Whispers in the Corridors of Power

The BlondeMoney team has spent the past couple of weeks on the ground in Westminster, talking to MPs, attending Select Committees, listening to speeches and attending dinners. We saw nothing to dissuade us from our core view that No Deal is a clear and present danger.

Our key takeaways:

1. No one knows what is going to happen

We were surprised to find MPs are asking us for the Brexit ratings of their colleagues or the opposition. They want to get a sense of their reaction function. This is why MPs who claim that they can bring 80 or 60 MPs with them (Tory Steve Baker and Labour Lisa Nandy respectively) should be taken with a pinch of salt. It’s 650 individuals out there and each and every one of them has a unique set of battling objectives.

It’s normal, of course, for each MP to have their own opinion. But usually, party discipline dominates. A strong leader with a majority can get a lot done. Even in cases where the leader is struggling (Gordon Brown cf. Tony Blair), the threat of letting in a coherent opposition provides its own disciplining force. Now, the Labour Party is in clear disarray, arguing over whether Corbyn ‘forgot’ to mention the option of a People’s Vote in his letter to Theresa May. This makes the behaviour of your opposition unpredictable, making the behaviour of your colleagues in your own party unpredictable.

2. No one wants to take leadership

Into such a political vacuum, a leader usually emerges. Someone with a burning desire, either for their ideology or for power itself (or both). This then generates momentum whereby MPs divide over whether they are for or against this new force. (e.g. Macron, AOC, Salvini… the list goes on).

Not now in the UK.

That’s because this is a very unique political situation. It is one in which there are no clear winners. It might be well known that you can’t please all of the people all of the time, but the trade-off now isn’t even close to pleasing some of the people some of the time. Deliver Brexit and 48% are already unhappy. Not to mention 52% who find that their version of Brexit, whether it meant reclaiming sovereignty or shutting borders, are unhappy with the inevitable compromise too. Don’t deliver it and the 52% are up in arms, while the 48% despair that the entire process has damaged the UK’s relationship not only with the EU but the rest of the world.

Like Joshua, many have decided that it’s better to sit this one out as it is a game that can’t be won.

3. Everyone is waiting for someone else to do something

So instead we have maneuvering by stealth. The Cooper Amendment can’t be seen to be avoiding Brexit altogether (even though she is accused of precisely that) so it must only call for a Delay. That stays the hand of some MPs who might want to stop No Deal (and we know more voted for the declaration of this in the Spelman Amendment).

The next Cooper Amendment is supposed to assuage fears by merely putting the length of the Article 50 delay into the hands of Parliament to decide, rather than stipulating 31st December 2019 as previously. We even hear that it’s unlikely the Cooper Amendment will be voted on this week, with its proponents preferring to wait until the new alleged Meaningful Vote of 26th Feb, because they don’t want to put it in without knowing it will pass. Tick tock, tick tock.

1+2+3 = nothing happens.

The Brady Amendment succeeded because it was a rare moment where 1+2+3 no longer applied. The Conservative Party were suddenly united (trust in their colleagues’ votes restored), the PM could take the mantle of handbagging Brussels (leadership restored), and yet it didn’t actually lead to any decision being made (leaving someone else to do something). It’s over to the EU now, right?

We know there is growing optimism that TM will return with something that can gain a majority back in Parliament. No doubt there is indeed a lot of behind the scenes legal discussions to create something on the backstop that can be presented as appealing to as many MPs as possible. Boris has broken ranks to suggest he would be happy with an 18-month time limit and an ability to exit unilaterally.

We would go back to the numbers. Renegotiating the backstop wasn’t even the primary goal for half of the 118 rebels. Here is the main demand of all the Conservative MPs who voted against TM’s Deal:

Of course, Canada and Norway can still be the path once TM’s transition period is upon us, so perhaps those MPs fall into line. But that leaves once again the intransigent extremist Remainers and Brexiteers, of which there are 28. Whatever the EU concedes, it will once again split Parliament and we will once again face the same problems of 1+2+3.

A delay to Article 50 would only exacerbate that, and we have already seen the impact of Brexit uncertainty on the economy. It’s hard for us to believe a delay is positive for UK assets.

The final conclusion from our trips to Westminster reinforces our concerns over negative future outcomes. The long term occupies minds more than the short term and so the Blame Game is in full swing. Every MP is putting on the record why everyone else is wrong and they are just doing their best.

At the DExEu Select Committee:

  • Brexiteer Dominic Raab and Remainer Stephen Kinnock got into a spat over how negotiations by the former Brexit Sec had reached such a parlous state
  • Raab was repeatedly asked for ‘inside knowledge’ on negotiations as if to expose his complicity in the current backstop debate
  • Raab protested that No.10 gave too much license to the civil service to conduct negotiations as if to argue ‘it wasn’t me’

At the Northern Ireland Select Committee:

  • The DUP pummelled the Labour NI Sec Tony Lloyd with questions about how there would never be a hard border, to the point where he felt he was defending one by admitting “it’s virtually impossible to have physical infrastructure
  • Lady Hermon warned that she saw he had his hands sitting on the actual Withdrawal Agreement, noted that he didn’t want a hard border, and then demanded to know why he hadn’t voted for the Prime Minister’s Deal
  • Conservative MP Robert Goodwill highlighted that as the Common Travel Area pre-dated the UK’s accession into the EU, it could persist afterward too
  • Conservative Chair Andrew Murrison was adamant that as Parliament had voted to activate Article 50 it must proceed and not be delayed

These are all attempts to pin the blame elsewhere and set out their core position:

  • The DUP are on a war footing over a hard border, taking the view that even in No Deal it doesn’t, and couldn’t, be erected.
  • Hardcore ERG similarly do not fear No Deal.
  • Hardcore Remainers want it on the record that this mess is nothing to do with them
  • Just as those formerly in ministerial positions want the same accolade

This reinforces 1+2+3. No one knows what is going to happen. No one wants to take leadership. Everyone is waiting for someone else to do something.

Everyone is letting the clock tick down in order to provide momentum to something other than No Deal. But to avoid No Deal, we need leadership behind an alternative backed by a group of MPs who trust that they have each other’s votes.

In conclusion: We saw nothing to dissuade us from our core view that No Deal is a clear and present danger.

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