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Not listening to ‘no deal’: one clever politician and three bad arguments

Written by Sir Noel Malcolm

Rory Stewart is one of the brightest and best of the recent intake of Conservative MPs – the sort of person that, in general, we should be very glad and grateful to have in our politics and our government. But several of his recent comments – much highlighted in the media, as he is now a candidate for the Conservative Party leadership – raise questions about his judgement. Depressingly, they also sketch some lines of argument which may become all too familiar in the weeks and months to come, as forces gather to try to exclude the possibility of a so-called ‘no-deal’ departure from the EU. Here are three of them.

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The ‘no deal means no US deal’ argument

On 25 May Stewart hit the headlines by telling the BBC Today Programme: ‘I could not serve in a government whose policy was to push this country into a no-deal Brexit … I could not serve with Boris Johnson.’ This was in response to a comment Mr Johnson had made at a conference in Switzerland, when he said that the UK would have to leave on 31 October, with a deal or without it.

Characterising a ‘no-deal’ Brexit as disastrous, Stewart also said: ‘We have just heard from Pelosi in the US that they won’t be keen on doing a deal with us either if we accept a no-deal.’ This was apparently a reference to a speech made by Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House, on 17 April at the Dáil in Dublin, when she said that ‘We must ensure that nothing happens in the Brexit discussions that imperils the Good Friday Accord, including but not limited to the seamless border between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland’, and declared that there would be no chance of a US-UK trade deal if Brexit undermined that ‘Accord’.

It was just the sort of speech that you would expect an American politician to make to such an Irish audience. ‘As you face the challenges posed by Brexit’, she assured them, ‘know that the US Congress, Democrats and Republicans, in the House and in the Senate, stand with you … For generations, Ireland has been the emerald thread in the fabric of American history … America is looking forward to another hundred years of Irish leadership in the world’, and so on.

At no point her speech, however, did she quote the actual provisions of the Good Friday Agreement on the seamless border. And there is at least one good reason for that: no such provision exists.

On the other hand, in its opening section on ‘Constitutional Issues’, para. 1(iii), the Agreement commits both sides to accepting that ‘it would be wrong to make any change in the status of Northern Ireland save with the consent of a majority of its people.’ Whether Mrs May’s Withdrawal Agreement actually breaches that commitment, by putting Northern Ireland under a different legal regime from the rest of the UK where a wide range of activities relating to agriculture, industry and trade are concerned, is another question. In due course, that question may be decided in court, by an action against the UK Government brought by Lord Trimble – someone who surely understands the nature and purpose of the Good Friday Agreement much better than Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

If the UK does leave the EU on World Trade Organisation terms, it is already clear that the British Government will make no attempt to construct a ‘hard border’ on the island of Ireland. Any move in that direction will come from the Irish/EU side. What the views of US Senators and Representatives will be in that event, when they consider first the actual provisions of the Good Friday Agreement and secondly the actions of the EU, remains to be seen; but it is unlikely that the direction of US policy will be found simply by following an emerald thread.

The ‘no deal means no deal ever’ argument

The following day, 26 May, the Sunday Times quoted Rory Stewart as having ‘ridiculed Johnson for making his no-deal comments in Switzerland – which has made more than 120 trade agreements with Brussels. “The irony of this is that Switzerland has a trade deal with the EU”, said Stewart.’

This comment is extraordinary. What it implies is that anyone who accepts the possibility and feasibility (I do not say ‘preferability’ here, as Mr Johnson has not said that) of a so-called ‘no-deal’ Brexit is against ever having a trade deal with the EU in the future. Is this really how the argument against a ‘no-deal’ departure is going to be conducted?

Mrs May’s Withdrawal Agreement, as Stewart knows, is merely an agreement to enter into the next phase of negotiations (with various rights and duties of EU membership continuing during that phase). It is from those negotiations that the eventual ‘deal’ on our trading relationship, and other aspects of our relations with the EU, will emerge. Similarly, if we leave on WTO terms, that exit will be followed by the start of negotiations on our future relationship.

But there are significant differences between those two scenarios. The ‘transitional’ phase we enter under the Withdrawal Agreement could become a perpetual one, as the Agreement makes it impossible for us to terminate it unilaterally – which means that we shall be dependent on permission from Brussels. That is a situation that can only weaken our negotiating power. The Withdrawal Agreement also restricts the type of trading relationship that can eventually be achieved: it sets a legal obligation on both parties to do whatever they can to agree a deal that is in line with the Political Declaration. As Martin Howe QC has explained, this will be incompatible with a ‘Canada-plus’ type of free trade agreement, or indeed any realistic type of free trade agreement.

So the ‘no-deal’ Brexit scenario is not a recipe for having no deal of any kind in perpetuity. On the contrary, it is a recipe for being able to negotiate a deal from a wider range of options – and for doing so without the handicap of being threatened with permanent confinement in the ‘transitional’ phase.

The ‘no deal would represent a failure to listen to the people’ argument 

Mr Stewart does at least want us to leave the EU. But since he is deeply opposed to ‘no deal’, and as he does not believe in the fantasy of renegotiation, that leaves only one option: to continue with Mrs May’s policy. As he explained to BBC Radio 4’s The World Tonight on 27 May: ‘I don’t think it’s realistic to believe that you can go to Europe and get a radically different deal. I think the effort needs to be made here with Parliament. We were within 30 votes of getting the Withdrawal Agreement through. The Withdrawal Agreement has to be the foundation of a deal with Europe … If we start from the Withdrawal Agreement, we can get this deal done.’

