What is your leverage?

Yesterday’s phoney war over the leadership of the Conservative Party has got me thinking. The hardline Brexiters (confusing referred to in the media as just ‘Brexiteers’) sought to remove Theresa May over the desirability of the Brexit deal she has achieved with the European Union. This is not their Brexit; they are betrayed; they must show how angry they are.

But I still wonder if there was any more substance than that. Could a hardline PM have got a better deal? They claim they could, but how? The EU has made little if any concession to the UK, and their position today is much as it was before the vote. The Leavers promised us the EU would fold quickly and they were wrong, and that is their fault, not the EU’s.

I know we get a few hardline Brexiters visiting us occasionally on this site, so do use the comments to answer these questions, if they have answers. What would a hardline PM do differently to get a better deal, specifically what leverage would they use to persuade the EU to make concessions? Because it seems to me that the reason the EU has conceded little is that the UK is trying to negotiate from a weak position with very little leverage.

What do I mean by leverage? I refer to things that the UK could offer (or perhaps threaten – I’ll come to threats shortly) to persuade the EU to make concessions. There’s also 3rd party interventions that might effect leverage – famously the leavers went on about the German motor industry; they were wrong; that is the leavers’ fault.

The trouble with offers is that they are very unpopular with hardliners at home. Even honouring the Belfast agreement, and honouring the UK’s debts, which aren’t offers at all but are things the UK is already committed to and that serve our enlightened interests, are painted as outrageously generous offers by angry hardliners. God help us if we made an actual offer. And the problem here is that the point of Brexit is to co-operate less, to take things away, to hurt both sides either a little or a lot, and where do offers belong in that kind of project?

So we come to threats. What could we threaten? To starve the people of Ireland? Of course not. Who in their right might thinks that that is either a) acceptable, or b) would actually cause any reasonable person to back down and make concessions? And there’s the big problem with threats. I’m not aware of any diplomatic situation where the smaller and weaker party got their way by making threats to the bigger and stronger one. It just doesn’t work like that. It is not a plan.

I recall Theresa May at one point saying that it was in the EU’s interests not to ruin the UK economically because we wouldn’t then be able so well to defend our European allies militarily. Taken literally that is a weak plea, not a threat, but it was of course taken as a threat by the domestic press, just as Osborne’s observation that weakening the economy would lead to tax rises or spending cuts was interpreted as a “punishment budget”.

Perhaps there are other not-quite-threats, but are any of them at all strong?

The last desperate resort seems to be the threat of self harm, specifically of ‘no deal’. Prepare for no deal! We’re not afraid of no deal! No deal is what we wanted all along, it is what people voted for in 2016. (It isn’t.) This is the hardliners’ principal bluster. It is weak already because no deal would harm us much more than it would harm them, but also we should ask ourselves what the correct reaction is to somebody who tries to get their way by threatening self-harm?

There are occasions, sure, when the self-harmer might be in the right – where people go on hunger strike or set themselves on fire in protest at tyranny – and perhaps this is how the hardliners see themselves; though any actual suffering will be delegated to the little people. Tyrants should listen to the people before they are driven to such lengths. But again, I ask, is it a plan, to try to persuade EU leaders that this is what is going on here? Remember who you are talking to. EU leaders have not been brought up on the diet of lies from our press. Many have grown up under or escaped communists or fascists in their own countries, and they know from bitter experience the difference between democracy and tyranny. They see, rightly, EU membership and democracy as mutually supporting.

Hardliners, you want something better? What is your leverage? From where I’m sitting it looks like you have nothing, you are weak, and you are demanding the country act with weakness.

* Joe Otten was the candidate for Sheffield Heeley in June 2017, is a councillor in Sheffield and is Tuesday editor of Liberal Democrat Voice.

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33 Comments

  • I’m not sure I qualify as a hardliner. Personally, I think May’s deal is an acceptable compromise given that the country is fairly evenly divided. I suspect the main problem she faces is that hardliners in both the Leave and Remain camps can’t bring themselves to compromise. I don’t think there was ever a chance of getting an awesome bespoke deal. However, there is not a big enough mandate for a more radical exit option.
    I do not see the EU as a tyranny, but simply as an unnecessary political project based on an ideal/vision I do not believe in.

