Brexit: predictably chaotic, and predictably never likely to happen

global britain vision
Brexiteers present their youthful, joyous, diverse, multicultural and dynamic vision for the UK

The day-to-day politics of Brexit are wildly unpredictable and volatile. But the bigger picture is one that has long been predictable. Back in 2016, shortly after the referendum, I argued that Brexit was a long game that would result in Brexit not happening. Nothing since then has substantially altered my view. Theresa May, with uncharacteristic clarity, has outlined the three options that remain viable: her deal, no deal, and no Brexit. The very warm favourite has to be no Brexit.

May’s deal is simply a bad deal. This is not surprising, since there was never a good deal to be had—something that has been obvious since the referendum itself to anyone with reason and sense. The pursuit of a deal was always about mitigating the considerable downsides to leaving the EU; the idea that the UK could retain all the benefits of EU membership but none of the responsibilities and inconveniences was something the average child (if not the average Brexiteer) could understand was impossible. Those Brexiteers who maintained that it would be straightforward to secure a good deal are fantasists or stupid (or both).

The best negotiators in the world would have failed to succeed given the various incompatible goals of a good deal and the heavily disadvantageous negotiating context: frictionless trade; no hard border in Ireland; an end to free movement; holding the Union together; the ability to make independent trade deals; the high-wire parliamentary arithmetic; the uneven playing field of one country of 60 million people negotiating with a block of 27 countries of 450 million people.

And the UK ran the project of negotiating Brexit with all the skill, organization and experience of a losing team on The Apprentice. In addition to having no obvious negotiating plan, the UK seemed to treat Brexit as if it was hiring a sitcom cast rather than a team of crack negotiators: the doggedly unimaginative and incompetent Theresa May, the self-important Dominic Raab, extremist unicorn-chasers like Steve Baker and Suella Braverman, and (the crowning ignominy of it all) the delusional, workshy, inflated ego that is David Davis (in a fiercely competitive field, possibly the most overrated politician of our time). Passing mention also has to be made to the idiotically unhelpful contributions occasionally made by various senior figures, such as Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt.

Given all that, and given her own mantra that ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’, it’s a minor miracle that May reached any sort of draft agreement. Of course, her mantra was, like much of her Brexit rhetoric, simply fluff that she didn’t believe in. She was always going to cobble some sort of deal, because the alternative would have been a personal disaster. And so she has now pivoted, arguing that this is the best the UK can get (which is probably true), and that parliament should ratify it because the UK needs some sort of deal—all of which is just another way of saying that ‘a bad deal is better than no deal’. A further argument for her deal has been made: in its series of compromises, it is the deal that best reflects the 52:48 referendum divide. Superficially, this has some truth. But if a popular vote revealed a 52:48 split over whether the England football team should play in red or white, and it was decided that a pink strip was an acceptable compromise, then the outcome is one that satisfies nobody’s wishes. So it is with May’s deal.

This was always the likely outcome. It is tempting on all sides to point out May’s failings as prime minister—she is badly out of her depth in the role, and, for all her evident ability to cling on grimly to her position, she is an astonishingly limited leader, singularly incapable of building bridges and uniting factions (except, perhaps, against her). But I doubt a less incompetent prime minister would have achieved much more in the negotiations; although such a prime minister might have gone about things with less overpromising of success, less grandstanding about her toughness and resolve, and less spinelessness in the face of Brextremist demands, and with more imaginative and quiet exploration of how to bring together moderates to find solutions.

Parliament should refuse to ratify the deal, and in all likelihood that is what it will do. That will lead to a crisis—and how that will play out is uncertain (my best guess is that May will resign or be forced out, which will make for entertaining drama but resolve nothing). A parliamentary defeat of May’s deal will also simplify matters by removing from the table one of the three options (not least because there is no prospect of the EU renegotiating the deal), so that we will be left with two: no deal, or no Brexit.

