Risk, aggression, Brexit and Article 16

ADVICE TO TORY MPS: TRIGGERING A16 WOULD BE ANOTHER TROLLEY DISASTER

IGNORE IF UNINTERESTED IN BREXIT

‘It doesn’t matter what colour the cat is, if the cat catches the mouse it’s a good cat’

Summary

There is a tough strategy involving A16 that could work if executed by the right team. The conditions for it to work do not exist. I do not want this government to trigger Article 16. The PM is incapable of handling it. If he does it’s bound to be a debacle that damages the economy and relations with allies. The best we can reasonably hope for given the state of No10 is to bank the EU’s concessions, muddle through for now, focus on replacing the broken trolley (PM), and return to it when he’s gone.

If you’re inside the system and want Brexit to work, you should not pressure the trolley to trigger Article 16. Instead you should pressure No10 to help the Treasury and the semi-dissident network of officials who spent so much time in 2020 on serious work on growth: productivity, skills, R&D, science and technology, deregulation (e.g planning reform), the startup/university/VC ecosystem, public service incentive reform and the Whitehall changes needed to acclerate dramatically…

(‘Dissident’ in the sense that despite much of senior Whitehall (the worst part of Whitehall) and most of Parliament, there is a network of officials/spads who do really want to improve things and will even risk their careers to make progress. They rallied behind much of our reform agenda in 2020 but they obviously have seen all energy on this collapse in No10 as the PM reoriented No10 to mere Media Entertainment Service. Although the trolley has irreversibly squandered most of the opportunities that our success in 2019 brought, it’s still possible to salvage some things — not the hardest things — from this wreckage.)

Media commentary suggesting that David Frost has already decided to trigger Article 16 is as accurate as media comment on Brexit usually is — i.e inventions. This issue has NOT been decided. If you are a Tory MP looking at the chaos around you created by the trolley, you got to ask yourself a key question? Do you feel lucky? Is someone capable of such awesome uselessness on Owen Paterson remotely capable of handling A16 and months/years of consequences? A PM too busy to read the report but not too busy for dinner with his old journalist mates and his ‘real boss’ (i.e Telegraph management who will be paying him large amounts after he’s booted out of No10 in disgrace)? Not even the tiny circle of people who’d describe themselves as his closest allies think so. Is a No10 riven by internal feuding and court poisonings able to control him or figure out and stick to a serious path? You’ve seen the answer to this.

You should not let your career hit more such unnecessary landmines — tell the whips over the next 72 hours in no uncertain terms, NO ARTICLE 16, INSTEAD THE PM MUST APPOINT SOMEONE SERIOUS TO GRIP HIS OFFICE AND ACTUALLY WORK WITH HMT ON A GROWTH AGENDA.

I advised you to act before he broke the manifesto promise on tax. You didn’t. You should have and will regret this for many years. Don’t let the trolley smash again.

What is likely to happen if the 🛒 triggers Article 16?

It will be a combination of:

  1. A diplomatic mess and relations with allies damaged further. The PM will also send out spads to brief hostile pieces on France etc, partly to distract attention from his disastrous handling of corruption and other problems.

  2. Economic harm particularly to small businesses already struggling partly because of No10’s abandonment of serious deregulation and other necessary measures to improve growth and productivity.

  3. Brussels will call his bluff and he will characteristically collapse, as he nearly did December 2020.

  4. The UK will be in a worse position.

  5. It will be harder for a new PM to solve the problems.

Why?

Remember, in 2020 we had to keep the PM out of the negotiations as much as possible. He didn’t understand them. He wouldn’t read the papers. He constantly shifted positions, sometimes urging maximum aggression then suddenly collapsing. We’d had to deal with this in 2019, though the problem was much smaller then and we had much more grip of him because he and Carrie were frightened of immediate collapse and his removal. After the election, the deep state and my team worked together to keep the trolley bouncing between relatively narrow rails.

