The country will not tolerate having so much put at risk for a few jingoistic illusions
What next from the lords of misrule, the Tory hard Brexiters who seem to be enjoying playing party political games with our futures while the world looks on bemused, if not baffled? Day after day, they stumble on, deaf to warnings on every side and blind to hard, objective facts – that delusions and jingoistic illusions do not a plan make. How did we get here? Is this the best Britain can do? The four Brexiters charged with plotting our political, economic and cultural future – Theresa May, Boris Johnson, David Davis, Liam Fox – cheered on by an undistinguished group of backbenchers, could hardly have had a less impressive three months since triggering article 50.
Barely a news cycle passes without another deflating blow to their hard Brexit fantasy. Here is a report by the non-partisan Office for Budget Responsibility, warning that public finances are in worse shape than before the 2008 financial crash. Rising debt, plummeting tax revenues and funding cuts loom, rendered more difficult by Brexit uncertainties. And here is the National Audit Office, the UK’s spending watchdog, predicting a “horror show” if Britain leaves the EU customs union without its own fit-for-purpose customs system in place.
Next come figures from Eurostat showing Britain at the bottom of the 28-nation EU growth league, performing worse even than Greece. Consumers already know the truth of rising prices in the shops, attributable to a devaluing pound. Wage earners already feel the pain of falling real incomes and eroding living standards. Then there’s the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors, reporting declining house values and sales, a reversal of the natural order for generations of Britons who bank on property to bolster their financial security.
The Confederation of British Industry, not a body known for rabble-rousing, produces another cautionary tale. It is impossible, it says, that a credible trading relationship with the EU, from outside the single market, can be agreed by the deadline of March 2019. An open-ended transition is required. And no deal is not better than a bad deal. It’s worse than anything you can imagine. Then come two of Germany’s biggest industry organisations, including those supposedly all-powerful car makers, warning there will be no special treatment for Britain. Protecting the integrity of the 27-nation single market trumps concerns about falling exports. Pop goes another hard Brexit shibboleth.
But it isn’t just about how hard Brexit might affect Britain – it’s clear that it already has. See what Ucas says about foreign student applications: down by 25,000 or 4% year on year. The drop mirrors an even bigger decline in EU student applicants and in desperately needed foreign nurses. An NHS crippled by staff shortages? Higher fees for British university students? Japanese businesses moving to Europe? City jobs migrating to Frankfurt and Paris? A minimum wage economy spurned by our departing best and brightest? We are starting to get a glimpse of the hard Brexit future – it seems a very long way from the promise of £350m extra funding a week for the NHS.
Still, those responsible for these alternative facts of a year ago continue to treat the British public, and the European body politic, as fools. Not even the wake-up call of the election seems to have alerted them that they are being found out. No one more so than our foreign secretary. Boris Johnson, whose stock as a serious politician was never high, seems intent with each week to reduce it further. Last Wednesday, he said the EU can “go whistle” if it thinks Britain will pay for a divorce. But wait 24 hours and it transpires that the government has conceded it must agree a “fair settlement”. The EU is seeking upwards of €80bn. It is not in bargaining mood. Why should it be? It is adamant that cash must be forthcoming if tomorrow’s resumed negotiations in Brussels are to advance.
If our chief Brexiters are variously characterised by arrogance (Davis), weakness (May), buffoonery (Johnson) and irrelevance (Fox), then they are faced with a team led by the resolute and impressive Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator. In reply to Johnson’s juvenility, he said: “I am not hearing any whistling, just a clock ticking.” Barnier’s unflappable, intensely well-briefed, logical approach presents an uncomfortable contrast with the bar-stool bragging of David Davis. It is true that Brexit is not the only cause for worry over Britain’s future prosperity and security. Political uncertainty after last month’s inconclusive election is a factor. But for that, too, hard Brexiters must take the lion’s share of blame. May said the election was all about her Brexit agenda and demanded a national mandate. Instead, she was roundly rebuffed. Not that you’d notice.
Despite promises to change her ways, May shows little sign of grasping that the broader, consensual approach espoused by many in her party, and increasingly forcefully by Labour, is the only sensible way to go. Attempts to portray her bridge-burning, chaotic retreat from Europe as some kind of modern Dunkirk are fatuous. There is no armada of little ships this time around. No rescue is coming.
Remarks last week by Vince Cable, the incoming Liberal Democrat leader, expressing doubt that Brexit will ever actually happen, are not as fanciful as they might seem. The longer May sticks to her impractical, unbending and damaging course – rejecting the single market, the customs union, the European court of justice (ECJ), undiluted citizens rights and freedom of movement – the more likely it is that a Brexit deal in any shape or form will prove unobtainable. The closer the prospect that Britain will crash out of the EU without any agreement, the greater will be public and political resistance.
The Brexit polls are shifting. A big majority, eyeing the negative economic impact with deepening unease, favours a co-operative, cross-party approach. Confidence in May to get it right by herself has plunged since the election. There has been a slump in the proportion of people who believe the government is doing a good Brexit job – down from 40% in April to 22%, according to YouGov. Most people are resigned to Brexit (although the numbers favouring a second referendum on any final deal are rising). But the British instinct, as ever, is for fair-minded compromise. By rejecting compromise, May and the hard Tory Brexiters may ultimately ensure there is no Brexit at all. How deeply ironic that outcome would be.
Since the referendum turned hypothesis into impending fact, Brexit has become an extended lesson in home truths. It has turned into a self-examination and learning process, not only for the electorate, many of whom were misinformed or deliberately misled prior to last year’s referendum, but also for the British government and its institutions, the civil service and the political, business and media establishment as a whole. What is made clearer each day is a picture of incapacity, incompetence, self-deception, dishonesty, partisanship and harmful confusion. As Gus O’Donnell, former cabinet secretary and head of the civil service, writes in these pages today, the challenges are epic in scale and the work has not begun well.
Our European partners cry out with rising incredulity: what is it that Britain wants? What is crystal clear is what we in these columns have been saying for more than a year: there is no workable plan, no realistic, realisable vision and no way to deliver on the false dawns and fantasies conjured by the hard Brexiters. They have been making it up as they go along. Slowly but surely, they are being found out.
This is not to say that by March 2019, the country will not have come to a settled, collective view. As this learning process works its way through the national consciousness, it seems likely that the centre of gravity, in terms of public and political opinion, will come to rest on creating the closest possible relationship with Europe, compatible with the national interest, measured primarily in economic and human terms. Practically speaking, that could mean a Norway-style, European Economic Area-Efta deal, allowing access to the single market in return for broad acceptance of ECJ jurisdiction and freedom of movement principles.
Whatever the eventual outcome, it must and will not be that prescribed by May and the hard Brexiters. They need to understand one basic fact: the country will not tolerate its prosperity, its children’s futures and its standing in the world being continuously jeopardised by absurdly unrealistic negotiating positions, internal Tory party faction fights and the daily mounting evidence of blind incompetence. These people do a great disservice to Britain.