Garvan Walshe is a former National and International Security Policy Adviser to the British Conservative Party. He runs TRD Policy.
Dominic Cummings imagines politics to be a branch of physics. There’s one respect in which he’s right, which goes by the unpleasant jargon-word entropy.
The word is ugly and so are its consequences. Entropy is a deeply depressing concept. It’s like a transaction tax applied by the universe on every conversion of energy. It’s why your car gets hot and your fridge makes noise. All that energy from petrol or electric power is dissipated into heat and sound waves. Once it has been so dissipated, it can’t be marshalled back into a useful form. It’s been spent.
The battle over Brexit has been a giant exercise in the production of entropy, the conversion of political energy and ideas into a disorganised and ineffective stalemate.
It is the result of a gross miscalculation of the amount of power available to the British Government. Unable to admit to itself the scarcity of available means, no leader or faction has been able to apply them to achieve any useful result. The result was a defeat for the Prime Minister’s deal so heavy that had it been a cricket score her team would have been forced to follow on.
From David Cameron’s Bloomberg speech in 2013 to the Prime Minister’s inept selling of her Brexit withdrawal agreement, through the ERG’s misfiring leadership plot, and Jeremy Corbyn’s failed attempt to bring the Government down, nothing – least of all May’s disastrous 2017 election – has worked. Political energy has been wasted. Political capital squandered.
Cameron imagined that British membership of the organisation was so important to the rest of the EU that they would grant an exemption from freedom of movement to keep the UK in. Instead they saw it as one opt-out too far. What he was offering was tantamount, from their perspective, to leaving the EU; this rendered Cameron’s threat to leave if he didn’t get what he want moot. If you don’t let me leave, I’ll go isn’t a strong negotiating position.
The Brexit negotiations themselves suffered what might be politely called a clash of negotiating cultures — a flexible British (and Irish) style, where everything is pinned down at the last minute; and a systematic Germanic one, where you work things through issue by issue.
In this May, at least, understood some limits. Ending free movement entailed leaving the Single Market. Remaining in good standing in international law meant continuing to pay bills already agreed. She failed only on the border in Ireland, where the EU acted to defend the interest of its member, the Republic of Ireland, at the expense of the country that was leaving.
British commentators usually considered informed (most recently Mujtaba Rahman of the Eurasia Group), have continually misunderstood the EU’s position. They simply haven’t adjusted to what it means to be outside the European tent. Considered on its own, it might indeed be in the economic interests of some powerful member states to push Ireland around. But considered as part of the EU system itself it would be very dangerous. The EU is not an intergovernmental organisation of sovereign states. It was created in order to restrain the rivalry of the big countries which had destroyed Europe twice in the early 20th century. Brexiteers find that a reason to leave, which is fair enough. What’s not reasonable is to pretend the organisation they want to leave for those reasons doesn’t behave as if it’s motivated by them.
This does not mean that big member states don’t have more power: they do. But they have less than size would suggest, and in exchange for giving it up they gain stability. In practical terms it means the small states gang together, and the Commission sets itself up as their protector. Were Ireland’s interests to be overridden today, what about Latvia’s tomorrow, or Portugal’s in five year’s time?
Faced with this, the confidence and supply deal with the Democratic Unionist Party was a huge mistake. Embedded in the DUP’s soul is fear that Britain will sell them out. The normal tricks of parliamentary management available to soothe the egos of Tory MPs (the Rt Hon Sir Edward Leigh, anyone?) — knighthoods, special envoy positions, the prospect of ministerial promotion — don’t work. A convoluted diplomatic text, produced by urbane Whitehall officials and their equally urbane counterparts at Dublin’s Iveagh House, is not seen by the DUP as an elegant compromise, but a plot at their expense. It is perhaps tragic that they attach themselves to an Albion they know is perfidious, as though an abusive relationship with Great Britain is the only one they know; and because leaving the UK cannot, by definition, be an option. Thus their tradition of obduracy is well justified, because it’s all they have.
It is fatal, however, that the only way to obtain a Brexit that meets the DUP’s requirement to avoid economic differentiation between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, and the EU’s requirement (and also British government policy) of avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland, is to keep the UK in the Single Market. And while concerns about rule-taking have some weight, it is May’s insistence on ending freedom of movement, words she had inserted into the political declaration, that makes such an arrangement impossible.
There is still hope in Westminster that the EU will come back with some more concessions,or at least more time. What is not appreciated is that the all-UK customs union offered in the Withdrawal Agreement is such a concession. Why should they offer any more to someone who can’t deliver? And more time could even be counterproductive. Britain needs the pressure of a deadline. Given a can on a road, it will not be able to resist the temptation to give it a hefty kick.
Yet if it is a principle of physics that some energy must always be wasted, dissipated into heat and noise, it is a principle of conservatism that decisions and actions have consequences. The decisions — to demand an exemption from free movement; to leave the EU; to have a confidence and supply deal with the DUP; to both require and forbid a hard border in Ireland and to base a negotiation strategy on the hope that the EU would put leaving Britain’s interests ahead of those of its own member state — have been made. It’s now time to take the consequences whatever they turn out to be.