The hidden wiring of Brexit is keeping Brexiters safe from falling

3rd February 2020

Today – Monday – is the first working day since the United Kingdom departed the European Union.

Since Friday, when the departure took effect, there have been some expressions of glee from Brexiter politicians about the lack of any immediate adverse effect.

Here is Daniel Hannan, a former Member of the European Parliament.

As of today his tweet has been retweeted 3,400 times and liked 16,100 times.

And here is Douglas Carswell, a former Member of Parliament at Westminster.

Hannan and Carswell have long been a political double-act.

Their extended pamphlet The Plan of 2008 is probably the most significant publication from the Right in the last fifteen years, pointing out directions in which United Kingdom politics then went.

And both have long been sincere and focused opponents of the United Kingdom being in the European Union, with Carswell even giving up his Conservative seat and daring to fight (and winning) a by-election for UKIP.

Both are intelligent and know the details of how Brexit has finally happened.

So these tweets come as a disappointment.

Both Hannan and Carswell know why the various events they describe have not come to pass.

There has been little practical change because the United Kingdom and the European Union entered into a Withdrawal Agreement which provided for transitional arrangements that will continue until (at least) 31st December 2020.

The warnings about “No Deal” Brexit were about just that: what would happen if there was no exit deal.

But there was a Brexit deal.

Hannan, as a departing Member of the European Parliament, voted for the withdrawal agreement on 29th January (see page 10 here).

Carswell spent the days around the United Kingdom parliament approving the withdrawal agreement boasting of how similar the withdrawal legislation was to an earlier effort of his own.

It is not that both should know better: both know exactly what the withdrawal agreement provides for.

They both know that the reason the things in their tweets have not happened is because of the withdrawal arrangements.

Yet both tweeted otherwise, presumably because the RTs and likes and the sheer fun of triggering opponents is worth more than being intellectually honest.

But the sight is of two politicians flapping their arms as they jump off some platform, shouting “look, we can fly, we can fly, look this is so easy”.

While anyone who cares can see the hidden wiring holding them in the air.

That hidden wiring may not always be there.

**

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The discharge of the mandate – the real significance of Brexit Day, 31st January 2020

31st January 2020

Today is the last day of the United Kingdom being a member state of the European Union – at least for some time, if not forever.

That said, there is remarkably little that will change immediately.

This is thanks to the selfless and deft actions of many Members of Parliament – many of whom no longer have seats – in ensuring the United Kingdom averted a “no deal” Brexit.

Because of elaborate withdrawal arrangements – the hidden wiring of Brexit – there will be substantial continuity until at least 31st December 2020.

This hidden wiring will allow Brexit supporters to revel in the lack of immediate adverse effects – even though many Brexit supporters opposed the withdrawal arrangements as long as possible.

In a way, they have managed to have their cakes and to eat them.

But the lack of sudden drama does not rob today of all significance.

For today is the day when the referendum mandate is discharged, and things can start afresh

*.

The referendum question back in June 2016 was:

“Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?”

And at 11pm today, local time, the United Kingdom will leave the European Union.

Of course, some Brexiters insist there is a lot more to the mandate than the simple question of membership: taking back control of money, laws, borders, and so on.

But such things must be written in invisible ink, because the referendum question does not expressly include them.

The referendum question as posed was on membership alone.

And at the end of today the United Kingdom will no longer be a member.

*

There are those – perhaps they are already typing comments below – who will dispute that the referendum was capable of giving rise to a mandate, or will aver that the mandate was invalid because of corruption and illegalities.

As a “mandate” here is a political rather than a legal concept, this is an argument without end – and it is now an argument without any point.

To the extent that there was doubt as to the political validity of the 2016 referendum the December 2019 general election result has settled the matter.

No doubt, like a Civil War re-enactment society, there will be those who sill want to re-fight – even re-litigate – the 2016 referendum.

But to those it must be said there are real political battles – battles the outcomes of which are very much up for grabs – ahead.

There is now a clean battlefield.

And that is because the mandate has been discharged.

*

When a mandate has been discharged, it comes to an end.

The thing which was mandated has been done, the mandatory order is fulfilled.

And when a mandate comes to an end, it has no further purchase.

The United Kingdom’s future as not a member state of the European Union is capable of  having many shapes and forms.

The only requirement is that the United Kingdom not be a member state of the European Union.

These outcomes can range from the united Kingdom becoming the North Korea of the North Sea…

…to a relationship so close to the European Union that, but for the technical legalistic question of actual membership, is remarkably similar to the current position – even on freedom of movement.

And between these two positions are an infinite number of other possible arrangements.

The referendum result, in and of itself, does not rule out any one of these non-membership outcomes.

*

Here the speech this week of Michel Barnier is the most important development of the week – other than the fact of departure.

The EU is proposing an Association Agreement – which means common institutions and processes.

And because of Boris Johnson’s insistence on there being a relationship deal in place by the end of this year, the case for such an agreement is compelling – as it will remove the need for bespoke co-decision, monitoring and enforcement mechanisms for different areas.

Every regulatory and structural issue can then be handled within the Association Agreement’s framework.

And in turn the structure, institutions and processes of the Association Agreement can then provide a sustainable basis for a long-term relationship between the United Kingdom and European Union.

(A relationship that can endure until and unless a later political generation ever has an undisputed mandate for the United Kingdom to rejoin.)

Nothing here should be a shock – for all this is set out in the Political Declaration , accompanying the Withdrawal Agreement.

And the embryonic institutional apparatus is provided for in the Withdrawal Agreement.

Both of which have been endorsed by by the government and its Brexit supporters.

(Though they may not have read and understood what they were signing up for, as with the earlier joint declaration.)

Of course, there is no inherent reason why at the end of this year the Withdrawal Agreement will morph seamlessly into an Association Agreement.

But there is no inherent reason why it will not either.

Both outcomes are now perfectly possible, as are many others.

And that is because today the mandate has been discharged, and things can start afresh.

**

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Brexit, public procurement, and Dominic Cummings

9th January 2020

Yesterday on the Financial Times website is a post by me on the Prime Minister’s adviser Dominic Cummings’ approach to public procurement (set out most fully here).

Articles for the FT and any other mainstream media site have to be a certain length and in a certain style – but here I can add more background and explain more fully what this is about and why it (probably) matters.

*

To start with: what is public procurement?

One good way of understanding public procurement is the difference it makes to what public authorities can and cannot do, compared with what private individuals and companies can and cannot do.

A private individual or a private sector company can – at least in theory – contract with whoever they want, subject to the general law of the land.

A private individual or private sector company seeking a supplier is not generally obliged to hold competitions, to advertise, or even contract with the lowest or most economical seller.

(Yes, there are various laws against racial and sexual discrimination, and so on – but the commercial aspects of the bargain are largely unregulated for private entities.)

In essence, a private individual or a private sector company is free to make a bad bargain, and to pick and choose its suppliers as they wish.

*

And, but for the law of public procurement, the same would be the general position for public bodies, subject to their general legal power (or “vires” as lawyers would call it).

But public bodies are not generally free to make a bad bargain, or to pick and choose its suppliers as they wish.

Public bodies cannot just hire and fire suppliers as they wish.

The law of public procurement instead regulates what public bodies can and cannot do when they are making purchasing decisions – whether for goods, services, or grand development projects – from paper clips to aircraft carriers.

*

Public procurement is about process – the principles and procedures public bodies must follow when making purchasing decisions.

The principles are broad and apply to all purchases, while the detailed procedures – set out in long regulations – are usually for high-value purchases.

The principles of public procurement are straightforward and commendable.

Purchasing authorities must advertise and specify what they want; they must set out and follow a transparent process; they must apply evaluation criteria consistently; they must treat tenderers equally and must not discriminate in favour of incumbent suppliers or national champions; and, in the event the public body fails to accord with such principles, the disappointed tenderers must have a remedy.

Much of the applicable law for these principles comes from the European Union.

This is because the law of public procurement is as much a part of the EU Single Market as competition law or the law regulating State aid.

Public contracts are lucrative, and so the markets for those contracts should be opened up to all potential suppliers, especially those from outside the member state.

*

Described in the way above, the law of public procurement is a Good Thing.

Who could possibly be against?

Well.

There is a difference between neat theory and messy reality.

In practice, the law of public procurement (at least for high-value contracts) is not only subject to these broad, sensible principles but also prescriptive codes set out in pages and pages of regulations, paragraph after paragraph, sub-paragraph after sub-paragraph.

These regulations convert any major purchasing decision into an elaborate, lengthy administrative process.

And this thereby means that purchasing decisions are (or seem to be) often captured by process.

And as tender exercises are expensive and time-consuming, they in turn tend (no pun intended) to be dominated by large specialist companies who can afford to sink months (even years) of time and thousands of pounds on each bid, without any guarantee of success.

Often the suppliers assume that they will lose more of these bids than they will win, and their commercial models reflect this.

And when they win, they can then sub-contract the work anyway.

Small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) do not have a real hope of winning these tenders – as any long tender process is a huge burden, with a great deal of work without the prospect of any payment.

