Weekend Round-Up -- 15 September 2008

The commentariat was wrong-footed by the Labour rebellion, but it's running to catch up.

It was a difficult balancing act, keeping abreast of the Liberal conference (no one mentions the Democrat bit any more) while watching the Labour Party tearing itself apart.

Andrew Rawnsley did his best to sum up the situation for Nick Clegg and the implications of a Liberal Democrat drift to the right for Labour.

This we can say for certain. The repositioning of the Lib Dems is further bad news for Gordon Brown or whoever else takes Labour into the next election.
The Clegg strategy makes the atmospherics of politics even more hostile to the government. When the Lib Dems join the Tories in deploring the level of taxation and decrying government waste, Labour is left looking isolated and less credible when it tries to defend its record. As if things were not dire enough already for Labour, they now face the prospect that the next general election will be two against one.

But most columnists concentrated on Labour's woes. I thought Matthew d'Ancona was wrong to play down the crisis for the Prime Minsiter.

Next week's conference will have its rumblings and its distractions, but it will also - by definition - be Mr Brown's show and his unity rally.

There will be squalls, coded criticisms and a beauty contest between the potential leadership contenders. But there will not be outright rebellion.

This is not a time for predictions, as the BBC's Nick Robinson discovered.

Janet Daley was on form this morning. I love her challenge to the big men in the Cabinet to stick their heads above the parapet rather than leaving it to braver women on the backbenches.

Watching that procession of female Labour MPs nobody's ever heard of flinging themselves over the cliff at the weekend, I was reminded of Margaret Thatcher's remark: 'In politics, when you want something said, ask a man. When you want something done, ask a woman.'

This characteristically perceptive insight may help to explain why it has been a procession of little girls who have been prepared to sacrifice themselves for the greater good and dared to demand a leadership election, while the big, brave men in Cabinet have cowered in the shadows."

Marvellous stuff.

But the best piece of the weekend was by Nick Cohen in the Observer, who identified a canker eating at the heart of Gordon Brown's 10 Downing Street. In a piece with the glorious headline Call Off Your Mafioso Aides, Mr Brown, Cohen condemns the briefing operation carried out against Brown's critics such as Ivan Lewis. He concludes:

Many are now grasping that no law says Gordon Brown is the only Labour politician allowed to use the sneak attack; that nothing in the Labour party's constitution prevents his targets responding in kind.

As rebels challenge his leadership this weekend, Brown should make his case for continuing in power honourably and fight his critics in the open. If he does not, he will find that the tactics of his made men will destroy his premiership.

As someone who has experienced at first hand the inept mafioso tactics of Brown's political gangsters, I could not agree more.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.