There can be only two explanations for the spectacularly inept performance of the British Government in the pursuit of Brexit. The first is that the negotiating team, led by Theresa May, is hopelessly incompetent. The second is that whoever took on the job would fail because there is no way Britain can quit the European Union without securing a deal that leaves us worse off than we are now.
Hardliners from the Right would, of course, argue that a tough, non-nonsense line-up, led by Jacob Rees Mogg and Boris Johnson, would have run rings round Michel Barnier and his oleaginous continental équipe. Yes, but how? I hear you ask. Why, by the simple expedient of saying no to anything and everything that did not lead to a swift and meaningful departure.
According to this interpretation of how events would have gone, we would have made clear from Day One that we wanted out of the Single Market and the Customs Union at the earliest possible moment, with no transition period, no divorce bill, no compromise on British fishing rights and Absolutely-No-Freedom-of-
The talks would have been wrapped up by Christmas. The EU, impressed by our bulldog spirit, would have put the relevant machinery in place, and come next spring Liam Fox could have embarked on a round-the-world cruise aboard HMS Global Britain, loading up on trade agreements with the U.S, China, India, Japan, South Korea and – once they had recovered from their humiliation – a grateful European Union.
We are asked to accept that tariff-free, frictionless trade with Europe would have been put in place within 12 months of Brexit, allowing sales of BMWs and Prosecco to resume within, oh, a matter of weeks, or even days. In the meantime, by way of simple give and take, there would be no massive build-up of lorries at Dover and Calais. Drivers would roll on and roll off exactly as they do now. Airline schedules would be unaffected. British travellers, brandishing their shiny blue passports, would step off aircraft in Paris, Barcelona, Amsterdam and Ibiza secure in the knowledge that they would be admitted “without let or hindrance” by the relevant authorities.
Sign up for our FREE Reaction Weekend Email
Read the week's best-read articles on politics, business and geopolitics
Receive offers and exclusive invites
Plus uplifting cultural commentary
But it would not be a one-way street. As proof of our magnanimity in victory, