Accidental spies; useful idiots

It is how it begins, with a friendly conversation in a quiet corner. The deeper conversations which follow are of a pattern familiar to those who may come knocking on your door earlier than you expect:

“I am pleased to meet you, as you have always understood our country and have tried to correct certain misconceptions voiced by your colleagues in Parliament and outside. As you are a member of the ‘Friends of…’ group, I think I may call you a friend. Goodwill in relations between Britain and our country would be of great advantage to both of our nations and to the world, as you understand.”

“It is frustrating that some even in your own party take a negative view of our country. I have never understood it. It is good to know that we have friends. The concerns of others about certain domestic and foreign policies of ours should not sour what should be a partnership of nations with so much in common, when we should be working together. When you yourself are in government, I hope we will. The current opposition must stem from an unfortunate prejudice as they do not apply the same standards to other countries far further from their ideas. I have long appreciated that you take the wider view.”

“Perhaps you could tell me which of your colleagues opposes our country’s policies: then we could tailor our message better. Talk to them. What are their concerns, and who is briefing them against us?”

“Such a treasure of information you have provided. Perhaps we might engage you in a professional capacity as a consultant? Your contacts in the upper reaches of the government machine may provide information that we, with our limited understanding of British political culture, fail to grasp.”

“Your services have been invaluable, and your skills as a researcher impeccable – you might also though be able to tickle some more information from ministers with a question or two in the House, within your professional role? I have taken the liberty of writing a list of possible subjects…”

Well, sir – you have become a paid intelligence agent of a foreign power.

Treason, stupidity, recklessness or hypocrisy?

Or possibly all four.  Is there any evidence from signal intercepts that any members of Parliament have been taking instructions from a foreign power, whether the European Commission or a member state government?  Is there any evidence of paid collusion?  Voluntary collusion might be even worse.

There a more dangerous possibility, which I sincerely hope is untrue, but it is becoming an unavoidable conclusion.

Out across the Channel, the European negotiators are laughing.  With little effort from themselves, the British establishment appears to have torn itself apart, and even if it is a minority of the Conservative Party trying to stop Brexit, that is enough when allied with the Liberal Democrats openly trying to stop it and Labour just voting down anything Tory.  They can foresee a reversal, and end to Brexit, and a chance to swallow Britain into ever-closer union.  The actions of Parliamentarians must be seen in that light, and their logic judged by it, and this is where the worry surfaces.

Today, anti-Brexit MPs and those claiming to oppose only a no-deal outcome combined with Labour apparently to prevent a prorogation or suspension of Parliament, and with a view to forcing through emergency legislation to block Brexit from happening without a deal – but since the House has always voted against the deal put before it, that it essentially to block Brexit entirely. This evening it was revealed that leading anti-Brexit MPs are even planning to have the Commons order the Queen to bypass her own Government and ask for a Brexit extension, or cancellation, in person. That is astounding.

These Remainiac plans could not succeed, but they give a message to the European Commission to play hardball:  they will give no concession, because if they present an unacceptable deal they will not face the cliff-edge but the Commons will delay and possibly cancel Brexit.  If those playing games in the Commons were to belt up and leave the Government to it, the Commission would probably crumble at the last minutes, but now they need not.  They can be very few, if any, instances in history, of a powerful faction in the House of Commons actively conspiring with a foreign power to undermine the British Government and harm British interests; at least not since the Civil War.

The extreme rebels, with Grieve and Gyimah and Bebb and others, have at every step said that they oppose no-deal but at every step have voted for no deal and have at every step made no deal more likely.

This then brings me to the horrible conclusion. The reports from the Commons are that the Tory rebels believe that Boris Johnson actually wants a no-deal outcome. There is no way any sane man could come to that conclusion. In this Brexit debate though, sanity has been driven out of the window: ‘Brexit Derangement Syndrome is real.  I have to conclude, painfully, that members of the House of Commons once respected have lost their sanity.

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Has the hour of the SDP come at last?

It is the political party which refused to die. Is this now the time for the SDP to rise again?

Jumping before they were pushed, six Labour MPs have announced they will not stand at the new General Election, and the thing about this sextet is that they are all Momentum targets, and several are consistent Brexiteers: Kate Hoey, Stephen Pound, Stephen Twigg, Jim Fitzpatrick, Kevin Barron, Ronnie Campbell, not a consistent party, but consistently the more level-headed on Labour’s benches.

There stands in the wings the Social Democratic Party.  The original SDP, as those with long memories or short history books will recall, was founded by a “Gang of Four” in 1981, splitting from the Labour Party over its increasingly lunatic left-wing stance.  Even Kinnock’s Labour was moderate though compared with the Militant Tendency snapping at t its grassroots, and that Militant Tendency has transformed into Momentum.  The foundation of the SDP has been spoken of as a model for a breakaway from Labour’s frequent descents into madness, and a warning against it.