For SMEs to bid for such contracts routinely is impossible.

And the public sector bodies will not have any problem will this: there is a process to follow, and they have no costs pressures for the process to be any speedier or cheaper for anyone else.

Some public procurement exercises are conducted at the most leisurely of paces, without any thought for the commercial burden this places on potential suppliers.

The result is, in practice, a cosy, settled relationship, with the same small group of suppliers bidding for each high-value contract.

There will also be familiar faces: the same procurement professionals on both sides, meeting again and again, and then swapping sides as those with experience of purchasing for public authorities become valuable recruits for the suppliers.

There is, at least in my experience as a former government public procurement lawyer, a problem here.

*

But it also can be said that the law of public procurement, like democracy, is the worst system, apart from all the others.

While the law of public procurement is over-prescriptive and uncommercial, a sudden abolition of the law of public procurement would create even more problems.

Without a law of public procurement, there would probably be even fewer tenders.

Settled incumbents would seek extensions and amendments, and officials would nod-along as this would be the path of last resistance.

For all its manifest faults, the law of public procurement does force public authorities to specify and openly advertise its requirements, and it ensures that the risk of a disappointed tenderer challenging a decision means that a process is followed as consistently and transparently as possible.

There is not even any legal requirement on public authorities to go for the lowest price, as it is open to set price against other factors for the most economically advantageous tender (or “MEAT” – yes, public procurement is a MEAT market).

Yes: at the margins, the approach promoted by Dominic Cummings, of appointing brilliant and charismatic project managers to hire and fire suppliers, could achieve some brilliant outcomes.

But for the mundane reality of the thousands of purchases public bodies make each day, there is the case that the law of public procurement ensures a bad situation is not as bad as it could otherwise be.

*

So what can be done?

As a former central government public procurement lawyer (and I still practise in the area), there seems to me to two things which could be done to improve public procurement.

One before the public procurement exercise begins, and the other more-or-less comes afterwards.

*

Before major procurements, there is a tendency of officials (and politicians) to over-specify and to set “bespoke” specifications (often called, without irony, “solutions”.

For major IT projects, for example, the specifications can seem like a flip chart of the inane “brainstorming” you get at one of those dire team “away days”.

(Shudder.)

The focus, of course, should be on commercially off-the-shelf products where possible, and on systems which have already been tried and tested.

For, believe it or not, public sector bodies are not the only large entities that procure complex works and services.

*

And then we come to the contracts – the “terms and conditions”.

(Oh dear.)

Many of the supposed public procurement disasters – from PFI to superfluous aircraft carriers – are not directly down to the process followed but to the contracts signed at the end.

A contract, of course, is a legal instrument that regulates foreseeable risks for parties in a transaction.  

But for many major government suppliers the contract is not used to regulate risk but to eliminate it.

To make sure that the supplier gets the benefit of the contract price regardless of performance.

Hence the penalty payments, early cancellation fees, change control procedures, and so on.

What is distasteful about this is that government suppliers already have the happy benefit of the public bodies being reliable payers.

Public bodies rarely default on contract payments.

But government suppliers, and their lawyers, want more – and go through contracts seeking every possible amendment so as to free the supplier from any risk.

And they often get away with this for two reasons.

First, public bodies sometimes do not have access to experienced and skilled commercial lawyers capable of seeing the implications of often innocent-seeming provisions.

Such contract lawyers tend to work in the private sector.

Second, suppliers use what leverage they have – knowing that certain projects are politically driven and “too big to fail” – so as to insist on contractual protections.

*

The law of public contracts and public procurement can be improved – and Cummings and others are right to highlight its many problems.

But more important than wiping away procedures (even if they are far too prescriptive) is more transparency and better legal advice.

This, of course, is anathema, to Cummings, who dislikes both lawyers and freedom of information.

Nonetheless, if public bodies were to publish all public contracts after they were let – and no cynical hiding behind “commercial confidentiality” – then suppliers would be less relaxed about going for one-sided contracts.

As this is about public money, and as suppliers get the benefit of reliable payment, there is no good reason for non-disclosure.

Public bodies should also be stricter as to the burdens that lengthy procurement exercises place on suppliers, so as to avoid SMEs being squeezed out by the conglomerates.

And public bodies should be under a positive obligation to set out publicly the worst case scenarios of contracts (penalty payments, early cancellation fees, change control procedures, and so on) before any contract is signed.

*

As the UK leaves the EU, there is a case that the law of public procurement can be reformed.

The crucial principles of equal treatment and transparency need not be threatened by this.

Nonetheless, some public procurement regime will be required if the UK is serious about entering into post-Brexit international trade agreements – as access to lucrative UK public contracts are among the most valuable things the UK can offer in trade negotiations.

*

The law of public procurement can be less detailed and prescriptive, as Cummings as others aver.

But this will not solve all the problems.

As I conclude in the FT piece, Cummings has not fully set out the specification of the problem, let alone procured a solution.

**

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The reasons why Remain was defeated – a contemporaneous view

7th January 2020

Historians and others pundits will spend many years discussing and disputing why and how Remain lost.

They will have access to documents and private information not available to onlookers at the moment, and so they may be able to provide better explanations than any of us currently can.

That said, there is a certain value in setting out how things looked at the time, as contemporaries can often be aware of many things that a historian can never recapture.

And so this is a brief post setting out the reasons why Remain lost, as they seemed to an observer at the time.

(I will below use Remain(ers) and Leave(rs) as shorthand, and I hope readers can see beyond the shorthand to the substantive points.  If your only objection to what follows is the shorthand, then this really is not the post for you.)

*

To begin with, my view is that Remain lost rather than Leave won.

After over forty years of membership of the EEC/EU, there should have been a more compelling Remain case made at the 2016 referendum.

And even after the narrow referendum result for Leave, the lack of clue of Leavers about what to do next meant Remain still could have secured a further referendum with a Remain option.

But there were (again, it seems to me) three reasons why Remain still failed.

First, Remainers became accustomed to Leave failures – and so became complacent.

There was mistake and mishap after mistake and mishap by the May and Johnson governments.

It often appeared that Brexit would fail all by itself, just because of the accumulation of pratfalls and folly.

There were even three extensions to the planned departure date, and so it appeared that there would always be another extension.

Second, the focus and efforts of Remainers were too often away from the political battle.

There was crowd-funded court case after court case – some worthwhile (for example the Miller cases) and others far less worthwhile.

There was excellent investigatory journalism, exposing the irregularities of the various Leave campaigns, followed by regulatory and police investigations.

There were also marches and petitions and hashtags.

But none of this led to any political breakthrough.

The majority of MPs remained opposed to a further referendum and, in the 2019 general election, little of the Remain passion was converted into concrete political achievement.

Third, at the crucial political moment – just over two months ago, but now an age  away – the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties enabled a general election which neither party turned out to be in a position to exploit.

Neither party were required to consent to this, but they did.

Until mid-November 2019 it was still plausible that a further referendum could be forced, with the prospect of a Remain victory.

The Labour leader even proposed that in return for a being able to head a government there could be a referendum where Remain would be an option.

But the window of opportunity was closed, and then boarded-up.

*

It was not inevitable that Remain would lose either the 2016 referendum or the campaign for a further referendum before any departure.

Indeed, the idiocies and antics of Leavers in government provided far more opportunities for Remain than Remainers perhaps deserved.

Yet Remain still lost.

Of course, many Remainers will be quick to blame and accuse others.

And they are right, in that Leavers were and are culpable in many ways.

But both the 2019 general election and the campaign for a further a referendum were there for the taking.

Brexit was not inevitable at any point before the December 2019 general election, and the only reason it is now virtually certain is not because of any genius move by Leavers but because Remain let Leave win.

**

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Looking at Brexit after the 2019 general election

18th December 2019

Last week the general election returned the Conservatives with a substantial majority.

Until the exit poll was published there were still hopes, based in optimistic readings of some polls, that there would be a hung parliament.

But that turned out to be wishful thinking.

The period of hung parliaments, from 2010 to 2019 (bar two years), is no more.

Things have changed.

*

The greatest change is about Brexit.

The time of Remain resistance is over: there is now no viable political (or legal) path to Brexit being blocked.

It is now virtually certain that the United Kingdom will leave the European Union and that, unless something currently unforeseen happens (say, a logistical or administrative problem), that departure will be at the end of next month.

The United Kingdom is now set to leave the European Union by automatic operation of law on 31st January 2020.

*

This post sets out some observations and thoughts on the wider significance of the general election result on Brexit – the bad and the good – and it then sets out an important warning about the next stage of the Brexit process.

*

One way, perhaps, of seeing the general election result is as the third manifestation of the “will of the people” on Brexit.

The first “will of the people” was, of course, the referendum result of 2016: that, in principle, the United Kingdom was to leave the European Union.

The second “will of the people” was the 2017 general election result: that the exit from the European Union was to be done by the means of a hung parliament, that is by consensus between the main political parties.

And the consequence of this second “will of the people” was to make it difficult, if not impossible, for a “hard” Brexit without any withdrawal agreement.

The current prime minister was in fact only able to obtain a further general election by accepting that departure had to be with a withdrawal agreement.

The third “will of the people” was last week’s general election result: that the government would now have a comfortable majority for the negotiation of the follow-on trade relationship with the European Union.

The United Kingdom and the European Union would then have the confidence that anything agreed would not be frustrated by parliament.

Seen in this three-stage way, you could say that the “will of the people” was the wisdom of the people (echoing the notion of the wisdom of crowds): (1) providing a mandate, (2) tightening the leash, and then (3) loosening it.

*

Of course, the three-stage scheme above is an illusion.

It is a neat pattern one can only see with hindsight.

At the time it was far more messy and, of course, general elections are not like referendums and cannot be easily compared.

The current United Kingdom electoral system is not an efficient register of what is the “will of the people”.

For example, looking at numbers, the Conservatives only increased their total vote by only around 300,000 to get their thumping majority; the main shift in terms of absolute votes was the collapse of the Labour vote by 2.6 million, from 12.8 million to 10.2 million.

Some of you will be more interested in clever things like swings, shares and percentages, but I am always interested in the numbers of actual human beings who make the deliberate decision to vote – and on this basis it is difficult to see the 2019 general election as a strong endorsement of anything in particular.

We may no longer have a hung parliament but we still seem to have a hung electorate.

*

As many will know (and no doubt some have scrolled down already to start typing this as a comment), total voter numbers matter little with the the First Past The Post electoral system.

To a certain extent (but only a limited one) the FPTP system itself affects voting behaviour: some don’t bother voting in safe seats, and in perceived marginal seats some may vote for parties they would not do otherwise.

And, of course, the FPTP system in effect distorts the result, so that whacking majorities can be based on minority votes.

In respect of Brexit, a plausible case can be made that the majority of those who voted were actually in favour of parties either against Brexit or in favour of a further referendum (Labour, Liberal Democrats, Scottish National Party, Green Party, Plaid Cymru, SDLP), and only the minority (Conservative, Democratic Unionist, Brexit Party, and United Kingdom Independence Party voters) were in favour of Brexit.

Plausible, but inconsequential, in a FPTP system.

The reason, however, why these points need to be emphasised is that, although the political game is now over on resisting Brexit before it happens, the ultimate political issue is still not settled.

There is reluctant resignation as to, but certainly not consensus for, the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union; and for Brexit to be based on such resignation rather than consensus does not bode well for Brexit in the longer term.

*

Another observation is about lies and honesty in political campaigning.

As this blog has averred before, pointing out that politicians lie is not enough if voters do not mind being lied to.

(Yes, it is still important to expose lies as a public good.)

How can this situation change?

There seems two ways: the hard way and the progressive way.

The hard way is there to be some crisis or “crunch” where it becomes of immediate importance to voters that there should be an alignment between what politicians say and reality: that it becomes urgent to voters that politicians tell the truth.

Brexit may well create such a situation, a reckoning, though no sensible person would want this to happen.

Or Brexit may not ever get pushed to such a brink, and that those in favour will still get by with lies to cover every new predicament.

The progressive way is for there to be political (and media) leadership: for those with political (and media) power to make make voters care that they are being lied to.

The current state of the opposition parties in the United Kingdom is not encouraging in this respect.

They sometimes seem to be too busy lying to themselves, and blaming others, to be able to focus on exposing the lies of those who govern us.

The one benefit of the general election result is that it creates an opportunity (though no more than an opportunity) for the opposition parties (at least outside of Scotland) to get their acts together.

*

A further observation is that Remain – insofar as it can be said to be a cohesive entity – failed when it mattered.

Both in the period immediately before the general election and in the general election campaign itself, politicians in favour of Remain (or at least a further referendum) could have done things differently, and this may have made a difference to Brexit.

There was a possibility of a “government of national unity” (GNU) but that was unacceptable to the (leaders of the) Labour and Liberal Democrat parties.

There was the possibility of electoral pacts.

Of course, such a GNU and/or pact may have just created new problems, and it may have meant that Brexit was only delayed rather than avoided.

But those roads not taken had at least the possibility of a destination other than departure.

And no doubt the lack of a GNU or a pact will be discussed and disputed for decades to come.

*

Brexit, of course, is yet to begin.

All that has happened to date has been a mere prelude to what will follow departure.

The general election result has changed little as to the actual problems of Brexit: the task is still as massive and complex as before, and Brexit should not be done at speed and with shallowness of thought.

The capability of Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings to win a general election just as they won the referendum does not make their approach to other activities any better or likely to succeed.

And so to the warning I mention above: after departure on 31st January 2020 (or whenever), Article 50 comes to an end.

This means the leisurely, last-minute nature of obtaining extensions will also come to an end.

After departure the key Brexit dates will be as set out in the withdrawal agreement, and these dates cannot be varied quickly or easily.

A decision needs to be made by July 2020 whether to extend the transition period beyond 31 December 2020.

Already the United Kingdom government is displaying the self-limiting bravado that served it so badly in the exit process, and it is now committing itself to no extension (and this will be “enshrined in law”).

This is lapped up by the uncritical press and its readers, but the real problem is that politicians will think they can still get quick fixes at the deadline.

Such extensions are far less possible (perhaps not even possible at all) and shows the usual lack of seriousness.

The transition period should continue as long as it needs to, and should not be artificially curtailed.

Let’s hope we don’t learn this lesson the hard way.

*

And now to end this post on some positive notes.

The European Union will be more comfortable negotiating with a government with a working majority and this is a good thing for both sides.

The government majority also perhaps lessens the leverage of the “European Research Group” should the prime minister wish to dump on them as he dumped on the Democratic Unionist Party at the end of the last parliament.

The withdrawal agreement being in place will mean that on citizenship issues, and on many other practical matters, there is legal certainty now in place whatever happens at the end of the transition period.

The transition period means that the United Kingdom remains aligned with European Union law and policy for longer, and so may make rejoining or a close association agreement easier in the medium to long term.

And the government’s wish for a speedy trade agreement means that, as with the exit agreement, it will no doubt be on the European Union’s terms, as the United Kingdom has not given itself enough time to formulate any alternative, and this again makes rejoining or a close association agreement easier in the medium to long term.

These may not be great consolations for those committed to Remain.

But the story of the post-Brexit relationship of the United Kingdom and the European Union has not yet begun, and it is not only down to Brexiters to shape what happens next.

**

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Three things not happening on this election day

12th December 2019

“The hustings are over, the bunting is down, the mad hysteria is at an end. After the chaos of a general election, we can return to normal.”

(Blackadder, third season, episode one)

Many people will be commenting on what is happening today so this post offers commentary on three things which are not happening.

The first thing that is not happening is that we are not considering the currently suppressed report into Russian interference in the politics of the United Kingdom.

One would think that publishing such a report would be a prerequisite of a government seeking to go to the country.

But no.

The second thing that is not happening is that parliament is not scrutinising either the withdrawal agreement implementation bill or the withdrawal agreement which the bill implements.

Neither document has yet had any detailed scrutiny, even though the United Kingdom is set to leave the European Union by automatic operation of law on 31st January 2020, which is just over a month away.

Given that the bill was supported at its second reading by a majority of MPs you would think that the time before 31st January would have been spent ensuring that the 580-page plus withdrawal agreement – that deals with a range of complex and consequential provisions – was properly scrutinised.

But again, no.

The third thing that is not happening is that we are not about to enter the final year of the five-year parliament elected in 2015.

The 2015 general election gave the Conservatives a comfortable majority, which they then converted into four years of political chaos and successive general elections.

The irony is that the Conservatives are promoting themselves today as a solution to the current political disarray, when it was the Conservatives getting their first majority since 1992 which is the direct cause of what is now going on around us.

One would think a sufficient number of voters would realise this and desert the party whose misuse of a majority led to this mess.

But, yet again, no.

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The L word, the F word, and contemporary UK politics

9th December 2019

In a few days there will be a general election in the United Kingdom.

This post is not about the possible election result – that is still uncertain and it may even come down to voting intentions which are as yet not settled.

This post is instead about two words that should have had more impact on the campaign, and current politics generally, but have not.

One word begins with L, the other with F.

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The L word

The first word is “lie”.

Some commentators in the United Kingdom aver that more should be done to confront politicians with their lies.

Peter Oborne, a journalist of immense integrity, has even sought to document and expose each lie of the current prime minister (the estimable website is here).

This is essential work: nothing in this post should be taken to mean that recording each lie is not important.

But it is not enough.

This is because many politicians now do not care about being called a liar, or even be shown to be one.

Such a reaction is a cost of political business for them – and some even relish that they “trigger” such a response as some perverse form of validation.

The ultimate problem is not that many politicians lie.

The ultimate problem is far more worrying and far more difficult to resolve.

The ultimate problem is that many voters want to be lied to.

These voters may pretend otherwise, claiming that they want “honest politicians”.

In reality, such voters just want politicians to say what the voters want to hear.

There is therefore an incentive for politicians to lie.

