“To govern is to choose”

One of the first aphorisms I learned when studying history and politics was: ‘To govern is to choose’. It was Pierre Mendes-France’s maxim when Premier of France in 1954-5, cutting through the morass of postponed decisions left by weak coalition governments and negotiating the withdrawal of French troops form Indo-China. Good government means taking decisions, even when they are hard decisions.

Which underlines how appallingly incompetent Britain’s current government is. It has raised the art of postponing decisions to an art form. If it could postpone presenting Parliament with a clear choice on Brexit until the afternoon of March 29th, it would do so.

Liberal Democrats tend to wallow in self-criticism over the coalition government of 2010 – it’s certainly a favourite theme of many who post comments on this site. In spite of David Cameron’s preference for last-minute policy-making, however, and too great a Liberal Democrat indulgence of right-wingers within the government, that government took decisions: partly because there had to be regular meetings to agree between the two parties, and papers and minutes to record what had been agreed.

We now have a dead government walking. Who said what to whom in the Cabinet appears in the press the following day. Ministers differ openly; some directly attack their colleagues, with particular anger against Philip Hammond – not the most obvious bleeding-heart liberal, but insufficiently right-wing for the true believers. Several are evidently incompetent to hold down their posts; Liam Fox above all, who has achieved nothing in office so far, Chris Grayling in successive posts. We are now on our third secretary of state for DexEU since the referendum; Steve Barclay is a relief after David Davis’s astonishing laziness and Dominic Raab’s naivety. The civil service must be in despair; turnover, and resignations, suggest that many have given up trying to hold their ministers to consistent policies.

So one thing we should all be saying is that the current crisis is more the outcome of the internal battle within the Conservative Party, between those who recognise a fact when they see it and those for whom belief is all, than the result of the referendum. If Theresa May had declared, in the summer of 2016, that in view of the narrow majority of votes the government would seek to negotiate a close and continuing relationship with the EU, similar to that of Norway, we would by now most probably have agreed terms for exit. Her slide towards her hardliners, the ‘bastards’ who made John Major’s life so difficult, condemned her to ask for a Brexit package which was never deliverable. Donald Tusk was right; even Christopher Booker, a gut Eurosceptic, in the Sunday Telegraph of February 10th agrees with him. None of them have ever faced up to the contradictions in their demands. It is the government’s fault that we have ended up in today’s appalling mess: not the fault of those who voted to leave, or of those who have pointed out the obvious flaws in each successive prime ministerial position.

Government is also about leadership. Theresa May has failed to provide any idea of what role the UK wishes to play in the world when and if we leave the EU. She talks about ‘our precious union’ of countries within the UK, while undermining the bonds that hold Northern Ireland and Scotland to England. Her government pretends that it wants to remain closely aligned with European governments after leaving, while tolerating ministers and Conservative MPs who insult the Germans and attack ‘Brussels’. When Liam Fox announces with pride that his department has signed a free trade agreement with the Faroe Islands, we know that the government has lost all sense of direction and priorities.

Yes, Labour are almost as incoherent. The government survives partly because the Labour front bench fails to offer a coherent alternative. That deepens the political crisis we are now in. We’ve moved a long way from the referendum result, we should be insisting in every conversation we have about Brexit. Neither the Conservatives nor Labour have managed to decide on a way to leave the EU which makes sense in terms of the multiple interest and obligations a British government has to take into account. That’s why we demand a different approach. A cross-party response, even a coalition government, and a people’s vote, look like the only ways to get out of the hole this Conservative government has dug…

* Lord Wallace of Saltaire is a Liberal Democrat member of the House of Lords.

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25 Comments

  • Peter Martin 11th Feb '19 - 1:37pm

    If Theresa May had declared, in the summer of 2016, that in view of the narrow majority of votes the government would seek to negotiate a close and continuing relationship with the EU, similar to that of Norway, we would by now most probably have agreed terms for exit.

    Well possibly. Who knows. But, as far as I remember, both Remainers and Leavers had ruled out the Norway option during the referendum. I don’t remember anyone, from either side, saying that if the result was close we’d have a Norway style exit.

  • If Theresa May had declared, in the summer of 2016, that in view of the narrow majority of votes the government would seek to negotiate a close and continuing relationship with the EU, similar to that of Norway, we would by now most probably have agreed terms for exit.

    This is just wishful thinking, there were at least two red lines Theresa May could not give up – ending the free movement of labour from the EU and not being subject to EU law. She has achieved these things under her deal. However, with a majority of only about 15 she was always going to be a prisoner of her hardliners. This may have been one of the reasons for her to call a general election in 2017 in the hope of getting a large enough majority that she could ignore her hardliners.

    Maybe if her deal is defeated again at the end of the month, Theresa May will realise that the only way she can get her deal accepted will be via a referendum. Perhaps we could hold it on May 23rd EU Parliament Election Day!

