On a parallel between the shutdown and Brexit.
Twelve days ago, in between eating a final ship’s dinner and listening to a jazz pianist meander brilliantly through the Great American Songbook, I spent an anxious hour following the main item of news — the breakdown of U.S. Senate budget negotiations — via the five or six broadcasting services on the Queen Mary 2’s communications system.
What I heard gave me some slight cause for alarm: The failure of the talks meant there would now be a “technical” government shutdown. How technical, I wondered? Was there any risk that the ship would be unable to dock? Would the immigration and customs people be off duty? Might we have to spend days or longer on board until the shutdown ended?
Not a very intimidating prospect, by the way. If you have to be confined somewhere against your will, I thoroughly recommend the QM2 for its comfort, good service, excellent meals, and variety of distractions. Some people go back and forth across the Atlantic, regarding their stay in New York or London as a necessary inconvenience, for those very reasons. All the same . . . we had plans for a family Christmas.
Day One. There was a delay the next morning. Each passenger group left the ship about 15 minutes later than advertised. We spent the extra time aboard watching the morning news shows reach ever-higher levels of hysteria over the struggle now beginning between Senator Godzilla and President Tyrannosaurus. But when we left, we learned the delay was genuinely technical and had nothing to do with any withdrawal of U.S. government services.
In fact, customs and immigration whisked us through at such speed that I asked about it. Procedures had been streamlined, I was told proudly. Maybe the proximity of the Christmas holiday helped too. Anyway, by 11:30 a.m. we were in a New York taxi.
With only three shopping days to go before the holiday, New York was even more hectic than usual. If the feds had withdrawn even technical services, it wasn’t slowing anything down — let alone shutting anything down — and certainly not the news cycle. Catching sight of television screens in salesrooms and shop windows, on the other hand, we could see there was a major national crisis taking place around us.
Still, with only one day in the city meeting friends before heading for the airport, we didn’t have time for a crisis. We went to a party instead.
Day Two. But you can’t cheat the zeitgeist. We ran into a crisis at the airport the next morning. Our airline had booked us to Alabama via Washington, apparently without realizing that Washington has more than one airport. That left us with 70 minutes to collect our luggage, get a taxi, and ride the 40-odd miles from Dulles to Reagan National. That wasn’t possible, and we were soon settling into an airport hotel.
Fate had given us a warning. We now knew we faced both the risks of further errors and delays and the burgeoning national crisis visible from the headlines in the hotel-bar television set. It seemed to be a serious crisis too, threatening much that is dear to us, but we couldn’t be sure because the sound had been turned down, and I judged the drinkers would not have welcomed any suggestion to turn it up.
Day Three. All the same, we cautiously booked an early taxi to Reagan National to be on the safe side, and speeding through quiet roads, we arrived more than three hours before our plane left.
“I can’t understand it,” said the taxi driver. “It’s Christmas Eve, and I know that our service is fully booked today, but the roads are almost empty.”
Then the penny dropped.
“It must be the government shutdown,” he explained. “No one’s going into work today. It’ll be easy to get around as long as the shutdown lasts. That’s great.”
Reagan National was crowded but also festive. So was Huntsville International Airport a few hours later. And so was Decatur’s Publix supermarket, to which we, a day late and nervous that Publix might be imitating the government and closing early, dashed quickly to buy the provisions for our share of Christmas parties for the duration. No worries. Publix sales assistants in Santa hats would be dispensing groceries and good cheer to customers — who were themselves greeting each other as if they were Scrooge, Bob Cratchit, and Tiny Tim in the final reel of A Christmas Carol — until 8 p.m.
We loaded up our trolley with all the necessities of the Christmas season, including — no kidding — a plump goose worthy of Scrooge’s approval, for our household’s traditional Boxing Day dinner. And we relaxed at last. Christmas would proceed as scheduled. Maybe the government shutdown would continue too, but not too many people seemed to be worrying about that.
Days Four to Nine, Christmas to New Year’s Eve. For most of the next five days, we led an agreeably schizophrenic existence. We went to Christmas services (larger congregations and better hymn singing this year), exchanged presents, went to parties, gave them, caught up with family and local gossip, swapped jokes old and new (mainly old), ate a little too well, drank fine wines and mysterious cocktails, slept well too with pleasant dreams and no nightmares.
Nightmares were readily available, however, whenever we turned on the television news. It seemed that America — nation in crisis — was divided over the question of who was to blame for the terrors of the government shutdown. Majority opinion (among pundits) was that President Tyrannoraurus would get the blame because he had claimed ownership of the shutdown before it had even begun. On the other hand there was a vigorous countercurrent, mainly on Fox News, that Senator Godzilla had reclaimed the shutdown for the Democrats by stating unequivocally that Tyrannosaurus would never get his Wall — so there! Between these two entrenched positions small-arms fire was exchanged hourly, but largely without result.