Being left with those two options means that the choice will be between the only two coherent positions there have ever been on Brexit. May’s deal was always going to be incoherent, because it is manifestly worse than the current position of full membership of the EU, yet it also fails to deliver most of what the Brexiteers want. No Brexit (or Remain) is self-evidently rationally coherent, since it ensures the continuation of what has been a mutually beneficial and prosperous relationship that cannot be replicated in any other way. No deal (or hard Brexit) has little rational coherence, but it clearly has an emotional, perhaps even romantic, coherence: if you’re going to leave the EU, then, as Boris Johnson might say, ‘fuck business’ and sense, wax lyrical about independence and global Britain and believing in ourselves as a nation, dream of glories past and fantastic futures, and take a mad but exciting punt. It’s a crazy argument that will almost certainly lead to disaster, but I can see how it appeals to the dreamers who care little for facts or reality.

Although parliament has more than its share of dim and deranged members (how people like Philip Davies, Andrew Bridgen, Nadine Dorries and Andrea Jenkyn actually get elected is one of the great political mysteries of our age), it is almost inconceivable that, faced with the prospect of no deal, it will fail to act. A general election is unlikely—and it is even more unlikely that it would solve anything anyway. Renegotiating isn’t going to happen, and the EU will not extend Article 50—unless there is the prospect of a second referendum. Another referendum will be pretty much the only option left on the table to prevent a catastrophic hard Brexit. And since there is no majority among MPs for a hard Brexit, it is a referendum that they will, in effect, be forced to go for. Referendums are not a good way of conducting politics; but when the situation is such that the only viable way out of a problem is a referendum (and the gridlock in parliament is such that it is hard to see any other parliamentary solution), then needs must.

As a Remainer, I’ll be delighted with another referendum. It was always going to require another vote to reverse Brexit. And it was always likely that we’d have to stare into the abyss of a hard Brexit and realize how insane any sort of Brexit is before the nation as a whole would seriously begin thinking about how to pull back from the edge. Voting down May’s deal, despite the immediate prospect of no deal at all being in place, is therefore an acceptable risk. Of course, a second referendum may deliver another victory for Leave; and a victory for Remain is not suddenly going to end the divisions (but a referendum will not create divisions, it will simply reveal them). But for Remainers and Brexiteers alike, the political impasse is such that a referendum is the best chance for either to get the outcome they want.

Reversing Brexit was never going to be easy or risk-free; but for those willing to play the long game, it has always been doable. If Brexit was a two-legged football match, then we’d just be about to finish the first leg with the Brexiteers 1-0 up, having scored in the opening minute and, with increasing desperation, clung to their advantage since then. The second leg will begin soon, and for Remainers there is still all to play for.

 

The beginning of the end for Brexit?

As I write, David Davis has just resigned as Brexit secretary. This could be the beginning of a wild and wonderful week. It could play out in various ways, but it’s hard to see an outcome that serves Brexit well. We should, therefore, be thankful.

First, Davis. After repeatedly threatening to resign but never following through, he has finally done it. Although Michel Barnier may lament that the time he has spent negotiating with Davis this year is four hours he will never get back, it’s hard to imagine that anyone will truly miss Davis. He must rank as one of the most overrated politicians of our age. His specialisms are bluster, vacuous grandstanding and self-satisfaction. If Davis was the best the government could send to negotiate with the EU, then it was always a good bet the negotiations would get next to nowhere. His incompetence was never more exposed than when he repeatedly claimed that his department had conducted detailed sectoral analyses of the impact of Brexit, only for him to be rumbled when parliament requested to see these analyses. He stalled for as long as he could before eventually doing what any panicking student would do: he hastily cobbled together some analysis out of basic Internet research. It’s fair to ask several questions about this. Why, given he was in charge of delivering Brexit, had he not bothered doing any research on Brexit? Why did he persist in claiming that he had done some research when in fact he hadn’t? Did he not suppose that he might be found out eventually? And why, on the most important political issue in generations, was someone who behaved like a lazy, bullshitting student put in charge?