  • Peter Hirst 11th Feb '19 - 3:40pm

    The politicians of the other two Parties cannot cope speaking generally with a constitutional referendum such as Brexit. They are torn between their own beliefs, that of their constituents and Party loyalty. This is why it should be taken out of the power of Parties and future ones be led by the people for that is what they are. We need a written constitution that lays down the details of the conduct of these important parts of our democracy.

  • Poor Peter said

    Well possibly. Who knows. But, as far as I remember, both Remainers and Leavers had ruled out the Norway option during the referendum.

    Having stated that caveat, the leading voice on this option is ex-minister Owen Paterson MP and much research has been carried out on this option, led by Dr Richard North at http://www.eureferendum.com. Although it must be said that for these Brexiteers, the Norway Option is still only one of three possible options for reaching the same first milestone after Brexit, namely a single market relationship and disengaging from political union.

    https://medium.com/@WhiteWednesday/the-norway-option-some-bookmarks-e51e7621beb2

    Were you not paying attention Peter or have you conveniently forgotten. Your desperate attempt to rewrite history, are well just desperate.

  • Peter Martin 12th Feb '19 - 9:46am

    @ frankie,

    Just on a point of information: Norway is inside the single market but outside of the customs union. That’s, by definition, the Norway option. Just why they want to do it that way around seems a bit odd to me. You’d have to ask them about that. I can understand the argument for staying in the customs union better, but that’s not the the same thing.

    If there was one point of agreement during the referendum campaign, it was that leaving the EU meant leaving the single market.

  • Malcolm Todd 12th Feb '19 - 11:12am

    Peter Martin 12th Feb ’19 – 9:46am
    “If there was one point of agreement during the referendum campaign, it was that leaving the EU meant leaving the single market.”

    No, there was not: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0xGt3QmRSZY

  • Martin,

    I was not defending Theresa May as a leader, because I don’t think she is a good leader. I was stating that in 2016 with a majority of about 15 she had little choice with most of her red lines. I didn’t say ignore “EU standards and regulations”, I wrote, “not being subject to EU law”, which is about the idea that the UK government is in control of what laws we have. My point was we should not judge Theresa May on what we would have liked her to do, but on what as the leader of the Conservative Party she could do.

    If she now, proposed a referendum with three choices (Accept, Reject, and Stay) using AV, perhaps most of her MPs and ours would support it, and Parliament would pass it. It could be the only way of keeping her party united and leaving the EU with a deal.

  • @frankie – The real problem with the Norway Option, is that it doesn’t deliver the immediate ‘exit’ that many committed Brexiteers are wanting and expecting to happen on 29-March. Farage, Mogg et al will dismiss it as an attempt to keep the UK in the EU, rather than as a sensible and low-risk first step on the multi-decade journey of leaving the EU.

    Unfortunately, it does seem there are no adults with brains engaged in charge at Westminster…

  • Arnold Kiel 12th Feb '19 - 4:15pm

    I totally agree with Lord William’s assessment of this PM’s leadership qualities, but proposing a Norway (+)-model would not rectify it. It is indeed a worst of both worlds formula. Besides, EFTA-members would not want the UK in, and have rejected their arrangement as a transitional resting place for the UK even more strongly.

  • Wow! Liam Fox has concluded an FTA with the Faroe Islands. Nothing can stop him now! [/sarc]

    Seriously though – his failure to achieve anything much in the way of FTAs is just another example if how wildly fantastical the Brexiteers’ promises have been at every turn. In fact, I can’t think of a single one that has been borne out by events. Can anyone else?

    So, if not the Faroes, can anyone suggest which non-EU countries we might reasonably expect an FTA with? Not China presumably after Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson’s cunning plan to get right up their noses by sending an aircraft carrier (with mainly borrowed US planes) to the south China Sea. Though since we’re on the subject of FTAs, I do wonder if it’s a good idea to conclude one with China given their vast economics of scale which we can’t begin to match and their propensity to subsidise favoured firms and make up the rules to suit themselves as they go along.

    Similarly, I doubt that the Russians will be going out of their way to oblige.

    Realistically, the obvious strategy for any non-EU country is to drag out negotiations until the UK has finally burnt its boats with the EU then strike a REALLY hard and grossly unequal bargain with a desperate Britain. Hence, I hear rumours that Japan will offer no better than WTO terms; they were reported recently on C4 News as being ‘incandescent’ with anger about Brexit which will cost the many Japanese companies that invested here as a bridgehead into Europe billions in losses.

    The again, there’s the little matter of which companies Brexiteers think will lead the promised export boom. I recently asked a very bright (PPE from Oxford no less) acquaintance who is a rabid Brexiteer to name a handful. He couldn’t name one. If he had, I would have followed up by asking why the EU holds them back when it evidently doesn’t hinder German companies but I never got that far.

    Did I read all this wrong? I get that there is a lot wrong with the EU as currently structured but that will change (MUST change because of the euro). So, what is so *irredeemably* terrible about the EU that intelligent people like Peter Martin want to leave?

  • Peter Martin 12th Feb '19 - 4:37pm

    @ Malcolm Todd,

    That’s not how I remember the general discussion.

  • Peter Martin 12th Feb '19 - 5:33pm

    @ Gordon,

    “…..there’s the little matter of which companies Brexiteers think will lead the promised export boom ……………..why the EU holds them back when it evidently doesn’t hinder German companies ”

    I’m not sure there will be an export boom. Who’s promised one? If there is it may well not turn out be a good thing. It will probably mean the £ has fallen significantly. There’s only one way a country like Germany can run a significant export surplus. This is to do what all large net exporters do and suppress domestic demand with relatively high taxes and hold down the value of its currency on the forex markets. That’s where the euro comes in.

    That way the German domestic market is less attractive for German companies and overseas market much more attractive. It does mean its less attractive for UK and other exporters too. Germany sells us more than twice the amount it buys from the UK.

    Germany does need to buy the bonds of its customer countries to recycle the money. It needs to lend its customers their excess spending, keeping their currency buoyant and so they can continue to excess spend!

    Will this continue after Brexit? My guess is probably yes. So no export boom I’m afraid.

  • @Peter Martin – “I’m not sure there will be an export boom. Who’s promised one?”
    The ardent Brexiteers…

    “So no export boom I’m afraid.”
    Is this an ardent Brexiteer speaking? I thought the whole point of Brexit was so that we could sign trade deals that were more favourable to UK interests…
    Given currently the UK imports more than it imports and much of what it exports is services to the EU, I suggest a marked increase in exports is going to be necessary post-Brexit – this being necessary just to replace the lost services exports to the EU. Which given a no deal Brexit isn’t going to happen…

    Yes, I know Brexiteers go on and on about WTO rules, but totally fail to appreciate the rules that will apply in the interim period between the UK leaving the EU and signing all those trade deals Liam has lined-up (not).

  • @Arnold – Besides, EFTA-members would not want the UK in…
    Yes, in my dealings with colleagues in the EFTA/EU27 I also detect a hardening of attitudes, in part because of the Brexiteer’s scorched-earth policy on anything that might involve the UK having anything to do with the EU post-29-March.

  • Peter,
    You raised no one wanted the Norway option, when I pointed out you were wrong off you go onto some other point. Are you incapable of dealing with facts? Facts are hard things Peter but running away from them doesn’t help.

  • Peter Martin 13th Feb '19 - 8:49am

    @ frankie,

    “You raised no one wanted the Norway option”

    I didn’t say that. Maybe you are confusing me with someone else?

    I’m sure there’ll be someone, somewhere, who would choose that option. Or even Norway +. With the customs union, CAP etc. I personally can’t see the point. We’d be better off staying as full members.

    PS Don’t go interpreting that as I’m now advocating for Remain!

  • Peter Martin 13th Feb '19 - 9:05am

    @Roland,

    Possibly there will be a reduction in the trade gap. It isn’t, though, really in our control if we continue to let the pound float. So no-one, Brexiteer or otherwise, can say just now.

    Consider trade at its most basic. If I grow apples and you grow pears then it makes sense to swap one for the other. However suppose you decide you want to run a trading surplus. You’ll want fewer of my apples in return for more of your pears. You”l take my IOU to make up the difference. It’s probably not a good idea because after a while you’ll accumulate so many IOUs that I’ll have extreme difficulty making good on them. Luckily for me, you can only make good on them by running a deficit yourself, but if you think running a deficit is a sign of personal failure you’ll never want to do that anyway.

    But this, silly as it might seem, is essentially what happens in international trade. Countries decide they want to run a surplus and buy up lots of our IOUs. Technically this is just the capital account surplus balancing out the current account deficit.

    Will they still want to do this after Brexit? You’ll have to ask them!

  • Peter, who wrote
    “Well possibly. Who knows. But, as far as I remember, both Remainers and Leavers had ruled out the Norway option during the referendum. I don’t remember anyone, from either side, saying that if the result was close we’d have a Norway style exit.”

    Because unless I’m misreading the quote they did state no one wanted the Norway option. Are you suffering from poor Glen’s syndrome were multiple people are aledgely using the same account?

  • @ Peter Martin – Macroeconomics aren’t everything. Sectoral balances are a useful accounting identity that highlights issues around some choices just as you say. They are true now and will be true after Brexit. What they don’t tell you is anything about the *size* of an economy.