The problem — from a screenwriter’s point of view — was that there weren’t nearly enough terrors emanating from the shutdown. It was only a “partial shutdown,” of course, but even so there ought surely to have been at least a few disasters. Small Californian cities that speculated themselves into bankruptcy could boast far worse with their bus services canceled and street lights switched off every second week.
Yet all the federal service cuts that would really inflict pain on the citizenry had been postponed into the later stages of the shutdown. And as both Republicans and Democrats began to subtly shift their rhetoric from “You’re to blame for the shutdown” to “You’re the side refusing to compromise,” observers sensed that there never was going to be a government shutdown worthy of the rhetoric of national crisis. It was a show of crisis that would be resolved by concessions from the weaker side, probably Tyrannosaurus, before it produced real pain and real casualties. We’ll know that a genuine government shutdown is in the making when one side or the other makes practical plans to ensure that its consequences fall good and hard on its opponent’s constituencies rather than on its own side. That would signal a real determination to cut government spending or to build a wall or to achieve any other of the usual advertised projects.
If that’s lacking, the citizens are quite sensible to continue eating, drinking, and making merry with no thought for the morrow because that kind of morrow never comes.
When the television news switched from the U.S. to the long-running Brexit crisis in the U.K., it struck me that there’s an instructive comparison of the shutdown with the idea of a “no-deal Brexit” in Britain. For the last two years, both Theresa May’s government and the wider British politico-cultural establishment have been warning of the horrors that would descend on Britain if the country left the European Union without a prior agreement for a future trade deal with it.
The very phrase “no-deal Brexit” — usually accompanied by the terms “crashing out” and “cliff-edge” — was a flashing neon sign that the speaker had no real intention of adopting such a policy. Anyone who wanted to do so would use more accurate and neutral terms. What “no deal” actually means is leaving the EU and trading with it under the rules of the World Trade Organization — rules that govern trade, seemingly with no disruption, between the EU and every non-EU nation in the world.
The May government’s behavior has confirmed this insight. On the one hand it has been issuing constant implausible warnings of the catastrophes that would hit Britain after a WTO exit: Britain would run short of medicines and food, suffer major civil disturbances, lose airline landing rights in Europe, see a rise in suicides, suffer a seizure in cross-Channel trade, and much else. On the other hand, even though a WTO Brexit is the “default option” for the U.K. and will follow automatically if talks with the EU fail, ministers have refused to make the preparations or allocate the resources for implementing such an outcome and avoiding its allegedly malign consequences.
Their behavior seems irresistibly reminiscent of Osbert Lancaster’s description of the 1956 Suez venture as “combining the moral principles of Attila the Hun with the practical ability of Ethelred the Unready.”
Either they are clinging to a belief that a WTO Brexit couldn’t really ever happen or they are determined to make it so unpleasant that any deal offered by the EU would look terrific by comparison. Whichever their motive, they have rendered themselves helpless in the face of the EU negotiators, more or less compelled to accept whatever deal is offered. As a result, the so-called Withdrawal Agreement that May and her ministers achieved is so appalling — and so remote from anything resembling the Brexit people voted for — that as its consequences sink in, the prospect of a no-deal Brexit begins to seem attractive or at least tolerable.
As that happens, people begin to prepare for it. Thus, in recent days, we have seen three developments that, though modest in isolation, suggest that a WTO Brexit is more practicable — and more likely — than most commentators have allowed for.
In the Telegraph, James Barthomolew pointed out that governments aren’t the only player in this game. Companies and utilities see problems coming down the track at them, and they don’t just stand there; they do something about it. Among a longer list of corporate and market reactions, Barthomolew noted in particular some of the steps being taken to prevent the much-feared breakdown of cross-Channel trade: One freight shipping country is developing a new route from Ramsgate to Ostend as an alternative to the crowded Dover–Calais one; container capacity is being substantially extended at another port, Immingham, at a cost of about $40 million; and at the European end, Roel van’t Veld, chief of the customs authority of Rotterdam, started recruiting up to another 1,000 new staff earlier this year, introduced a new IT system, and carried out a simulation study to identify potential bottlenecks. Roel is quoted as saying: “Our job is to make sure things don’t seize up and we are pretty good at it.”