Mr Stewart thinks that there is no absolute majority in favour of a ‘no-deal’ Brexit in the UK population, and the polls show that that is correct. Unfortunately, they also show that there is no majority in favour of the Withdrawal Agreement either. Different polls ask different questions, so it is hard to combine statistics from them; but here is one poll by a reputable organisation, YouGov, carried out on 31 March and 1 April. It gave people three kinds of Brexit to choose from: (1) ‘no-deal’; (2) a non-existent ‘alternative’ deal (along the lines proposed, or at least fantasised about, by Labour) involving remaining in the customs union and the single market; and (3) Mrs May’s Withdrawal Agreement. The figures were, respectively, 26, 12 and 11 per cent. (The rest were divided between the 13 per cent who were ‘not sure’, and the 37 per cent who wanted a second referendum in order to vote Remain.) This suggests that, among those who positively want some version of Brexit, ‘no deal’ is more popular than both the fantasy alternative and the real one – indeed, it is more than two times more popular than the latter.

For Mr Stewart, however, the way to persuade MPs to vote for Mrs May’s Withdrawal Agreement is to make them listen to the people. It is their failure to do this properly, it seems, that lies at the root of the matter. So, as he explained to The World Tonight, what we need is a huge ‘listening exercise’.

At first sight, this seems very naïve. It must be obvious that listening to a divided country, in which no form of Brexit commands anything like an absolute majority, is not going to solve the problem. But now look at what Mr Stewart actually said about this:

I would like thousands of conversations up and down the country, coordinated on social media with all the results being brought together digitally, and then when we’ve done that, we come back into Parliament, and we move very quickly to ban conversation on no deal, ban conversation on a second referendum, and focus on getting a deal done …

If, as I suspect, the majority of people in this country, and I think the overwhelming majority of people in this country, do not want to lose our car industry, it follows logically from that that we need zero-tariff, zero-quota access to the European markets. Once you’ve got that out there, you can work back from that objective to the kind of deal that you want.

First you will notice that the plan, from the outset, involves ‘banning’ any talk of one particular form of Brexit. So it seems that in his listening mode, Mr Stewart will be determined ot to hear the desire for that one, however clearly it may be expressed.

Then you will observe that his own negative assumptions about a ‘no-deal’ Brexit are also built into the process: it is simply assumed that the UK car industry will disappear completely if we move, even temporarily, to WTO rules. There may be experts who would disagree with that, but there is to be no listening exercise where they are concerned.

And then you will see how neatly Mr Stewart plays the old game of getting the ‘right’ answers by asking the ‘right’ questions. He will listen to what the people say in response to the question ‘do you want the car industry to disappear?’, but not, it seems, to their answer to the question ‘do you want this country to be able to negotiate its own trade deals around the world freely?’

The sole purpose of this ‘listening exercise’ will be to put pressure on MPs – pressure in one direction only. What Mrs May failed to do using the Whips’ Office, Stewart will do using a kind of technological wizardry, overwhelming the MPs with ‘thousands of conversations … brought together digitally’.

Mr Stewart sometimes likes to remind us of his experience as a diplomat and administrator in Afghanistan and southern Iraq. He is indeed a figure with an unusually exotic and impressive back-story. But the person he most reminds me of here is Wilhelm Wassmuss, sometimes called the German Lawrence of Arabia, who, wearing local dress and speaking fluent Farsi, travelled through Persia during the First World War inciting attacks on the British. He was a master of improvisation. In the words of the historian Peter Hopkirk:

He told the simple and impressionable tribesmen that he was in direct contact with the German Emperor by wireless. He would put on a theatrical performance with a set of earphones, a steel aerial and a magnet, thereby producing sparks in the darkness, and – or so he claimed – personal messages from the Kaiser himself to individual tribal leaders. Needless to say, Wassmuss had no wireless set.

Mr Stewart, the Lawrence of our time, hopes similarly to persuade the benighted natives of Westminster that, through his digitally synthesised conversations, he is bringing them messages directly from the British people.

How to listen better

Perhaps Rory Stewart really does think that the essential problem is the failure of MPs to listen to the people. But there seems to be a different failure here: his own failure to listen to the MPs. He needs to understand not only what they want, but also what they do not want, and why they do not want it.

A standard view, much propagated in the media, is that a significant number of Conservative MPs have rejected the Withdrawal Agreement only because they are ‘extreme’ Brexiteers who want something ideologically absolute. On this view, the solution is to persuade them that the ‘extreme’ Brexit they desire is too far along the scale, and that, both to bring themselves into line with mainstream public opinion and to make Brexit happen at all, they must compromise by retreating towards the scale’s centre. But this is a myth. As the passing of the Brady Amendment showed, what prevents many Conservative MPs from accepting the Withdrawal Agreement is not the particular version of Brexit it contains (however much they do indeed dislike that) but the backstop, which both threatens the unity of the United Kingdom and puts us under legal obligations from which we may never be able to withdraw of our own volition.

Mr Stewart must have heard them saying these things, but it seems that he has not listened. Nor, for that matter, did he attend very carefully to Boris Johnson’s comments, which, as reported, contained the simple statement: ‘We will leave the EU on 31 October, deal or no deal.’ Nothing about ‘pushing’ there; just a plain statement of the legal facts, as they now stand.

Noel Malcolm s a Fellow of the British Academy, and a Senior Research Fellow at All Souls College, Oxford. 

For More on Rory Stewart see

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Sir Noel Malcolm