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An act of madness that has no parallel in peacetime

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Geraint Talfan Davies

Geraint Talfan Davies is Chair of Wales for Europe and author of Unfinished Business, Journal of an Embattled European. Parthian Books.

There is a phrase that is apposite for these times that I hesitate to use only because, despite its classical origins, it is associated too often with Enoch Powell’s infamous ‘rivers of blood’ speech in 1968. But in the country’s present predicament it is unavoidable: “Those whom the gods wish to destroy, they first make mad.” 

By the time you read this we will have less than 760 hours to go to the end of the Article 50 period – 11pm, 29 March 2019 – at which point, barring urgent and rational redirection, we will fall out of the European Union into a cold and lonely world where the consequences, however you assess them, will be starkly negative. To do so will be an act of madness that has no parallel in our peacetime history.

By the time of Mrs May’s endlessly postponed meaningful vote on March 12, the number of hours remaining will be less than 400.  This would hardly suffice if we were merely reforming dog licences, but when the livelihoods of millions, the future of our industrial base and good order in society are all at stake it represents a level of culpable negligence that in any other circumstance would dictate a resignation.   

Faced with a kaleidoscope of opposition and scepticism, not to mention the mountain of Brexit related legislation that is yet untouched, Mrs May seems to have acknowledged the likelihood of another defeat, by accepting the inevitability of two other votes, immediately following: first, on whether to take ‘no deal’ off the table and, second, on whether to extend the Article 50 period beyond March.

In order to disguise even this small dent in her armour-plated inflexibility, she is still insisting that any extension to Article 50 should be short, and that ‘no deal’ should remain on the table during that extension. This makes Alice’s Wonderland look like a model of rational existence.

In short, we are led – for want of a more accurate word – by an intransigent Prime Minister, knowingly prepared to relegate the national interest to the doomed pursuit of her party’s unity, voluntarily shackled both to a band of free-market ideologues and to timescales that bear no relationship to our country’s readiness, either democratic or organisational, to deal with the consequences.

She presides over a divided country, a divided Parliament and her own divided government. Three of her senior Cabinet ministers, mindful of what is at stake, rightly put collective Cabinet responsibility to one side in order to warn us all. Another three ministers followed suit yesterday. Even so, they are merely the tip of an iceberg of concern. 

On the other side of the house, we are told Jeremy Corbyn has seen the light on the question of a new referendum. Let us hope it is not the light of a flickering match. He has much to live down.

For the past two years, he has been unable to declare his own true convictions honestly. Instead, the country has been asked to make do with contrived ambiguities, insincere policy initiatives, and a tactical dance that has led some of his own troops to despair and to head for the exit. 

Those troops in Wales have cause to be doubly disconcerted both by these events and by the latest ITV Wales poll that records a sharp 8-point drop in Labour’s support here, at the very point when Wales is turning decisively towards remaining in the EU. It’s now 55%-45% in favour of Remain.

And yet, Mr Corbyn made very little of this new commitment to a “confirmatory vote” on any new deal, and did not repeat on the floor of the House the pledge to have Remain on any ballot paper.  The previous evening, the party’s permanent Ambassador to Newsnight, Barry Gardiner MP, could scarce bring himself to refer to referendum commitment at all, his face as if indicating the presence of stinking fish.

Mrs May would dearly love to engineer a situation where Parliament is powerless to stop her non-stop conveyor belt to kingdom come. But far from turning a deaf ear to the ticking clock, every tic-toc is for her a cause for relief, not alarm. At the same time, she is no doubt taking quiet satisfaction from the absence of Big Ben’s warning bongs. 

By now who can possibly argue that this is in the national interest? Project reality is biting. A growing number of businesses are either relocating operations or their headquarters to other countries in the EU.

Japanese businesses – businesses that for decades showered Britain, and Wales in particular, with investment, because we were in the EU – are now bidding us farewell, albeit with traditionally courteous euphemisms. 

Until 2017 the UK had been the second biggest investment destination for Japanese business after the USA. But already we know that the European headquarters for Sony and Panasonic, both with plants in Wales, will henceforth be on the other side of the English Channel. And make no mistake, the bad news from Nissan and Honda – the latter with repercussions for Kasai in Merthyr – will not be the last.

Let us also not forget that there are 150 companies in the automotive sector in Wales, employing 18,000 people and until recently generating £3 billion annually. Component manufacturer Schaeffler, that has announced the closure of its Llanelli plant with the loss of 220 jobs, has given us an ominous sign. It has been here for 61 years.

This emerging pattern seems not to disturb Mrs May’s one-eyed approach one jot. Yesterday also saw the publication of more impact studies on crashing out of the EU. The government remains determined to devote more money and planning to preparations for handling what increasingly looks like an impending civil emergency, than to prevent it happening.

During talks in Sharm el-Sheikh, when Mrs May must surely have felt like an embarrassing aunt who has turned up uninvited at a family party, Europe’s President Donald Tusk said that an extension of the Article 50 period beyond 29 March seemed to him a rational decision. Mrs May disagreed, although 24 hours later she has had to relent.

But what sort of rational government thinks it is sensible NOT to rule out a ‘no deal’ scenario that, by its own admission, would require the government to declare a “critical incident” and to start operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week in a “command and control” mode – in peacetime.

Is it rational to employ an extra 4,000 civil servants, with another 5,000 on standby, not to mention putting 3,500 service personnel on standby, not in order to cope with a natural disaster or an invasion but merely to implement a policy option?

Deep down Mrs May must know that this is not rational. But if so, it simply gives credence to Michael Heseltine’s view that it has been rather an attempt at national blackmail, one recourse in a repertoire of dishonourable actions: blackmail of the population, bribery of the DUP and bungs for selected Leave constituencies.

The nation as a whole, including Parliament itself, needs time to recover some poise and perspective. That is why ‘no deal’ has to be taken off the table – preferably today, but no later than March 13 – and why the extension of the Article 50 period needs to provide time and space for some quiet rational thinking and be long enough to accommodate a new vote by the whole electorate.