  • Peter Martin 13th Dec '18 - 8:09pm

    Do we want something better? Better than what?
    As has been said on LDV recently the so called deal is so vague that it’s quite meaningless. That’s the problem.

  • ……………. Could a hardline PM have got a better deal? They claim they could, but how? The EU has made little if any concession to the UK, and their position today is much as it was before the vote. The Leavers promised us the EU would fold quickly and they were wrong, and that is their fault, not the EU’s…………

    The ‘hardliners’ tried for months…My favourite assessment of their success was in ‘Private Eye’ months ago regarding the leaving cost of £40 billions…

    Sadly, I can’t find it but I’m sure someone will have the details

  • @ expats. Come on old lad, that Boris is a real hard man who learned his trade in the Eton Wall Game. He would ruffle his hair, indulge in a bit of whiff waff, stutter a bit, and then without fail those Euro Chappies would all run away for he is a mighty man.

    And if that failed he could send in Mogg minor, a veritable Blackadder of our times, who would be armed with a cunning plan, two knitting needles up his nose and his underpants on his head. It would frighten the …….. out of them.

  • Glen you are on record calling for a hard Brexit so yes you are a hardliner. The problem with Brexiteers is each has their “Own personal Brexit”, mutually incompatibable and subject to change. To be blunt if the EU renamed itself as the Confederate States of Europe, most would be happy to stay as the hated EU in their heads would have died, to the rest of us it would just be a rebranding.

  • David Raw 13th Dec ’18 – 9:10pm
    @ expats. Come on old lad, that Boris is a real hard man who learned his trade in the Eton Wall Game. He would ruffle his hair, indulge in a bit of whiff waff, stutter a bit, and then without fail those Euro Chappies would all run away for he is a mighty man….And if that failed he could send in Mogg minor, a veritable Blackadder of our times, who would be armed with a cunning plan, two knitting needles up his nose and his underpants on his head. It would frighten the …….. out of them…………….

    ‘Pas chance’, David. The old ‘touch your forelock/doff your cap to one’s betters’ ONLY works in the UK.
    In France both these toffs wouldn’t exist; their ancestors would have had a date with a certain ‘Madame’ at a certain’ Place de la Révolution’.

  • Frankie
    Spell my name right and learn what a nuanced response is. The term hardliner refers to someone with unbending beliefs and a refusal to consider compromise. I have repeatedly stated the referendum result was too close to force a so -called hard Brexit and that this means there should be compromise from both camps. By definition I am not a hardliner because I’m willing to listen to even your insult laden nonsense. If the result had been more decisive the story would be very different.

  • Glenn,
    Like many a Brexiteer you flip flop around but the only thing that matters to you is that you can say “Brexit has been achieved”. You and your ilk have done much damage to the UK so I’m afraid asking to be respected is an ask too far. When Brexit occurs a bill will come due and then dear Glenn how will you pay it. How will explain the damage you have done. I expect you to fall back on it is all the fault of the EU, while of cause the truth is it is all the fault of you.

  • Peter Martin 14th Dec '18 - 9:15am

    @ Joe,

    I hope we have answered your question now. We all would like to agree amicable terms with the EU and, just possibly, Mrs May’s endevours are the first step. I think we all agree, though that there are too many loose ends to call her document an agreement. If all the loose ends are tidied up then we could have a viable agreement at the end of it all. If not then we’re stuck with a non-agreement for decades to come.

    However, the worry is that once we have handed over our £39 bn, or whatever the final figure turns out to be, then won’t have what you call ‘leverage’. I would just say its more our natural bargaining position. None of us would walk into a shop and hand over £39 without looking at what we were actually exchanging it for.

  • Frankie
    Whatever.

  • The reality is of course that the U.K. is not willing to face the decisions that need to be made. The only reason that we need to pay any money is that we are still a member. There are many Costa which we agreed to which are on going. Pensions is one.
    The reason is that nobody on the U.K. side has been able to put forward an alternative to the Prime Minister’s is that if we do not have a customs union with Europe then we have a border in Ireland. But we have agreed with the Republic not to have a border in Ireland. There is no other possibility.

  • To my mind the MPs should ditch No Deal asap and engineer a free vote in Parlaiment between Revoke Article 50 and Accept the EU offer. No other EU ( e.g.Norway plus) deal is acceptable and nor is No Deal. A general election is a watse of time and a People’s Vote would be best avoided because the public would not be able to absorb all the subtleties of the EU offer. If the EU Deal were accepted, the Government could argue that it had done its job. If Revoke were the result, Parliament could explain why it turned out to be necessary. LibDems, like others in Parlaiment, need to work towards a system that gives Parliament a sensible say, rather than push for a People’s Vote which they hope will result in Remain ( and I speak as a LibDem member who is a Remainer!).

  • Richard Underhill 14th Dec '18 - 12:15pm

    The BBC Question Time audience is statistically balanced (unlike the radio equivalent which is chaired by Jonathon Dimbleby). David Dimbleby’s last show, last night, spent most of the programme on Brexit (and a small part on free speech for comedians). They expressed their support by widespread applause for soundbites from panellists. Former MEP Caroline Lucas was on the panel, wearing green and made the case for another referendum, but spoiled it by also accepting a call for Citizens’ Juries to the surprise of the chairman.
    An audience member lives in Jeremy Corbyn’s constituency in Islington. Speaking clearly and passionately he said that there had been a poll in the constituency and 80% wanted a People’s Vote. He did not give other details.
    Caroline Lucas MP made the case that we all now know much more about Brexit than in the summer of 2016. She listed some examples. She also undermined the Labour MP by talking about areas of social deprivation being the same as constituencies which had voted Leave in 2016. To paraphrase: the money from services is not trickling down across the country. We knew that at the time because several Labour MPs asked the PM whether he would resign if he lost. He said NO, but he did. I went to the by-election.

  • expats: France still has an aristocracy as the republicans did not kill most of them or their children and more were created by Napoleon and after the Restoration in 1814. Until recently French diplomats often used their titles and many of the elite come from the aristocracy although they tend not to use a title. If their name includes the word “de” it normally means they are aristocrats. Judging by what is going on there now they do not seem to have lost the arrogance which sent some of them to the guillotine and the non aristocrats still hate them and enjoy setting fire to their property.

  • Threatening self-harm to get your own way ….. I begin to wonder if the model for the posers of the Tory irreconcilable right should be Violet Elizabeth Bott, the lisping little girl in Richmal Crompton’s William books. She uttered the blood-curdling threat “I’ll thcweam and thcweam and thcweam until I’m thick.”

  • David Evans 14th Dec '18 - 2:31pm

    The Conservatives chose to have their rebellion, but then pretended that leaving Theresa May in power for now was OK, because negotiating Brexit was a rubbish job and no-one else would want it. However, after the debacle of the last two days’, it is perfectly clear it isn’t #TheresaMay but #TheresaCant.

  • ‘Threatening self-harm to get your own way’
    Whilst unlikely, there is another potential act of self harm on the horizon.
    Member of the ERG could vote with Labour to bring this government down. Do we really want a G.E. at the moment? How do we vote?

  • Richard Underhill 14th Dec '18 - 6:23pm

    Joe, please tell us about street trees in Sheffield, which were mentioned on nationwide TV yesterday.

  • Richard Underhill 14th Dec '18 - 8:06pm

    Those who argue that voters have not changed their minds since mid 2016 are ignoring the reality that the electorate has changed because people who were previously under 18 years old and not allowed to vote are 2-3 years older. Some of those who were over 18 will have died, although some of them will have voted remain in 2016 because they valued the work the origins of the EU did for peace in Europe. Having another referendum is more democratic than harking back to the previous one.

  • Richard Underhill.
    I suspect people changing their minds one way or the other would be less deceive than apathy. On political blogs and in the various media outlets Brexit can look like an all consuming passion. Outside of these mini bubbles people just seem to groan and say things like “get on with it”. Put it this way the turn out could be considerably lower and that might favour the bullish. Of course, no one knows, and it would be arrogant to pretend otherwise. All of this also assumes parliament could even agree on the questions printed on any potential ballot paper. This, I think, is the crux of the matter. The original ballot was put through by a government that found itself elected with a shock win and a surprise majority in the house. This is a government that thought it was heading for a crushing landslide and ended up with the shock loss of its parliamentary majority. It is inherently weak
    To me an election still looks far more likely than a people’s vote. The main opposition knows it can keep voting against proposal after proposal put forward by the beleaguered leader of a very split Conservative Party, with the most precarious grip on power, until something snaps. Labour do not want a people’s vote. They want a general election because they know there is a strong possibility of winning it.

  • The Brexit conundrum arises from the fact that the debate is about two very different subjects.

    On the one hand, it is a clash of cultures – between internationalists and nationalists, between globalists and localists, between multiculture and monoculture. Each of these two sides has a perfectly valid world view.

    On the other hand, it is a technical question of trade – its mechanics, its administration, its regulation by international agreement. And on that question, the two sides do not have equally valid views. The Brexiters demand to continue frictionless trading with their key trading partners, and they simultaneously demand the abandonment of the agreed rules on which frictionless trading has been founded. That is a total nonsense.

    That’s why the UK has no leverage whatsoever. The EU, rightly, will not change the rules to let the UK seek a competitive trade advantage. They know that it would hurt them far more to change the rules than it would hurt them to suffer the consequences of hard Brexit. The threat from the UK is “Jump off this cliff, Monsieur Barnier, or else I’ll smash your teeth in!” So, here we are, watching M. Barnier gloomily adjust his gumshield and wait for the Brutish bullydogs to do their worst.

  • David Allen
    I think the EU is more Pan-European than internationalist. To me it seems to be based on the notion of a shared culture and destiny that has roots that go back centuries.

  • Katharine Pindar 15th Dec '18 - 9:44am

    The Brexit conundrum arises first from the fact that, of two countries next door to each other and currently closely linked through the EU, one proposes to leave the EU but still wants to be as closely linked to the other as before. This is a nonsense which can only be solved by both staying in the EU, through an end to Brexit.

  • Jayne Mansfield 15th Dec '18 - 9:46am

    @ Glenn,

    Sometimes when is trying to negotiate an agreement in an almost impossible situation, one sometimes has to settle for one where both sides are equally unhappy with the deal, call it compromise if you will.

    Depressingly, I have been listening to former remain voters saying that they feel they have no alternative but to support the deal, the alternative being no deal or a Corbyn government. Mrs May’s deal is viewed as a compromise that leaves none of those with extreme views on the matter particularly happy and therefore for the more moderate, the best one can expect.

    It isn’t though, is it? it is the equivalent of jumping off a cliff without a parachute. It is a leap into the unknown.

    It is time that our MPs started to exert their authority, demonstrate that our parliament is sovereign. Our democracy is a representative democracy. MPs must take responsibility for the future of this country, and be held responsible for what happens to this country.

  • Jayne
    I don’t think it is the equivalent of jumping off a cliff. I think hard-line Remainers simply want to stay in the EU because it’s an article of political faith and that for the hard-line Brexiteers it’s their article of faith. The biggest complaint from the Leave side is that May’s deal doesn’t repatriate enough power and from Remain that it means we’re a rule taker. IMO both are polarised simplifications. It’s basically an ideological battle where neither side wants to even contemplate ceding ground.
    I can’t see how another referendum would really resolve the issue because if it’s close again there is no reason to believe the losing side will give up. Plus, the argument about leverage also applies to the phrasing of any potential new ballot paper. A lot of the pro-EU arguments seem to forget that it is the sitting government that drafts the proposal and it’s the house that ratifies it or otherwise. Without a WTO option on the paper it wouldn’t get through the proposal stage. Contrary to the sometimes voiced claim that Leave voters all have their own personal Brexit, in my experience they mostly actually want to stop paying into the EU and extract Britain from it completely. I think WTO could win. It depends what you want.

