The resumption of politics

For families with children, early September in the UK marks the end of the balmy days of summer and the restarting of the school year.  It is a time of new beginnings, new challenges, new hopes.

It is a time of renewal for most UK politicians too, as the summer recess is over and politics resumes.  The autumn is party conference time, traditionally a time of hope and renewed enthusiasm, a time to meet friends and rekindle spirits, maybe even a time to dream a bit about opportunities ahead.

This year, though, all of the major parties will head to their conferences with mixed feelings.  The Labour Party has been unable to answer its critics on anti-semitism, or find the right line to attack the government on Brexit.  Increasingly the problem is seen to be the leader, Jeremy Corbyn, who is ever more shown to be either unwilling or unable to make the move from an independent and unimportant backbencher, able to use his irrelevance to hold whatever views he wants, to leader of a major party, with responsibilities to his MPs, the party’s members and the country at large.  As a result, when the Government is in disarray and the Opposition should be sharpening their knives to finish them off, there is merely the sound of fraternal in-fighting, name-calling and resignations of the whip.

The next largest opposition party in the House of Commons, the Scottish Nationalists, would seem by comparison to be in a much better position.  To observers from outside Scotland, it might appear that all is well:  the SNP’s policies are clear, the party is united (at least compared to others) and their leader is respected.  But through Scottish eyes the picture is much less rosy, as the SNP faces increasingly sharp criticism as problems emerge in education, transport, policing, child care, public finances.  They are accused of being incompetent in government at home and ineffective in defending Scotland’s interests at Westminster.  And they face the unwanted distraction of Alex Salmond, their leader for so many years and still a very popular figure in the party, being investigated for sex offences.

For the Liberal Democrats, the questions are more existential.  The party has all but vanished from the public eye, the leader wants to step down and it is not even clear that his successor will be drawn from the ranks of their dozen MPs.  And whoever succeeds Sir Vince Cable as leader will have to address their main problem:  50% of the electorate agree with their main policy, indeed almost the only policy that they are known for (viz, that leaving the EU is a mistake and should be cancelled) but less than 10% would actually vote for them.  This is a catastrophic disconnect – if they cannot even persuade those that agree with their main policy to vote for them they may well cease to exist as a political force.

And so to the Conservatives.  Last year Mrs May had a conference to forget, as she had to endure the aftermath and post-mortems of a calamitous general election in which they lost both their majority and moral authority, and a personal disaster in which she was barely able to complete her set-piece leader’s speech.  But if anything, the coming party conference, in Birmingham at the end of the month, could be even more trying for her.   Her party is completely divided, the internal debate is becoming ever more rancorous and bitter, and the constant talk of “when, not if” there is a challenge to her leadership will not go away.

Even the news that the party membership is increasing, after years of declining numbers, is made into a cause for concern, lest the “wrong sort of person” is swelling the Tory ranks.  But with the party so divided, almost any new member with any views at all will be seen as unwanted by one or other wing of the party.

Of course the Conservatives’ problems mainly stem from their failure to progress the Brexit negotiations.  As one commentator succinctly put it, “This is a one-issue government which cannot get their one issue right”.  Less than 7 months from when the UK leaves the EU, there is still no deal with the EU and no clarity on what, if anything, might be agreed.  Worse, the Prime Minister’s flagship policy, the painfully crafted Chequers Plan for engagement with the EU, has almost no friends and almost no chance of being accepted by the EU-27 – but despite that there is no plan B.

Indeed, nearly a year and a half after writing her Article 50 letter, and over two years after the referendum itself, Mrs May has not only not progressed discussions on future trade relationships with the EU, but has still not come up with a plan that meets the EU’s stated minimum conditions to begin those discussions in earnest.

At the heart of this, as it has been right from the start, is the question of Ireland and the Irish border.  We have written about the Irish Question before – see for example our two essays of 25 November 2017 and 7 December 2017 – and it remains a slight puzzle as to how the UK has allowed the EU to manoeuvre the situation in Ireland, important as it is to the people both north and south of the border, into a position where everything else is hostage to it.

But that is the reality the UK faces.  So far the UK government’s proposals all rely in some sense on technological solutions – smart border monitoring, electronic tracking of goods and so on.  But the sobering fact is that, as both Michel Barnier and Emmanuel Macron have made clear in their separate ways, the EU has no confidence in any “clever” solution to border trade, not least because after a number of fiascos (eg trade with China not properly recorded, VAT not properly collected) they have no confidence in HMRC’s ability to operate any scheme more complex than medieval tally-sticks.  And they certainly won’t put the coherence and integrity of the single market at risk by accepting any new scheme relying on untried technology;  indeed they are not even prepared to extend to the UK solutions which work for eg Norway or Switzerland, whose customs authorities they do trust.

But the implications of this are devastating for the UK government.  If the EU will not accept any “shades of grey” or imaginative solutions on the border, then the border issue becomes black-and-white.  Either trade passes with no checks at all (and the UK is to all intents and purposes in the single market) or it does not (and the UK, including Northern Ireland, is not).

And since the EU will not sign any deal at all (or as the Irish would say, “at all at all”) which introduces a border in Ireland, this boils down to a binary issue for the island of Great Britain, ie the rest of the UK excluding Northern Ireland.  Either trade between Northern Ireland and Great Britain passes with no checks at all (and Great Britain is in the single market alongside Northern Ireland), or there are customs and border checks across the Irish Sea.

The first of these two, which implies no checks on the movement of people and no escape from the ECJ, is unacceptable to the Tory party.  The second, which implies the end of the United Kingdom as a common trading area, is unacceptable to the House of Commons.  The only other outcome is no deal – because the consequence of any deal the EU could agree to will not be acceptable to Westminster.

And so, inexorably, the probability that there will not be a deal at all at the end of the Article 50 process is rising.  And the fallout from that could sweep a number of political positions and even whole parties away.