To summarise: The United Kingdom government has negotiated a withdrawal deal with the European Union (EU), shaken on it, taken it to parliament, realised it hasn’t got enough support, and pulled the vote at the last minute, promising to seek assurances on the exact deal it has just negotiated. It’s mad, quite mad, and the maddest-looking person of all is the British prime minister, who told the Commons on Monday that while she is “clear” that this deal is super, she will now seek “clarity” on precisely what’s in it. What makes it so much worse is that this was predictable. Britain can see exactly what Theresa May has refused to confront for two years.
First, there is no national consensus. It’s noble to try to build one when you can, but Brexit is a binary choice: You’re either in the EU or out, and the Tories should’ve made a definite decision to back the 52 per cent who voted Leave. This is a point in our history that calls for visionary, partisan leadership, not appeals to “One Nation”, because we’re not one nation on this issue and never will be.
The prime minister’s failure to provide truly “clear” leadership is one of the reasons why, as Ken Clarke pointed out on Monday, the House is more divided now by faction than party and the larger faction favours some route to Remain (a second vote, permanent customs union). It was May’s mistakes and bad choices that led to her standing at the dispatch box before a House largely stacked against her, rambling on about clarity like a high-operating Scientologist. Conservatives: This is your prime minister. You elected her, you stood by her, and now you exist in the political mess she created.
Secondly, Britain has not woken up to the fact that Brexit involves a serious rupture that could well affect our daily lives. Since the referendum, politicians have gone on and on about why the country voted to leave the EU, with scant concern for how they’d do it or its consequences. Don’t blame the voters: We were told that whatever we decided to do, the government would get on and implement it, and it’s reasonable to assume that, if someone makes that kind of offer, they have an idea of how to do it.
Mix of mendacity and incompetence
Alas, the process was hijacked by a coalition of disaffected civil servants, Remainers and a PM chasing her fantasy national consensus, which she imagined centred on keeping more immigrants out. The Tories insisted that a bad deal would be worse than no deal, but through a mix of mendacity and incompetence, they came back from Brussels with a bad deal none the less — while making almost no preparation for a no-deal alternative scenario.
This latter scenario was scandalous. It totally undercut the UK’s negotiating position because it meant that Britain could never walk away from the table. The UK could have flounced off, to some degree, if it had been willing to join the European Economic Area (aka the Norway option), but that wouldn’t end free movement so it was dismissed as a strategy. Leaving Britain with what? Committed to a withdrawal deal even as said deal got worse, parliament turned decisively against it, and no-deal has begun to emerge as a serious possibility from this farce. In which case, the failure to invest money in a no-deal outcome isn’t just short-sighted: It’s borderline criminal negligence.
When you leave a massive political trading bloc that you’ve been in for 40-odd years, it’s going to hurt. Suddenly you’re in control of your own rules; checks might appear, tariffs hit; there’s a land border where it hardly looked like there was one for a long time. It’s tough, it’s daunting, but that’s the choice the British people made in 2016 — and didn’t the Remain campaign warn us that all of this would happen? Sometimes in the history of nations, people decide they want to do something and, regardless of the pain, they make the sacrifices necessary to accomplish it. They spend the money to go to the Moon, they shed the blood to win a war — they don’t deny the facts, but they do seek to change them.
Why, for example, has Britain not challenged the orthodoxy surrounding a hard Irish border? It is pure speculation that barbed wire and dogs will appear: Who will enforce this? How has Britain’s policy been dictated by fear of something everyone insists they don’t want and are committed to preventing? The answer is a weak negotiating strategy based upon strolling out the clock in the hope that eventually both sides will sign off on something that looks as much like EU membership as possible.
On Monday, May tried to buy herself even more time by delaying the vote and promising to perform an acrobatic contradiction: She will improve the withdrawal deal without rewriting it. On how she would do this she was unclear. The Eurocrats will shake their heads in despair and dismay, and all I can say is that Britons are just as confused as you are.
— The Telegraph Group Limited, London, 2018
Tim Stanley is a noted British journalist and historian.