  • Peter Martin 15th Dec '18 - 11:54am

    @ Katharine,

    I understand the problem and what you’re saying.

    What I don’t understand is how this all squares with what we were told prior to the 2016 referendum. Then, it was that we hadn’t lost any sovereignty. We were members of the EU through choice, we weren’t forced to accept any laws or directives from Brussels, and were free to leave at any time of our choosing as is allowed under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty.

    Now, it turns out, according to your argument, that we aren’t quite so free at all.

    Of course, if we weren’t members of the EEC/EU then neither would Ireland. It wasn’t just co-incidence they joined at the same time as we did.

  • Katharine Pindar 16th Dec '18 - 1:41am

    Well, Peter, the absurdity was just not taken account of, it seems. Yet a shrewd friend of mine, a Lib Dem in his youth and probably rejoining now in his sixties, said to me more than a year ago that he believed that the Irish question was the one on which negotiations would run aground. I thought so too.

  • Katharine Pindar 16th Dec '18 - 1:45am

    Sorry, I mean of course ‘a Liberal ‘ in his youth, he wasn’t psychic too!

  • Peter Martin 16th Dec '18 - 9:15am

    @ Katharine,

    I think the Irish border problem was generally well understood one year ago. I would say it became apparent fairly quickly after the 2016 referendum. I like to think I’m reasonably well informed on political issues but I have to confess I hadn’t picked up on it before the vote.

    Looking back, there must have been a an unholy alliance between Leavers and Remainers on the question. Leavers wanted to minimise the difficulty of leaving. Remainers didn’t want to highlight the issue because it didn’t fit into their ‘we are still a free and sovereign country’ narrative.

    So the question is which is the more important of the two? I know we’ll disagree about this but the Irish question shows the danger of becoming trapped in the EU against our will. That’s not good for us and it isn’t good for the EU.

    It is just about possible to leave now but if we wait any longer it may well not be.

  • Jayne Mansfield 16th Dec '18 - 8:50pm

    @ Glenn,
    If one gets one’s information from a political website, it is hardly surprising that it seems that the desire to remain or leave seems to be an article of faith. But this is not, in my limited experience, reflected in the wider world.

    I find that what concerns people is the effect that remaining or staying will have on their family. In as far as one can give credence to polls, I am rather pleased that the poorer white working class are one of the groups where according to a poll this is happening in places like Rotherham and Barnsley where my background meant that individuals who had been taken in, had moved to the Right politically.

  • Andrew Melmoth 16th Dec '18 - 10:29pm

    Peter Martin
    There is nothing stopping us putting up a hard border in Ireland. Indeed it is more or less inevitable if the hard Brexiteers get their way. The reasons why we, as a sovereign nation, don’t want to put up a hard border is entirely to do with British and Irish history. Nothing to do with the EU. It’s simply that membership of the EU gave us a unique means to ameliorate to some degree the conflicts between the communities in Northern Ireland. Outside the EU, the legacies of our history come back to haunt us.

  • Peter Martin 18th Dec '18 - 9:01pm

    @ Andrew Melmouth,

    I would say that remains to be seen. If neither we nor the EU, nor Ireland wish to see a hard border then we should be able to devise a way. Where there’s a will there’s a way and all that.

    Even now the border isn’t totally free of regulatory problems. The standard rate of VAT in Ireland is 23%. The standard rate in the UK is 20%. So there has to be, even now some regulation in place to prevent the mass selling of goods over the border at the UK’s lower rate. There are checks but they don’t have to be on the border.

    We have a similar situation between us and France. It is not allowed to drive a van over to France, fill it up with cheap cigarettes and alcohol then sell everything in the UK. I know it happens but is it legal?

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