Until and unless many voters can be made to care about being lied to, every fine and worthy effort in exposing the lies is (at least in the short-term) futile – a public good but not enough to effect immediate change.

There are many political lies: small lies, forgettable lies, lies that take longer to expose than any mortal attention span.

But the biggest lie in the current general election – a lie that may determine the outcome – is “Get Brexit Done”.

Brexit cannot be “done” without years of intense effort and attention.

Entire international relationships have to be rebuilt from scratch; entire areas of law and policy have to be reconstructed; entire social and economic patterns of behaviour have to be re-worked.

And all this in addition to the making of actual decisions about what we want those relationships, laws, policies, and social and economic patterns of behaviour to be.

And all that in turn against the intractable problem of fitting in a Brexit policy within the framework of the relationship between the United Kingdom and Ireland.

Brexit cannot be “got done” by mere exhortation.

It is a lie but a lie many want to believe and cannot be dissuaded from believing by mere arguments, logic or evidence.

And by the time many voters will come to care that they were lied to, Brexit will be too long gone for any voter choice to make much difference.

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The F word

The second word – the F word – I will not type.

It is a word which has lost its traction when it needed to still have traction.

The word describes the 1920s and 1930s manifestation of populist nationalist authoritarianism, a political phenomenon that despite the heady optimism of democratic campaigners has never been too far away.

Complacently, some believed that the thing had gone away with the end of the second world war, or with the transitions to democracy of Spain and Portugal.

The thing, however, is always there.

What happened in the 1920s and 1930s in Germany and Italy and elsewhere was always just one set of manifestations of the thing.

Populist nationalist authoritarianism has more purchase on voters than many conservatives, liberals and socialists realise.

It is the politics of easy answers.

In the United Kingdom there are those in favour of Brexit who routinely trash the (independent) courts, the (independent) civil service and diplomatic service, the universities, the broadcasters, even the supremacy of parliament.

This populist disdain for independent institutions is unhealthy.

The threat of the “will of the people” is used as intimidation.

Coupled with nationalistic rhetoric (on immigration and Brexit generally) and authoritarian hostility to legal checks on government (contempt for human rights), you have all the ingredients of the thing described by the F word.

But if you call this thing by its name, it now has little or no effect.

People will yawn and shrug and pay no real attention.

And because what we have before us is not visually the same as the 1920s and 1930s manifestation of the thing – no uniforms, no goosesteps, and so on – many of those hearing the F word will regard what is now happening as not being an example of the F word at all.

Of course, using the F word is not as important as stopping the thing it describes from taking hold.

 

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Calling politicians – and pundits – liars, and describing the vile populist nationalist authoritarianism that they promote as the F word, is not going to stop them lying or the thing the F word describes.

The words are not enough, and it may be that new words are needed to make old warnings.

And unless voters can be made to care about being lied to by politicians, or about the implications of the populist nationalist authoritarianism (again) being promoted, then there will be little to stop either the politicians or the F word thing.

Making voters care about any of this is the challenge for liberal and progressive politicians (and pundits) in the United Kingdom and elsewhere.

And the biggest challenge is to make enough voters care in time.

**

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The wrong lesson from the 2016 renegotiation

4th November 2019

Before the referendum, there was the renegotiation.

This was the renegotiation that was finalised at the European Council in February 2016.

The deal then agreed in principle between the United Kingdom and the other 27 member states of the European Union may not seem important now.

The deal never had effect, as it was rescinded after the referendum result.

The deal did not even feature much in the referendum campaign.

It now seems almost a footnote.

But looking back, with the benefit of perspective (if not hindsight), the deal is a telling prelude of much of what has followed.

Egged on by think tankers, political advisers and pundits, the then prime minister David Cameron sought, among other things, to obtain an emergency brake on EU migration.

He was warned by wise heads that such a thing could not be agreed short of amending the EU treaties.

And that it certainly could not be agreed at a mere European Council meeting.

So it was not: such an objective was impossible, and Cameron failed.

All that could be changed in respect of migration was some minor tinkering with indexation and entitlement to benefits.

Even Cameron, in his recently published memoirs, admits to mistakes about the renegotiation, including the framing of domestic expectations.

And he indeed misled his political and media supporters in what could have been plausibly agreed at that Council meeting.

Demanding things from the EU is easy, getting agreement from the EU is not easy.

Unfortunately, many Brexiters seem to have taken a different message from Cameron’s failure.

Cameron, they aver, did not try hard enough, he was too soft.

In essence, say the Brexiters, he should been louder in insisting on what was described as impossible: it was a failure of political will.

This lack of realism has been carried forward to the current Brexit negotiations.