It wasn’t until 25 September 2020*** that he finally understood even vaguely what leaving the Customs Union meant. I will never forget the look on his face when, after listening to Frost in a meeting** on the final stage of the negotiation, he said, ‘No no no Frosty, fuck this, what happens with a deal?’ And Frost looked up from his paper and said, ‘PM, this is what happens with a deal, that’s what leaving the Customs Union means.’ The PM’s face was priceless. He sat back in his chair and looked around the room with appalled disbelief and shook his head. Horrified officials’ phones pinged around the Cabinet table. One very senior official texted me, ‘Now I realise how you managed to get Brexit done 😂’. As Hunter S Thompson said, humour in politics is usually dark.

Remember, in December 2020 Frost/Lewis suddenly had to make concessions (including fish) because the PM collapsed at the final moment after all his tough talk. The tough, formidable Steph Riso was 100x more able than Barnier. Because the political media focuses on arrogant blowhard men instead of tough women, Westminster has a skewed impression of the key players. She realised his weaknesses and said to our negotiating team at the crunch point: I know you are not bluffing but we all know your Prime Minister is weak, he is bluffing, he will collapse, you should take this deal.

Our team did indeed know this and after talking to the trolley again they did the deal. He had already made various disastrous phone calls that had alerted people to his panic, an international version of the familiar domestic Whatsapp trolleying. (Fortunately for us Barnier was in charge not Riso.)

The PM now does not have the team to pull this off and keep the trolley from smashing. No10 senior staff such as Rosenfield and Newman do not believe in a tough approach. They will not back it. If it is begun they will work to ditch it, trooping in the lawyers when Frost is absent to suck their teeth and say ‘sorry PM but … international law … no choice … here’s a way out … no, it’s not surrender… just sign this off… yes we’ll get a call in with Frosty later, he’ll be supportive…’ Everybody around the Cabinet Office knows this. Nobody is keen on this PM making an aggressive move because they know how it will end.

Also No10 spads have split into hunter-gatherer packs in a war of all-against-all and are briefing against each other, with all the non-Carrie factions terrified of Newman briefing and having them fired. And the newly re-appointed Gazza hates the Carrie-Newman faction and the Rosenfield faction and is trying to get both Rosenfield and Newman fired. (Also remember, Boris-Self-Aware Mode never forgets that Newman was at Gove’s house the night of the Long Knife. Newman is there because Carrie wants him, not because he wants him.)

What is the best practical path?

The best outcome now is we muddle on until this PM is replaced, hopefully making progress in a messy low-key way on the ground, and let the next PM sort it out properly. An overly Cartesian and/or lawyerly approach is fatal in such messy circumstances where violence is a factor. We need people on the ground taking a very flexible, European, Greek, attitude to enforcement of some regulations for a while. It is far more important to undermine those pushing for violence than it is to uphold EU regulations regardless of the international treaty we agreed. But it’s foolish to rub Brussels and France noses in it. The border in Ireland is messy and is doomed to stay messy for many years. The deal we signed is ambiguous enough to allow very wide interpretation.

We partly stick to the deal, partly ‘bend’ it on the ground but without making a fuss. Like the Greeks do with EU laws every day. And we wait… If Brussels and France want to blow everything up because it’s messy, and they want to make the argument that total, Cartesian, ECJ standards are more important than peace, let them. I think that most in Europe are happy to focus elsewhere provided No10 does not force them to pay attention. As the stagnation and crises of the EU mount, and as it becomes increasingly clear that there is no Delors-like plan to revive the project, they will be less and less inclined to spend time on intractable Irish border issues. If we get our act together, our hand will be stronger in a few years.

Also in general in conflict the Bismarck principle is best: do not declare war, provoke your opponents to declare war and seize the moral high ground to isolate them. If the deal is to fall apart, then it should be handled such that relevant audiences including the White House think it’s Brussels/Paris that are being unreasonable. This delicate task is, obviously, far beyond the trolley.