Even governments and bureaucrats might not have been quite so idle as ministers and the Remainer media depict. Writing anonymously in the Telegraph, a senior civil servant involved in preparing for Brexit reveals that arrangements for an orderly departure from the EU without a future trade agreement have been made and are now either awaiting ministerial signatures or being actually implemented. Anything less would be anathema to the British civil service, he insists, with its old-fashioned reverence for orderly government in triplicate. The author goes on to list an impressive list of commercial and diplomatic deals, both within Britain and between Britain and other countries — most already done with some “surreptitiously” announced — to implement what in the jargon is called a “managed no deal.” His conclusion is a sensational reversal of the conventional wisdom: “‘Crashing out’ over a ‘cliff-edge’ is simply not going to be an option, and it is purely a political decision not to make this clear to the public and nervous backbench MPs.” (My italics.)
If this is so — and it certainly fits in with the Whitehall tradition of preparing for all legal eventualities — then May and her ministers have only been giving an imitation of Ethelred the Unready front and center stage. Behind the scenes the bureaucrats have been making a practical statesman of her, if not an honest woman. But what could possibly be the motives for the perverse decision to hide these prudent preparations from the public and Tory MPs? The author wonders that too, and hazards this shrewd guess:
[If] the Government was to be frank with Parliament and the country, what justification would be left for its disastrous Withdrawal Agreement? What would Remainers do without a Project Fear? They would need to think up convincing positive arguments for staying in the EU, something that has so far proved beyond them.
It may, however, be too late now to sustain the Withdrawal Agreement. For the third factor is that, according to the latest poll of Tory supporters carried out by the influential ConHome website, May’s withdrawal deal now has the support of only 16 percent of them. If you add to that figure both the supporters of her earlier Chequers deal and outright No Brexiteers — all ways of keeping Britain tied to the EU in one way or another — a very generous estimate would place only 25 percent of Tories in her column. No great surprise there.
But there is a major shock in how the 74 percent total of ConHome’s Tory supporters who want some sort of clean or sharp Brexit break down between its three variants. The Norway solution — which would keep Britain tied to the EU but loosely — gets only 3.15 percent of the votes. The Canada solution, which has previously been favored by ConHome polls, gets a respectable 27 percent. But both lag well behind the 44 percent racked up by supporters of a no-deal Brexit. And that’s a new phenomenon.
Paul Goodman interprets this 10 percent hike in support for No Deal, I think rightly, as follows: “What seems to be happening is that as the probability of No Deal increases, so does its support.” But the corollary of that is also true: As the support for No Deal increases, so does its probability. The two go hand in hand.
Remainers have placed enormous trust in the idea that Parliament has a built-in Remain majority that will simply refuse to allow a real Brexit to occur even if no one can quite explain how they will manage it. But the Remain majority, if it exists at all, is a recent, narrow, and fragile one. After all, it was this Parliament that put in place the “automatic” no-deal outcome less than two years ago. And its recent outbursts of Remain sympathy have occurred partly in response to a revived “Project Fear” campaign that increasingly looks hysterical and even silly. The gradual rolling out of “Managed No Deal” arrangements is likely to undermine Project Fear still further. It’s hard to maintain that a policy is dangerous, absurd, or impossible when it appears in the sober, impressive, and soothing garb of administrative law and bureaucratic language sanctified by diplomatic agreement with other countries. MPs are sure to be influenced by that — and by how their voters react to signs that no deal is distinctly doable and its critics guilty of laughable deceptions. Unless May is able to get the EU to give her at least one major concession — in particular, removing the “No Exit” provision from her own withdrawal deal — it might end up looking pretty gimcrack in comparison with a well-managed WTO deal and suffering rejection in Parliament accordingly.
That’s not a certain outcome. We’ll know next week, when Parliament finally votes on it. But when May framed the choice as one between her deal and no deal, she was relying on the conventional assumption, grounded less in facts than in establishment groupthink, that a no-deal Brexit was unthinkable. She did her best to drive home that assumption with Project Fear. But the more that no deal looks better than her bad deal, the more likely she is to lose — and the more likely a sharper and more independent Brexit (maybe a managed no deal leading to a Canada Plus deal) will emerge from the ruins of her policy.
May’s mistake was a simple one: She assumed her opponent had no real weapon when he turned out to be well-armed. She has probably lost as a result. Trump’s mistake is a lesser one: He picked a fight without first ensuring that his weapons were better than his opponent’s. He probably cannot win, but all is not lost. Trump can probably hold the Democrats to a draw this time, and thereafter learn from Margaret Thatcher, who when she found herself advised by ministers to fight a miners’ strike she was likely to lose in 1981, quietly surrendered and set about establishing the conditions in which she would fight again. That moment occurred four years later when the miners again challenged the government and conclusively lost a strike that lasted more than a year. That battle established her political dominance for a generation. Trump today is very far from doing that.
As Margaret Thatcher would never have put it: You don’t take knife to a gunfight, and you don’t take a knife to a knife fight either; you take a gun to a knife fight and even then you frisk everyone else on arrival.