Richard North, 03/01/2020  
 


If you are leader of the opposition, if only for a short time, then the desire to oppose is understandable. But Mr Corbyn should understand that futile gestures, such as this hardly qualify as anything approaching effective opposition.

The man has tabled an amendment to the Withdrawal Bill, inserting a clause which will require the government to seek a two-year extension to the transition period unless, by mid-June, an agreement on the future trade relationship has been concluded.

This must then be ratified by both houses of parliament whence a government minister must "move a motion in the Commons for a shorter extension to the implementation period if EU representatives on the joint committee dealing with Brexit indicate they would agree to such an arrangement".

Yet, even Sky News – not famed for its perspicacity – readily acknowledges that the amendment is "doomed to fail" because of the Tory majority in the Commons. At best, all Labour can achieve is a short debate on the amendment, before it is ignominiously voted down.

But there are more reasons for considering this a crass move than just the certainty that it will fail. It is the unfortunate lot of opposition parties that their procedural moves will not usually succeed. That is the inevitable consequence of not having a majority.

A more important reason is that Corbyn does not seem to have realised that Johnson is set to conclude a future trade relationship with the EU, even if this is not finalised until the eleventh hour in December.

To demand that Johnson should effectively set a deadline for negotiations six months earlier is to invite derision. What Corbyn is setting out to do is to limit the negotiations to a period of something less than five months, thereby ensuring that whatever pitiful deal is on offer is even less than might have been achieved had the talks run on to December.

Thus, not only is Corbyn setting himself up to fail, he's slotting the ball into his own goal. Although he's framing this as an attempt to avoid a no-deal at the end of December, Johnson can rightly deride him for attempting to cut short the talks - with the consequence that we will get a worse deal than even the Tories had intended – or that he is intending to "block" Brexit by adding two years to the transition process. Either way, the leader of the opposition is on a loser.

Should Labour ever have any ambitions to replace the current government (and it is not obviously apparent that it does), then the only way it is going to succeed is if it first learns how to oppose. And this little gambit certainly gets Corbyn off to a poor start.

Mounting an effective opposition to a newly-elected government with a big majority is, under any conditions, a difficult and some will say miserable task. But tabling ill-considered "boomerang" motions – so-called because of the tendency to come back at the thrower - is not the way to go.

The best bet for Corbyn – and his successor, whoever he or she might be – on this occasion might be to obey the dictum of Napoleon: avoid interrupting your enemy when he is making a mistake.

Here, any opposition leader is not short of opportunities. In his approach to Brexit, Johnson is making not one but many mistakes, and of substantial proportions. All the leader of the opposition needs to do is to point this out, detailing the reasons why with as much clarity as he is able.

The point here is that truncating the transition period is not necessarily a mistake. Even if it was extended the full two years, the total period for negotiations is hardly long enough to conclude a comprehensive trade agreement, while conducting talks against a "sudden death" deadline is never a good idea.

If one accepts, therefore, that the current negotiations can only achieve an interim settlement, and the emphasis is on agreeing temporary arrangements to keep the show on the road, then one can argue that there is a certain amount of sense in cutting this phase short. But that only makes sense if there is an intention to start the next, substantive phase of the talks, the moment the transition period is over.

Where Johnson appears to be making the mistake is in expressing the belief that negotiations will end in December and he will walk away with a workable trade agreement, allowing him to claim that the deal as well as Brexit is "done", in order to move on to fresher fields. And if that is what he truly thinks, that is only his first mistake.

What has been scarcely discussed is the singular fact that, when the transition period ends, so do the 977 bilateral agreements the EU has made with the rest of the world. It is all very well talking of the 40 or so formal trade deals but there is much more to the EU's relationships than just trade deals.

So far, very little progress has been made on reforging those severed links and, for an unknown number of them, matters will need to be settled with the EU before any progress can be made. Johnson's team will have their work cut out with myriad negotiations which cannot even start until our relationship with the EU is much clearer. That he thinks he can complete them before the transition period is over is his second big mistake.

With that, the priority for an intelligent opposition – if there even is such a thing – should be to point out the flaws in the Johnson "strategy", loudly, frequently and with the utmost clarity. It should then have an alternative, better plan on offer, which it should seek to present on every possible occasion available, to everyone who will listen.

Apart from that, there are very few options open to opposition leaders. They must hold their nerve and wait for the government to engineer its own self-destruction, a status Cummings seems intent on expediting, without having to worry about "short-term unpopularity".

While there never was a period, ever, when the civil service would not have benefitted from a degree of reform, this strange man shows every sign of wanting to destroy the very instrument on which the government will depend for the execution of its policies.

Thus, if the Napoleon strategy requires players to bide their time, Cummings is making it very easy for the opposition to do its job. His determination to inflict the maximum amount of damage in the minimum amount of time means that the wait for results would not take long, especially if he manages to populate Whitehall with additional "weirdos" – apart from himself. The short-term may prove to be very short indeed.

Sadly, even with the gifts presented to him, Corbyn is showing himself to be less than astute when it comes to strategic appreciation. Moreover, this is a failing seemingly shared by the Labour leadership candidates so far declared.

None of them, to date, have demonstrated a sufficient understanding of the Brexit process that would enable them successfully to challenge the Johnson administration. Most of them would be out of their depth on Brexit, standing in a puddle.

From current and past form, all we can expect from the opposition is a series of futile gestures which leave the government unscathed. The government seems set to travel down the road to perdition, unaided and unchallenged by the traditional political system.

Mistakes, though, rarely go unpunished for long, and it is only a matter of time before the consequences of Johnson's errors become apparent. Yet, when they do, it looks as if the opposition will have played little part in bringing them to light.






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