Fundamentally, unless the UK folds the EU will have to decide between two paths: A) accept Ireland is messy and focus elsewhere because peace and terrorism mean you can’t treat this border like other Single Market borders, B) insist on a border between the island of Ireland and the Single Market. I think they’ll pick A but if they prefer B, we should make sure they get the blame not us.

Risk, aggression and politics

A crucial part of the art of being aggressive in politics is realistic calculation of likely gains/losses in different possible counterfactual futures.

I and Vote Leave are often attacked for being ‘too aggressive’ by people who we don’t think understand politics very well. We are sometimes more aggressive than normal in SW1 and we have made this work for us repeatedly against predictions because we know what we are doing and can rely on each other while other factions collapse under pressure.

We were never aggressive for its own sake. That’s counter-productive. We were more interested in finding ways to connect ourselves to sources of power and disconnect opponents, to find ways to expand our support, to win without fighting. We didn’t say ‘love Brexit’, we said ‘get Brexit done’. We connected ourselves to the NHS, a source of moral power. Contra the media story we worked well with much of the deep state as we had a joint interest in achieving certain goals, like fixing the rotten nuclear enterprise neglected by both parties for decades, and limiting trolley vandalism. We tried very hard to see the world as it is and avoid fooling ourselves.

And we never liked gambling with the trolley because you always knew he could collapse any second in response to a random text from Carrie or the Telegraph. In 2019 he, and crucially Carrie, lived in constant fear of him breaking the record for fewest days as PM. This meant we had a much stronger grip on him and made gambles less risky. E.g The calculated gamble of briefing Forsyth about the likely collapse of negotiations was rational and worked as Frost and I intended, as our later discussions with Ireland and Commission proved. This changed the second the exit poll dropped 2200 on election day.

Calculated aggression was rational in autumn 2019. It does not make sense now. The chances of success are far too low to make the gamble worthwhile. Even if I was still there with the old team, I would conclude the same.

A realistic calculation of the players and the risks suggests we are much better off banking the gains Frost has patiently made, improve the situation in Ireland with messy compromises and some looking the other way (ignoring lawyers who try to force the trolley to surrender rather than allow messy compromises), improve relations with allies where possible, and wait until the more important job is done — replacing the trolley and the dysfunctional court with a new serious government, against the resistance of the old rotten parties, that can handle this delicate situation with the finesse it needs.

Focus

To the extent you have influence over No10, you should use it to get him thinking: you promised huge changes in 2019, the Vote Leave team shoved you out on a stage on Friday 13th with People’s Government in huge letters to try to bounce the Tory Party into a new mindset (the last 10 days shows how much this is needed but how hard it is). But everything involving growth, productivity, skills, deregulation, tax simplification, helping startups, R&D, public service reform — Whitehall thinks all the energy on this has gone from the PM and No10. So what will your message be in 2024 when Labour says ‘time for a change unless you want 18 years of the same old Tories’?

The trolley only does things for himself. Arguments about ‘this is good for the country’ fall flat. Remember, when I got the Warner brothers into his study the morning of Saturday 14 March to explain why the ‘herd immunity by September’ strategy was a catastrophe and we needed to shift to Plan B, the killer argument wasn’t ‘think of the hundreds of thousands dead’, it was when I said to him, ‘If you do this they’ll march up the street in a few weeks and drag you out of here and you’ll be swinging from a fucking post.

THAT got his attention.

So if you want a growth agenda, put it in terms of how it will help him quieten the MPs and scrape through again in 2024 before he heads for the beach and another gig with ‘the real bosses’…

Pundits still don’t get the trolley

Pundits are bad at understanding Brexit and the trolley. One of the worst pundits on Brexit is Stephens of the FT. He cannot separate his emotions from analysis. Like so many he just thinks Brexit is stupid. I do not think Remain is stupid and this difference in attitude is one of the reasons our team has consistently understood SW1 but the opposite is not true.

He is babbling now that delays are because Frost has to wait for the trolley to decide on a negotiating path then he will follow it.

