We have all seen the action movies in which a life-or-death struggle takes place on top of a moving train rapidly heading for a tunnel. British politics now unfortunately resembles such a scene: The tussles and arm-wrestling over Brexit intensify even as exit day, March 29, 2019, looms. And just like in a movie, the train is non-stop to a fixed destination, and it would be unwise to choose this moment to change the driver.
Britain’s exit from the European Union (EU) will go ahead unless there is overwhelming public demand to prevent it, and the Conservative Party is stuck with the outcome of last year’s election that gives huge power to any small cabal of members of parliament. They cannot return to the country for another new parliament, and any effort to bring in a new prime minister could quite easily derail government, party and Brexit all in one go.
There is thus little choice for ministers except, in the famous Winston Churchill phrase, to ‘keep buggering on’. But fixed as they are in government, in a minority, and in a formidably difficult and complex situation with the time running short, what exactly could they do to improve matters? They need to start, of course, by coming to an agreed position on what trading relationship with the EU they are seeking.
That does not mean declaring their stance on every point and detail. British Prime Minister Theresa May played a difficult hand well last autumn by deciding and revealing her goals in stages — if she had spelt out in August exactly what she would sign up to in the interim deal in December, both the EU and many in her own party would have rejected it. Proceeding with some ambiguity and a good deal of caution is the only way she can deliver a reasonable outcome.
Nevertheless, there comes a time every few months to move the argument on with a clear statement of intent, as she did with the Florence speech last September. The Cabinet should be able to agree on wanting free trade with zero tariffs in goods, with a willingness to keep our standards aligned with the EU. They could propose a system of mutual recognition or equivalence in financial and other services, but prepare a globally competitive model of regulation if Brussels doesn’t want that deal. They could agree on diverging from the EU as soon as possible in agricultural and fishing policy. The most difficult decision for them is what they are seeking on customs arrangements.
On this, the government and the whole process could stand or fall. They face a Labour opposition whose only uniting motive on Brexit is to bring down the Tories, and who can see in the tensions over this issue the opportunity to force a potentially fatal wedge between ministers and a crucial minority of Conservative MPs. Given that remaining in a customs union has again been ruled out — and there is no conceivable way of delivering Brexit politically without that reaffirmed decision — the ministers need to focus on what streamlined and efficient system can do three things: Work in practice, including in trade with Ireland; convince the most pro-EU Conservatives that it is sufficient; and appeal to countries like the Netherlands who export much of their trade to Britain.
If they cannot propose an idea that ticks those three boxes, they will be in a very deep hole. If they can, every Conservative MP should get behind it (OK, we all know Ken Clarke is a special case) to prevent the European Commission pursuing a divide and destroy strategy, were it so recklessly minded, towards May’s administration. If ministers emerged from their conclave last week with some such approach they will have a viable policy for the next round of talks.
At the same time, there are other things they can do to avoid more of the unnecessary rows and dramas of recent weeks. The first is very simple: The key ministers involved should be meeting every working day to discuss the issues, understand each other’s views and deal with immediate controversies. They would do that if Britain was fighting a war, and they are now in the peacetime political equivalent. They would then be less likely to misunderstand and apparently contradict each other, whether in Sunday morning interviews or at Davos.
Next, they should make a positive virtue of parliamentary scrutiny, such as over the ‘Henry VIII’ powers to amend laws during Brexit now being debated in the House of Lords. A reluctance after the referendum to put Article 50 to a vote straight away led to them being dragged through the Supreme Court and overruled. The more accommodating approach since then is worth fortifying — one of the upsides of Brexit can be strengthening the accountability of governments and lawmaking to parliament. Connected to that is being more relaxed about the publication or sharing of forecasts and analyses. It is hardly a surprise that most economists say there is a cost to the UK from leaving the EU, since that’s what they’ve always said. If such work contains information useful to the Brussels team of negotiators it should be stamped “secret” and kept to a close circle at the top of Government. If it doesn’t, let people see it.
Finally, there is the need to present an optimistic picture of the future. It is extremely difficult to get any positive message through to the world when there is so much argument going on about the immediate situation, as all of us who have ever led a political party know. Yet, there should at least be a clear script for every minister to speak from: Funding for technology company start-ups in the UK far outstripping any other country in Europe; British universities excelling and demand to come to them from abroad rising; the future belonging to those nations and cities that are places for innovation and this being much more crucial than being in or out of the EU.
My former colleagues in the Cabinet are fully capable of all this. In recent months, they have, somewhat against the odds, delivered a good budget, negotiated a sensible first deal with the EU and got their Withdrawal Bill through the Commons with only one defeat. Now, if they can shut down distractions, decide on a customs plan, and communicate an excitement about the future, they can get through that fast-approaching tunnel.
— The Telegraph Group Limited, London, 2018
William Hague is the former UK foreign secretary and a former leader of the Conservative Party.