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Wednesday 13 November 2019

general election 2019

What really matters

Whoever wakes up running the UK on 13 December will have to deliver more than just Brexit. Here’s a primer on the questions that they – and we – really face

Even if Britain weren’t leaving the European Union, we would have stark choices to make, and problems to consider. The “big five” themes that shape our coverage at Tortoise – The 100-year Life, New Things, Our Planet, Belonging, and Wealth – have not taken a break from remoulding the country.

This is a five-part primer – one part for each of Tortoise’s themes – to help us have an election that matches the magnitude of the questions that Britain is facing. We don’t want a Brexit-dominated election to become a Brexit-only election.

The same goes for the rest of our election coverage, in which we’ll put listening ahead of shouting, explaining ahead of opining, and our members ahead of suited politicians, always. It will include:

  • ThinkIns. We’re setting off on a five-week ThinkIn tour of six swing constituencies, plus a weekly election ThinkIn here in the newsroom. They’re all open for booking now – come along if you can. They’re open to non-members too, so do let friends and family in those local areas know they’re welcome to join us.
  • Podcast. Each Saturday, we’ll publish a dedicated election podcast. Ideal for those of you who need a distraction – cooking, running, driving – to take the edge off while you absorb the implications of political shenanigans.
  • Emails. We’ll decode the latest developments in brief, as you’d expect, in your regular daily Sensemaker. In addition, if you want it, Matt d’Ancona and Chris Cook’s analysis of the week will land in your inbox on Sunday evening. If you’re one of those people who can’t get enough of this stuff, it will be brilliant. If you’re not, just hit the unsubscribe link at the bottom.
  • Members’ election diaries. A number of brave Tortoise members, from all across the country and the political spectrum, will share how they’re feeling about the campaign.

What’s on your mind? What matters to you this election? What’s missing from the campaign so far? You ask the questions, we’ll do our best to find the answers. Let us know what you’re thinking. Write to Members’ Editor, Liz Moseley, on liz@tortoisemedia.com.

Leave or Remain?

First, though, let’s get it out of the way: Brexit will dominate this election. If there is a reasonable Tory majority, it will mean that the United Kingdom leaves the European Union in January under the terms of Boris Johnson’s Withdrawal Agreement.

This, indeed, is the central Tory case to voters. They are running a campaign predicated on the idea that they need votes to complete the job.

But “get Brexit done” is a lie.

After we leave the EU, we will enter a transition period. As things stand, we will, de facto, be in the EU (albeit with no voting rights) until December 2020.

We need to negotiate a free trade agreement (FTA) by the end of the transition. If not, Great Britain will crash out of the EU at that moment – leaving Northern Ireland behind, effectively still in the EU.

This, in fact, is the future for Northern Ireland under the Irish border arrangements contained within Johnson’s Withdrawal Agreement, whatever happens. It will basically remain in the European Union, as far as border traffic is concerned.

If we want to extend the transition to prevent a Great Britain No Deal, it needs to be done in July 2020, and the Conservatives have ruled that out. But this is a phenomenally short period of time for trade talks – especially as the UK has not actually discussed what it wants in this FTA yet.

A major question we will face is about the so-called “level playing field” provisions. The EU will want to stop us undercutting its standards on, say, the environment or labour, if we are to have free access to its markets. But that is exactly what a lot of Tory MPs want.

It is not fully understood in public debate that an FTA, even one that eliminates all tariffs, requires masses of paperwork at the border – customs, VAT, security declarations and inspections, for a start. For lots of manufacturers with complex supply chains, that will be brutal. This is closer to No Deal than Theresa May’s compromise, which would have kept Great Britain in a customs union for the foreseeable future.

The best-case scenario for an orderly departure is that we agree some sort of transitional bare-bones deal, with a commitment to fleshing parts out later. Be clear about what this means. Far from feeling like an ending in 2020, it will feel like we are in permanent negotiation with the EU. Brexit will never end.

But what happens if the Tories don’t get a majority in the election? After the Lib Dem meltdown in 2015, and the betrayal of the DUP since 2017, which damned fool would prop them up?

I put this question to a Tory peer, who looked puzzled at me: “The Lib Dems, of course? Like a rat up a drainpipe.” We’ll see. It is conceivable that the Tories are the largest party, but are unable to govern because no one will join them.

In that event, some sort of caretaker coalition might be built to implement a second Brexit referendum. But give up on any hope of actually getting anything else done.

It is possible, of course, that Labour will win enough seats to govern in a coalition. Their preferred option is a very close relationship with the EU, confirmed by a second referendum. But if they do not win a majority, how do they build a government? The Lib Dems are sworn not to support Jeremy Corbyn. A Labour coalition with just the SNP probably kills Labour stone dead in Scotland: Labour would be officially neither unionist nor nationalist.

It is also possible that Labour could win a majority. In that case, they would negotiate something similar to the Theresa May deal – basically, a customs union with the EU – and then put it to another referendum.

Meanwhile, if the Lib Dems win a majority, they would revoke Article 50 and end Brexit. From here, neither outcome looks enormously likely. The two proposals have the benefit of concision and simplicity, though.

The future of the Union

Unionism is going through a crisis, in large part because the Scottish National Party continues to dominate politics in Holyrood. One of the most important issues that will emerge from this campaign is about momentum. Does Nicola Sturgeon, the first minister of Scotland, have the political oomph to force a second referendum on independence?

There are two clear routes to that.

First, the SNP do well at this election, and then try to make it impossible for London to refuse permission to hold a poll. They are in a hurry: the SNP fears that the trial of Alex Salmond next year will, whatever happens, tarnish the party. London will want to try to force a delay until after 2021, the next Holyrood election.

The second route is via a non-Tory coalition government, where the price of SNP votes is a new independence referendum.

In Northern Ireland, the fierce unionists of the DUP hold 10 of the 18 seats. It expects a dismal time: it supported a Tory government that had negotiated a Withdrawal Agreement which would put a trade border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. It will lose seats.

It is wholly possible that there will be no unionist MPs in Belfast – a fall of the Protestant citadel. As symbols of the crisis in unionism, it would be hard to beat. But we should all be worried: Northern Ireland’s fragile institutions may not be reparable.

Illustrations by Waldemar Stepien

To read Part 2 of this primer – Our Planet – click here.

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