    After Brexit, exports will fall substantially in all scenarios I can imagine; I haven’t seen anything to contradict that view. It’s simply not credible to imagine the UK can turn it’s back on by-far its biggest and nearest market and immediately replace the lost exports even if Liam Fox had all his trade deals lined up for Brexit day (which he won’t) and even if they were all at least as good as our existing EU ones (they won’t be by a long way).

    My sense (it’s not possible to be precise) is that there will be a significant drop in exports in April followed by many months (perhaps years) of declining exports as export customers make other arrangements and firms relocate. Business leaving will include much of the City (that will take several years as EU27 countries need to build regulatory capacity so many think the big winner will be New York). Also leaving as fast as they can organise it will be much of the auto and aerospace industries. Less covered by the media are the many small and medium firms that will also go or lose out.

    Domestically the damage will be compounded as firms that lost only a small part of their trade fail (e.g. if they can’t service their debt or can’t get one critical component) and as multipliers kick in causing losses in service firms doing no exports at all. Even the import sector will suffer – it’s hard to imagine BMW & Merc dealers needing as many staff in a smaller/poorer economy.

    So, welfare costs will soar, the public debt/GDP ratio will blow up and the currency will fall. That will boost inbound tourism but industry not so much.

    And the government’s response to all that? One guess: AUSTERITY. Like we’ve never seen before as the country ‘phase changes’ to a substantially smaller economy.

    Separately, I notice no-one attempted to answer my questions about (a) which Brexiteer promises have been borne out by events, or (b) what is so *irredeemably* terrible about the EU that the economic harm of leaving is a better option than staying and reforming. (It almost makes me wonder if the real driver for Brexit is to end the welfare state – its pushers are the loony right after all.)

  • Peter Martin 13th Feb '19 - 7:22pm

    @ Gordon,

    The key part of your comment IMO concerns “remain and reform”. I’ve previously explained why the lack of effective democracy in the EU, is worth the hassle of leaving.

    The EU, as distinct from its predecessors, the EEC, EC and Common market has been in existence for nearly 30 years now. Can you give me an example of a single reform, during that time, which has come about from popular pressure from below?

  • Peter Martin 13th Feb '19 - 7:32pm

    @ frankie,

    If you want an argument about the Norway option you’ll have to find someone who actually wants that. I don’t. I can’t see the point of it. It means obeying nearly all the rules, paying the subscriptions etc but having no say or influence in the operation of the club.

    As said previously staying in would, IMO, be a more preferable option

  • Peter Martin – “The key part of your comment IMO concerns ‘remain and reform’”..

    No! My comment was to make the point that any possible variant of Brexit will cause an economic catastrophe for the UK. If it’s No Deal then it will be so much the worse and more abrupt. If it’s Theresa May’s deal then we will largely be tied into the democracy-deficient EU until NI leaves the UK to join the Irish Republic. (Suggestions that a time-limited backstop is possible, or that tech solutions will magically appear are strictly for the birds).

    I am open to reasoned arguments that I’m wrong – that Brexit will not be an economic disaster – but so far haven’t heard *any* that make sense. The risks are huge and can’t be lightly dismissed as a “hassle”. Also, there is nothing about Brexit that addresses the UK’s real economic and political problems; it’s an epic misdiagnosis driven by the neuroses and dodgy economics of the likes of JRM.

    As for EU reform, I have been arguing it was needed since Maastricht. Sadly, that POV has been met with total incomprehension in Lib Dem circles up to and including some of the Great and the Good of the party who have, as far as I can tell, seen their role solely as cheerleaders for whatever overreach the Eurocrats might come up with. Meanwhile, many in the larger parties never bothered to understand how the EU works.

    Is all that the fault of the EU or of domestic UK politics and politicians?

    Surely the latter. In the UK we have had 40 years of neoliberalism in the original Tory plus later Blairite and Cameron/Clegg flavours designed (under a suitably thick layer of junk economic camouflage) to disenfranchise the 99%. This co-option of the legacy parties into the neoliberal project has neutered possible alternative leadership, the effect of which has been like screwing down the valve of a pressure cooker. Popular pressure could find no outlet short of an explosion – which has now occurred.

    None of this was the fault of the EU which reflects, however imperfectly, the agendas of its member states so it’s not reasonable to blame the EU for being unreformable when reform has never been tried. The ‘populist’ parties have now set their sights on EU reform and my guess is that they will eventually succeed. What a tragedy there’s no Liberal runner in this race!

  • Peter Martin 15th Feb '19 - 4:58pm

    @ Gordon,

    “As for EU reform, I have been arguing it was needed since Maastricht”

    But what sort of reforms? Maastricht was when ‘Europe’ started to go wrong big time. There was no popular clamour for the Maastricht treaty. It was imposed by the ‘elite’ in the EU and was their idea of a reform. Whereas my idea of a reform would be to wind the whole thing back to what worked reasonably well before that.

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