional order:
“This is a political Bill because, at its heart, it is about the question of who decides, which is of huge constitutional importance. The powers that went to the European Community nearly 50 years ago are returning to a UK that has had, despire appearances, a constitutional makeover…..Looking at some parts of the Bill, we have to wonder whether those drafting and proposing it truly understand what is devolved and what is reserved and the implications of that.”
The truth here is, that they simply have not given much thought into the implications of these bills-the questions of these coulds and shoulds, as Alexander Stafford put it. The questions of the constitutional order, the questions of regulatory frameworks-both rather large questions that simply have not been answered by the Government. If they have been answered, it has largely been in hunky dory fashion-that new powers will lead to better outcomes. This, of course, comes without the recognition that some sort of standards will be needed going forward and that for the Internal Market to function as intended, there will have to be minimum standards. See, for instance, access to Kent for trucks.
The BBC reported on the 23rd that truck or “lorry” drivers will need a permit to enter Kent post-Brexit, a point Michael Gove, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, admitted on the 23rd. The same hoofing and hawing about the internal market and its consequences and the new regulatory framework for the United Kingdom finally recognized at least one externality-that the new regulatory mismatch between the UK and the EU will lead to at least some consequences.
So why is pessimism that seems to permeate regarding the whole process? Because put quite simply, the Government were never committed to agreeing a trade deal and as shown, they’ve only ever engaged in bad faith arguments-always mistaking the forest for the trees.. The statement put forward by Chris Heaton-Harris, MP for Daventry, in a questioning period in December of 2018, proves helpful in understanding just how far back the current “focus on the present” malaise goes:
“Let me be clear: a no-deal outcome and move to WTO terms, which some hon. Members have suggested would be preferable to a deal would lead to disruption and potential harm to critical industries in the short term. We cannot solve the issues that may arise in a no-deal scenario, but we can, as a Government, mitigate them by prioritizing continuity where possible. Indeed, continuity is a thread that runs through our no-deal plans.”
Now, of course, Prime Ministers have changed since then, but the underlying pressures have not. The underlying pressure of an electorate which voted the Prime Minister and his party into office with the sole goal to “get Brexit done”, has not changed. The pressure of a parliamentary party increasingly restless at the idea of any EU negotiation at all it seems has not changed. Nor has the final pressure of a party leadership hellbent on bringing back “sovereignty”-whatever that abstract theory really means, if anything, these days. The focus on the present moment and not on the future, of a decidedly more interconnected, post-sovereignty world, will mean pain down the line-as future gain has given way to a quest for present power.
The common strand that runs through those pressures and to the statements made both during the May Premiership and the Johnson Premiership however are relatively the same: not so much a pragmatic exit from the EU as much an exit at any cost. It is clear that the motivations-of party, of electorate, and at simply abandoning the EU-were there all along.
After all, the electorate asked for such a thing, why should it not be so? And indeed, why not on the hardest terms?
Put simply, as the members in the debate on the 23rd and on the 22nd note, the consequences have the potential to be downright catastrophic. So why my pessimism?
It boils down to one very simple reality, really: the reality that commitment to abstract principles will always matter more than policy to some. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, we’ve fundamentally reached a point where the values we espouse are different. At least in this instance, one side of the debate has espoused a value fundamentally incompatible with that of the other side and it makes compromise impossible. I am not one to say that a deal cannot be reached, but it is clear that here is not a will to negotiate in good faith when the arguments of “taking back our power” remain.
With the smoke signals clearly blowing in one direction, it’s clear what way things are going: towards the irreconcilable differences over devolution (devolved areas), regulations (some members, such as Caroline Lucas, MP Brighton Pavilion, raised concerns over a “race to the bottom in the absence of commonly agreed minimum standards.”), and credentialism leading to a consensus to simply not act, to throw away this chance at a trade agreement. In other words, it’s clear at this point, the United Kingdom is headed towards one thing many on the left, and right, have been dreading for the last two years: toward a No Deal Brexit.