Off Britain goes, headlong downhill, off piste, our Eddie the Eagle Brexit negotiators tumbling down towards a great crevasse. Far from “taking back control”, as British Prime Minister Theresa May sent off the United kingdom’s suicide letter yesterday, Britain will abandon all control as it places itself at the mercy of the goodwill or otherwise of each of the 27 European Union (EU) member-states.
“We won, job done,” declared Douglas Carswell, and he’s right. The most extreme Brexiteers have so far won the day, light years distant from the softly reassuring arguments Vote Leave made before the referendum. Their promises are all broken already, as the United Kingdom Independence Pary (Ukip) wing of the Conservative party has captured the prime minister.
Remember how they started out and look where they have dragged Britain now. Before the referendum, they said Britain would stay in the single market and customs union. Afterwards, David Davis, Britain’s Brexit Secretary, promised the Commons the “exact same benefits” as Britain enjoys now. Next it changed to “access”, but without cost or barriers. Then it slid to a formal trade agreement, like Canada, though that doesn’t approach Britain’s current trading terms. Now the fanatics go much further, normalising the notion of no deal at all, with May’s shocking new mantra “no deal is better than a bad deal”. That’s “perfectly OK”, according to Boris Johnson, Britain’s Foreign Secretary, and “not harmful” according to Davis, despite shrieks of horror from business, farming, finance, the National Health Service and just about everyone except Europhobic zealots. Not even Ukip said “No deal” before June 23, 2016, the day of the Brexit referendum, so the “will of the people” was hijacked — and many will regret it, unless May changes course.
Unless she escapes the Brextremist grip there will be neither cake, nor eating it, as the Institute for Fiscal Studies warns the single market is worth 4 per cent of Britain’s gross domestic product. As day after day more companies signal plans to disinvest or move staff, I called one Confederation of British Industry company at random, knowing nothing about their business. Microlase, it turns out, employs 428 and sells software for transport fleets, among them DHL and JCB, importing and exporting to the EU. They have now set up a subsidiary to move some staff and their headquarters to Paris to stay in the single market: France will take the £6 million (Dh27.50 million) a year in tax that now goes to the UK exchequer. That’s just one example.
Voters motivated by their views on immigration will feel the most betrayed now. Davis’s pre-referendum promise to cut it to “almost zero” has become immigration continuing for years and years. Besides, an Indian trade deal will require more visas, though India takes just 1.7 per cent of Britain’s exports. Liam Fox billows out imperial, free-trade fantasy, but as Labour’s Keir Starmer pointed out last Sunday, Australia takes just 1.7 per cent of Britain’s exports, Canada 1.2 per cent and New Zealand 0.2 per cent. The old empire can’t replace its 44 per cent of EU exports.
Reality bites from this week. The broken promises may dawn gradually on Brexit voters as local jobs begin to move abroad, prices rise faster, but Polish shops don’t close. What was it all for?
Let’s relish watching some Brexiteers confront their own dishonesty. Take Mark Reckless, briefly a Ukip MP, now Ukip member of the Welsh assembly, chairing its rural affairs committee. Last week, he had a pleasingly rude awakening: “We have heard clear evidence that access to the single market, continuation of financial support and assurances over migrant labour are critical priorities.” Yes, indeed, and many more Welsh Leavers may wake to the same reality as they face losing grants and farming subsidies: 66.9 per cent of Welsh exports go to the EU.
Davis faces similar uncomfortable truths, finding he can’t spin straw into gold after all. The National Audit Office warned last week that his department has failed to hire enough staff for the gargantuan “great repeal bill”, with its 15 acts of parliament and — unless MPs rebel — its mighty Henry VIII powers to keep or eject thousands of EU laws and regulations as takes their fancy. Laugh or weep, but the Mail Online reports Davis is “shocked by the complexity of the task and by the shortage of skilled staff available”.
Some see a sober pragmatism creeping up on Davis. But fanatics and opportunists of the Boris stamp will just deny and lie: Remember the more than 84 Tory MPs who voted for Andrea Leadsom as prime minister, the same ones now bullying the BBC for “bias”, trying to silence reporting on Brexit’s ill-effects. So far the BBC has seen them off robustly — but this is just the start. The question for May is when will she stand up to her lunatic fringe. So far she has been their follower, not a leader of her party — let alone of the country where 48 per cent didn’t vote to leave and many who did will be angry to find a brutal Brexit impoverishing them.
Consensus is not her way. On Monday May was in Scotland, arguing for the “unstoppable force” of a “better together” UK. But every word in defence of that union rang hollow, as all she said applies with equal force to the EU she herself is breaking.
Starmer has at last brought Labour to a strong stand on this, the most critical question of our era. Using the government’s own abandoned pledges, his six tough tests for a Brexit agreement would see Labour withhold support from any deal that doesn’t offer Davis’s “exact same benefits” as we have now, along with human rights, working rights and “fair migration”. In the next two years, when every negotiating twist and turn has Brextremists crying betrayal at any compromise, there will be a firm and coherent opposition stance from Labour.
The battle line is drawn between car-crash Brexit and Starmer’s vision of a close partnership of neighbours. Labour’s leadership shows scant interest: John MacDonnell was at a national Momentum rally in Birmingham last week, where the talk was all of rule changes to capture Labour for the Left. So he and Momentum missed last Sunday’s march, marking the EU’s 60th birthday — and Britain’s tragic Article 50 departure. It’s not really on their radar.
The sun shone, thousands marched with home-made placards, some singing Ode to Joy, others All You Need Is Love. “I’m British, on a march, things must be bad,” and “Oh to be in Europe, now that Trump is here,” set the placards’ gentle, elegiac tone. But the best one was this: “Hard Brexit? You were only supposed to blow the bloody doors off.”
— Guardian News & Media Ltd
Polly Toynbee is a columnist for the Guardian.