It would be surprising if more resignations do not follow (Steve Baker, another minister in Davis’s department, has also resigned). Boris Johnson must surely be giving serious thought to it. If there’s any chance that Theresa May’s government is about to collapse, then his own leadership ambitions will be finished if he hasn’t got out of that government in time. The best way to work out what Johnson will do is to consider various scenarios and assess what actions would be most likely to fulfil his ego-driven, self-serving quest to become prime minister. It’s not likely he will ever achieve that quest, but he certainly won’t resist a tilt—and this may well be his last chance.

A leadership contest is highly likely. The outcome of that is entirely unpredictable. My best guess is that May will cling on. The Conservative Party is so divided that it is hard to imagine a credible unity candidate. More likely is that it will split along soft/hard (pragmatic/fantasist) Brexit lines, and now that May has signalled a move towards soft Brexit, she may just about garner enough support to see off the challenge—the arithmetic probably favours a pragmatist or a soft Brexit candidate, which is what May will calculate and stand for. But she will be weakened even further, and whatever the outcome it is hard to see Tory divisions resolved any time soon.

All of this is good news for those of us who oppose Brexit. The rule of thumb here is that the weaker the government, the less likely is Brexit. The most pessimistic I have been since the referendum was when May called a general election: like most others, I assumed she would get a huge majority and be able to push through Brexit without any significant opposition. But the best night of politics in my life was that of the general election itself: the utterly unexpected disaster that May had brought upon herself made Brexit far less likely (almost my first thought when I saw the exit poll was that Brexit was finished). What we’ve been treated to since then is the hopeless (but often entertaining) psychodrama of the Tory party, which has ensured that little credible progress has been made on Brexit. Meanwhile, Remainers and the EU watch on, somewhat bemused, at the interminable Brexit game being played out in the Tory party, all the while patiently letting the Brexiteer unicorn-chasers vent until they shatter their own Brexit fantasies.

Of course, there are risks. It is hard to know what the EU will make of all this. Can meaningful negotiations take place with a government (and governing party) in a state of civil war? British politics is so unstable right now that it is hard to see how the EU can trust any negotiating position of the UK. And if agreement has to be reached within the next few months (and progress achieved almost immediately), how will this happen if the Tories are at war with themselves?

The prospect of no deal has, therefore, significantly increased. No deal is, of course, a disaster—and everyone, apart from the most lunatic Brexiteers, knows it. For that reason, if no deal is the likely outcome then there will be a crisis, which will probably lead to the fall of the government, and certainly will lead to an attempt at an emergency solution that avoids the cliff edge and the catastrophic economic and political turmoil that will follow. I suspect that the EU calculated this from the beginning (it was always an idiotic bluff of May to think that the EU would be worried by no deal—they knew, because it is obvious, that no deal is a vastly worse outcome for the UK1 than it is for the EU27). It may be (and this has always struck me as a sensible option) that Brexit is parked in a Norway option until such time (and it may be years or decades or forever) that the UK has sorted out its weird relationship to Europe. My guess is that general elections, and maybe even a second referendum, are far more likely to happen than Brexit being decided any time soon.

Fighting Brexit has always been a long game. I sensed this in the days immediately following the referendum. The point, of course, is that Brexit would be both a tragedy and a disaster, but fortunately one that was never going to be easy to achieve; however, the full scale of the near impossibility of Brexit, and its potentially calamitous effects, would only become fully apparent in time. It’s always been about patience and waiting for the Brexiteer position to implode. Along the way, we have been treated to the most incompetent government in modern British history—but the ride has been, at times, richly entertaining. And this coming week promises to be Brexit politics at its hilariously entertaining best. That said, the UK remains in an appalling political crisis with no end to it in sight.


UPDATE Originally, I mentioned that Suella Braverman had also resigned. Apparently she hasn’t. It’s hard to keep track of the government’s chaos.