After just 2 years the Social Democratic Party threw in its lot with the Liberal Party and in 1988, having failed to cause an earthquake, it dissolved and merged with the Liberal Party to form the Social and Liberal Democrats, now the Liberal Democrats.  Not all came across:  David Owen, one of the Gang of Four, refounded the SDP, and it carried on for two years with Lord Owen, one of the original Gang of Four, before dissolving, but again some stalwarts refused to go, and there is still a Social Democratic Party today.

The remnant SDP is tiny, still holding to the Limehouse Declaration but, and this is crucial, they are a pro-Brexit party, glad to accept WTO terms if no better deal is available. Is this a destination for breakaway Labour MPs, as it was in the heady days of 1981?  The political landscape is different today, and the repulsiveness of Momentum’s Labour Party is like nothing seen before.  Something must break.

Several peers have broken off Labour too, over the rampant anti-Semitism in the party’s ranks rather than its self-destructive European policy.  They need no party to stay in Parliament and so can remain independent.  Those with political vim, Kate Hooey being a prime example, may want a vehicle that could bring them back to the Commons, or at least to challenge Labour’s assumed ownership of the working class. Good luck to them.

Oh,

In other news, Simon Franks (multimillion-pound entrepreneur and apparently a Eurofan etc) and his “United for Change” party / movement / vanity project was rumoured this week to be relaunching as “The United Party” (presumably after ChangeUK poisoned the waters on that name): still nothing official though. He would far from the first to launch a pro-EU party with fanfares and promises for the future. I lose track of the number there have been since 2016. If brevity is the soul of wit, these new Pro-EU parties are humour personified. Countdown to evaporation begins.

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Gyimah gymnastics

The MP behind the shortest, most hopeless membership bid has been back on the news: this morning on, Sophie Ridge on Sunday, Sam Gyimah announced that he would lead a conspiracy to undermine his own party and government to stop a no-deal, including unspecified legislative intervention – which is a realistic threat as we saw before, even is the resultant emergency Act of Parliament turned out to be a damp squib.

However listen to what else he said: he declared that he has consistently voted against ‘no deal’. That’s not actually true though, is it Sam?

In fact, he consistently voted against the Withdrawal Agreement, three times. In fact, he has consistently voted for no deal, on every binding vote: he only voted against in a non-binding motion and that rushed and effectively non-binding Act of Parliament.

Two things could have secured a deal, which Gyimah, Grieve and others claim to want: passing the Withdrawal Agreement, or allowing the Government the authority it needed to negotiate a better deal. Passing a motion to deprive the government of authority to walk away just handed the negotiation to Brussels and left Mrs May powerless to force any concession.

It was that recklessness too which drove Mrs May from office and opened the door for Boris Johnson: you are responsible, Sam.

In short, Mr Gyimah, Mr Grieve and others, your every action has been directed to ensuring that no deal can be reached. When the United Kingdom crashes out of the EU without a transition, you must take personal responsibility, and if your recklessness is such as to trigger a General Election before the party’s poll ratings have recovered, every Conservative seat will have a split vote with the Brexit Party, Mr Corbyn and Mr MacDonnell will waltz into Downing Street, and the resultant economic meltdown will make even the maddest of Project Fear projections seem as nothing. Then we will look to you, personally, to accept responsibility.

Fixing the Withdrawal Agreement

The Withdrawal Agreement is dead.  Thrice rejected by Parliament, it forced the resignation of Theresa May.  It cannot be brought back.

It was not all bad – but the drops of poison fouled the whole batch.  Cut those parts out or neutralise them and it could be signed tomorrow.  Boris Johnson, the hope for a hard exit, has said in interviews that he would gladly agree the acceptable bits (so no one should portray his bid for the top job as a yahoo no-deal fantasy).

The shape of Mrs May’s Agreement

The bulk of the Agreement is innocuous, and the Transition Period short, if it is not extended.  The problem points are brief but cut deep.  However these points are the ones of least import to the European Commission.

If common sense prevails, a compromise is eminently possible, but common sense rarely does prevail and the Commission have said there will be no negotiation.  They would say that though, and up to now they have had their way, and they have been able to rely on their co-conspirators in the House of Commons to undermine any negotiating position the Government takes.  That position may not prevail for long.

Any withdrawal or post-withdrawal agreement is just an interim stage towards a free trade agreement, ideally a zero-tariff Canada+ trade treaty (although what lies behind that “+” is important).

The withdrawal agreement is only required because the Commission have refused (in breach of their own treaties) to negotiate a free trade agreement without it.  It makes sense to agree institutional points such as ownership of data, liability for pensions and a repayment of Britain’s investment in the European Investment Bank.  Had it gone no further it would barely have stirred a leaf.

How to change the deal

The main problem issues with the deal as presented are:

  • The Ulster Backstop (‘Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland’)
  • The Vassalage Period (Article 127)
  • The block on trade deals (Article 129)
  • The budget contribution (Part 5)

The Ulster Backstop

The backstop has been the most problematic issue: if the backstop been excised then the deal would probably have gone through the Commons, but with it, the DUP could not stomach the deal, nor the Tory Spartans.  The one thing the Commons has approved by a majority was the Brady compromise: the deal without the backstop. It is also a provision the Commission have been firmest on keeping, in order to keep the Irish government happy.

