Britain’s Brexit drama rolls on to wards a destination that nobody knows. Anything from a dropping out without a deal (notwithstanding MPs trying to vote away the possibility) to a further referendum looks feasible, none of the many options looks probable.
Earlier this week I visited a small food manufacturing business that exports about half of its products around the world, but mainly to EU countries. While orders remain healthy the business’s managers are utterly perplexed by the state the country has got itself into. They cannot plan for Brexit because they don’t know what form it will take. Exit itself is not such a big deal for them. There will be more paperwork for exports to EU countries, but that doesn’t stop them from exports to non-EU countries. The problem is that they don’t know what form the paperwork will take, and what arrangements to make for VAT, etc. Doubtless this doesn’t just affect exports to EU countries either, but also those to countries with which the Union has trade agreements. What they’re angry about is not the decision to leave (though they are exasperated by how ignorant people were at the time of the vote, and largely still are), but how we have backed ourselves into such a corner about our arrangements for international trade. They think that there is a real prospect of supermarket shelves going empty for a while after exit.
This has helped put things in perspective. If the scare stories about no-deal look overdone, the denials that problems will amount to anything much by hard Brexiteers look even less credible. Why would anybody take Ian Duncan Smith seriously after the Universal Credit fiasco after all? The whole thing is a horrible mess. Who amongst our politicians comes out of it well?
Few people seem to have a good word for the Prime Minister, Theresa May. This is mostly unfair. She lacks emotional intelligence and should surely have done a better job of consolidating support before she negotiated the “final” deal last year. If we are going to leave the EU without economic chaos, and exacerbated political problems in Northern Ireland, this is as good as it gets. Mrs May’s claim that it is as close as we can get to the zeitgeist of the 2016 referendum result is perfectly defensible. The deal takes the country out of the union. It gives the government a much freer hand to regulate immigration, and we are out of the agriculture and fisheries regimes. The Northern Ireland backstop is undoubtedly awkward, but it is a tackles a hard problem. I don’t think that most people in Britain or Northern Ireland mind it that much. So what if we are stuck in a Customs Union? That doesn’t seem to bother the Turks very much. People who rubbish the deal haven’t presented convincing alternatives. The “Canada plus” idea doesn’t deal with the Irish problem, and messes up trade with the EU, which by sheer geography is our most important trading partner, never mind 40 years of historical integration. The “Norway Plus” option, which would put the country in Efta, like Norway and Iceland, does not deal with immigration, which most people agree was the biggest issue in the 2016 referendum.
So I don’t think that Mrs May and the Conservatives who have stood by her come out of the picture too badly. I also have some admiration for ardent Remainers in that party, like Kenneth Clarke, who have reluctantly backed her. This is grown-up politics.
But lest you think I am letting off the Tories on this, by far the most mendacious politicians in Britain are the Conservatives in the European Research Group, led by Jacob Rees-Mogg, which seems to have enormous power in the wider Conservative movement, and is poised to take over its leadership. Mr Rees-Mogg’s claim that the deal is “Brexit in name only” is nonsensical, as is the claim that parliament is trying to subvert the will of the people. It is not clear what people actually voted for in 2016, and the result was close anyway. Leave campaigners did their best to muddy the waters as to what people were voting for, in order to assemble the widest possible voting coalition. If they want a more extreme version of Brexit then there are clear political processes that need to be followed to achieve that. You can’t hang it on the referendum result. Norway and Switzerland similarly rejected EU membership by popular vote, but are quite happy with intermediate arrangements that are closer to EU integration than Mrs May’s deal. Even on the Irish backstop, which is more of a legal obstacle than I thought, it wouldn’t be a problem if they really believed what they claim about the possibilities of alternative arrangements. And the terms of their opposition will only convince people in the Republic of Ireland that such a legal device is necessary.
The DUP I have a bit more sympathy with. They do not represent the opinions of a majority of the province, but they do seem true to their party values. However when their spokesmen offer the government negotiating advice, specifically to keep the no-deal option “on the table”, it makes me choke. This is the party whose obstinacy in their negotiations with Sinn Fein has left the province without a devolved government for over a year.
After the ERG, I think the most dishonest British politicians are the Labour leadership. They have no clear plan at all, and have been opposing the government simply for short term political advantage. Either they should back Mrs May’s deal, or they should clearly advocate putting it to a public vote against a Remain option. Instead they maintain a dishonest fiction that they can do a better Brexit deal. This has helped prolong the uncertainty that is slowly but surely undermining Britain’s commercial infrastructure. and it could well lead the country into a no-deal situation that most people accept will be catastrophic at least in the short-term. If they really wanted an exit with a customs union they should let the deal through, and then change things afterwards, once they have won a majority in parliament. The party did not advocate outright opposition to Brexit in their manifesto, and neither a further referendum. Given the national situation supporting the deal, or at least abstaining, but be perfectly consistent with the position they were elected on.
There are competent and reasonable Labour MPs, but they are mainly on the back benches. To hear Yvette Cooper on the radio is to wonder how much better life would be if she had won the party leadership in 2015, as I had hoped. She is engaging with reality rather than political slogans.
What of the others? My own Lib Dems are engaged in a risky strategy of total opposition until a new referendum is agreed. Whether or not that is responsible adult politics is one thing, but it least it is consistent with what they have been telling the public since 2016. The party has tried responsible adult politics in the coalition years of 2010-2015, and were slaughtered for it. My instinct is to be similarly understanding of the SNP. Given the way the Scots voted in the referendum it would be hard for them to roll over.
Personally I do hope that a delay and a new referendum emerges from the wreckage. This is only appropriate for a decision on this scale. But the government’s proposed deal is an honest attempt to square the circle. It is a pity that so few of the country’s politicians are interested in honest solutions.