This is why, when the pushes did not even get to be shoves, the pro-Brexit government has had to accept a withdrawal agreement on terms that suit the EU.

The EU is a creature of law that takes the single market seriously.

And this is why the same problem will arise with any future trade agreement.

Demanding something that cannot be done does not work, even if it is shouted slowly in English.

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Brexit and Conservatism

5th July 2019

The Conservative Party has long been a mix of ideologues and pragmatists.

The pragmatic tradition was strong – associated with RA Butler and politics being the art of the possible.

Even Margaret Thatcher was far more pragmatic in policy – at least before 1987 – than her fans both at the time and since would admit.

But that pragmatic tradition seems to now be weak.

There are still a few sensible senior Conservatives, even Ministers, but they appear powerless in the face of shouty populism.

Applied to European Union matters, Tory pragmatists once wanted to make things work.

In the 1980s the (in my mind) second most significant Conservative politician of the time – Lord Cockfield – pushed forward the Single Market in a practical and sustainable way rather than through grand design and heady rhetoric. 

My January 2017 FT piece on Lord Cockfield is here. In it I said:

“In 1985, Cockfield (with the full support of the then commission president Jacques Delors) produced his famous white paper in a matter of weeks, and so sound and thought-through was its content that it was used as a blueprint thereafter. In 2016-17, the entire government has produced nothing other than platitudes and unconvincing excuses for secrecy.

“The UK may have had a Cockfield to put the single market in place, but it certainly does not have one to take the UK out of the EU.”

This is still the case, over two years later.

Brexit could have been done (regardless of the merits of the idea) but it needed a realistic and unideological approach.  

No silly speeches, no daft “red lines”, no loud promises of the impossible just so as to get claps and cheers from grinning idiots.

Instead, Brexit was done in perhaps the worst possible way.

How this came to happen will be a matter for debate and reflection long after the current events are over.

But one remarkable thing is how the Conservative Party which once valued unshowy pragmatism ended up so shallow and ineffective.

And another remarkable thing is that, three years after the referendum, Conservative MPs and members are set to elect as leader a politician who personifies the very shallowness and ineffectiveness of its Brexit policy.

Getting policy wrong is bad – but not learning any lessons whatsoever is arguably worse.

Many people reading this post will not be Conservatives (and may even have Very Strong Opinions on that party). 

But I am not (and this blog is not) party partisan: there are good and bad in most mainstream political parties.

My point is that it is sad and unfortunate that the political party which in a matter-of-fact way took the UK into the EEC, drove forward the Single Market, sponsored enlargement, and was a useful brake on the the heady excesses of the EU project, has become such a shambles.

The Conservative Party is no longer about the art of doing the possible, but about the artlessness of promising the impossible.

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A test for constitution-mongers

17th June 2019

(Title page from the Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, 1790)

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Constitutional law should be boring.

For ages, the subject was boring – entire pages, sometimes entire chapters, of UK constitutional law books would have no leading cases from the lifetimes of those teaching the subject, let alone those being taught.

The party battles and the political crises would come and go, but the settled practices of the constitution would carry on much the same.

And now  it is the most interesting time to be a constitutional lawyer in England since the 1680s.

(That last sentence is deliberately limited to England, as the constitutional histories elsewhere in the United Kingdom are different.)

This is not to say we have (yet) a constitutional crisis.

So far, our constitution has been (fairly) resilient in the face of executive power-grabs and novel predicaments.

The executive was stopped by the courts from making the Article 50 notification without parliamentary approval.

And the executive was then stopped by parliament (using at times some ingenious and arcane procedures) from taking the UK out of the EU without a deal.

Of course, neither of these outcomes were inevitable and could have gone the other way – and the latter may still happen on Hallowe’en.

But to the extent a constitution exists to resolve tensions so that they do not become contradictions, the UK constitution has done (generally) well so far with Brexit.

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Over at Prospect magazine I have done a short piece on the constitution.

My argument in essence is that the test for a codified (or any) constitution is that it can recognise and regulate tensions between the elements of the state (the main elements being the executive, the legislature and the judiciary).

Some who read perhaps too quickly (if at all) raced to characterise my piece as an argument for an uncodified constitution.

But I am ultimately neutral on the form of any constitution – I am more interested in how well it functions.

Neither a codified nor an uncodified constitution is inherently superior.

The test is a practical one.

And the test for those who urge codified constitutions (who Edmund Burke wonderfully called “constitution-mongers”) is to show how their models and proposals would work.

It is not enough to assert that, of course, a codified constitution would be better as a matter of principle or of faith.

Show us the proposed constitutional code – the detail and the drafting –  and let it be examined and tested.

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