However, it is an odd provision, and worded as a temporary stopgap. It could potentially become permanent if the Commission refuse to sign off on replacement arrangements, but the seeds of its termination are they open a route to keeping the backstop while junking it at the same time, which would satisfy honour on both sides.

  • Solution:  accept the backstop, but sign a side agreement accepting that alterative arrangements are or will be in place sufficient to satisfy the condition terminating it before it starts.

The vassalage period

The “vassalage period” is in Articles 95 and 127.  These together provide that European Union rules and decisions apply in the United Kingdom during the transition period, including those yet to be made.  It is important for the EU to know that Britain has not torn up the rules and standards that allow free passage of goods and services, and the Withdrawal Act continues all such rules.  The issue is on new rules, made without British participation.  That should not matter to the EU.

  • Solution:  accept Articles 95 and 127, but make a side agreement in derogation or clarification that they shall not apply to enactments, rules and decisions made after Exit Day, and shall not legally oblige the United Kingdom after Exit Day to enact laws mandated by existing directives unless they already have been.

Outside trade deals forbidden

The block that says no outside trade deals may come into force until the end of the Transition Period is not a serious matter: it goes to the heart of why Britain is leaving the EU, but it is unlikely that any such trade deals would come into force so quickly anyway.  This then could be borne.  If there is an urgency about any such deal then the Commission’s consent may be sought.

  • Solution:  accept it.

The Budget contribution

The Budget contribution is a massive one. However, it is less than would be paid to the European Union were Brexit delayed again.  The major threat is that if the Transition Period is extended then we hit another budget period and a greatly increased contribution.

Counter to the Budget contribution, the EU will continue to fund projects in the United Kingdom relevant to the sums paid it.  There may be reluctance to fund these with looming exit: that must be watched.

The budget contribution is a major issue for the EU:  without it their wine cabinets run dry.  (For all the bluster from President Macron, there is no legal obligation to make these payments unless there is a withdrawal agreement.)  This therefore provides a spur to the Commission to agree a deal and so ensure that they get their money.

  • Solution:  Agree it with reluctance, if all the other points are agreed, with two the provisos:  no extension of the Transition Period (and so no contribution for the next budget period) and payment to be conditional on continued talks towards a zero-tariff free trade agreement to cover goods and services.  If payments are still flowing after the end of the Transition Period, they should be conditional too on each side keeping tariffs to zero pending agreement.

All this could be agreed in a couple of lines.

Winning the European Union round

Psychology of negotiation is best left to psychologists, and psychiatrists.  The pull of the money and the pressure from member states is substantial though.  So far they have tried to stand as one and resist any changes, but there are reconciliatory voices occasionally from one-rung-down in the hierarchy and from eastern member state governments.  M Macron is unmoving and the Taoiseach planted, but Mr Merkel is shaky, the Italians are reconciliatory, the Poles will fold if convinced their citizens are not to be booted out.  If the concessions do not harm the EU and its members, and they can be portrayed as clarifications, they can be agreed.  It the concessions are a side agreement, they would not even need unanimity among the member states.

Further, there may be more that can be offered to the EU which are without cost to Britain: if their greatest fear is that more nations will peel themselves away, and we should be concerned by that too, then can Britain give comfort there?  A basic principle of overseas relations should be that the British government cannot be hindered from speaking freely to any Commonwealth country nor the Irish Republic, but with that proviso any assurances they want about the conduct of British relations with member states are available.

Approval in the Commons

Getting any new agreement through the Commons will be problematical even with an acceptable deal, because the Conservatives have no majority and Labour, though theoretically I favour of a deal, will (but for a few honourable exceptions) vote against anything the Conservatives propose.  Therefore it must rely on Conservative votes, Unionist votes and the few honest folk of the Labour benches.  The vote is necessary because Remainer MPs plus Labour pushed through what became Section 13 of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, which forbids the signature of any Withdrawal Agreement without a Commons motion approving it and an Act of Parliament.  That Section, cooked up by Dominic Grieve (Remainiac Conservative) and Keir Starmer (Blairite Labour), has been the cause of all the grief since.

Mr Starmer and Monsieur Grieve have consistently since then spoken passionately against leaving without a withdrawal agreement, and voted consistently against approving it.

However, Section 13 only applies to a ‘withdrawal agreement’, a term defined by Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty.  It would not interfere with a post-withdrawal agreement.  Therefore if the Agreement can be amended and the Commons still oppose it, the PM could simply wait until Exit Day has passed, and sign a post-withdrawal agreement without bothering the House.  Parliament would still be required to pass legislation to implement any parts which are not already in law or implementable under executive authority, but we would then have crossed the threshold and the landscape will be different.

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