Totally wrong. Frost knows there will never be a moment he can say ‘the PM understands this and has decided on a clear plan so I know where we’re going’. This is not how the trolley works! A ‘decision’ is just how he’s feeling now. His appetites and fears can change in seconds — so can ‘decisions’. Sometimes hostile briefing in the Telegraph against a trolley decision yesterday is … from the trolley itself last night! Then to cover his tracks he demands leak inquiries! Behind the mask is always another mask…

From the beginning Frost has had to operate knowing the trolley can smash out of control any second while many who sit within 30 feet of him are actively undermining him and want him out the buiding. His job has been much, much harder than the ignorant sneerers like Stephens, so wrong so often but always so confident, realise. Having watched him closely he deserves enormous credit for his calm professionalism and achieving so much despite the horrific constraints.

Others claim he has already made up his mind on A16.

Wrong.

He has a plan for how a serious government could do A16. He understands the intricacies. He knows the EU’s weak spots. But he knows he is not part of a serious government. Therefore he is trying to figure out what is actually practically possible and best for the country given the state of No10 and how the trolley will inevitably smash back and forth.

Those pundits claiming it’s a political success to keep reviving Brexit to keep Labour off balance etc?

WRONG. We said we’d get Brexit done. The idea that arguing about IRELAND is what key voters want to see is so dumb only the usual suspect pundits could believe it.


PS Hypocrisy on second jobs

I see he is lecturing MPs on second jobs.

Back in January 2020, days after his return from holidays, I was already clutching my head at dealing with nonsense from Carrie’s wallpaper to his sabotaging of my plan to change the physical setup of No10 so it could function better in a crisis — blackly ironic given just a few weeks later we faced a historic crisis with a totally dysfunctional No10 setup. (He objected to change on the grounds that his new office did not have enough physical exits — he likes being able to escape his office without Outer Office knowing, hence also his creation of a special extra exit at the top of the No10 flat. Now he can walk out of his office into the Cabinet room then out those doors into the garden and away, without being spotted. This is why my second attempt to change the layout of No10 in summer 2020, after covid had brutally proved my arguments about No10’s inadequacies, gave the PM the Cabinet Secretary’s office, far grander than the PM’s and with multiple escape routes. This also failed…)

One morning in mid-January he called me into his study.

Dom, I want to run something by you. Do you think it’s OK if I spend a lot of time writing my Shakespeare book?

What do you mean?

This fucking divorce, very expensive. And this job. It’s like getting up every morning pulling a 747 down the runway. [Pause] I love writing, I love it, I want to write my Shakespeare book.

I think people expect you to be doing the PM’s job, I wouldn’t talk to people about this if I were you…

You get the idea. Within a month of the election he was bored with the PM job and wanted to get back to what he loves while shaking down the publishers for some extra cash. (In February as covid spread he was in Chevening writing about Shakespeare and messaging No10 that covid was ‘the new swine flu’ — though as I told MPs, we actually did not want him to stop his holiday as we thought he would return and tell everyone it was a hoax. Which of course is what he did when he returned at the end of February…)

So WTF is he doing having a go at MPs given all his own outside earnings — and attempted outside earnings and illegal secret donations, while he’s supposed to be pretending to be PM?!

He triggered the first discussions on his firing squad in August. These discussions have intensified across London. They will not stop until he has gone. At some point Self-Aware mode will kick in and surprise people but it won’t stave off the inevitable for long.


Further reading

How could Labour win?

Why breaking the manifesto promise on tax is a terrible blunder

What will happen when No10 get back to ‘normal politics’

Boris-Normal-Mode, Self-Aware-Mode and why we rolled the dice in 2019

** In original I put ‘phones-out meeting’ — correction, this was not a phones-out meeting, that was a couple of weeks earlier.

*** I originally wrote ‘October 2020’ but was texted by a participant to say ‘it was 25 September 2020, I have texts with XXX about it’.

I’ll make this post free later this afternoon and will experiment with this model — first look for subscribers then make most stuff free…

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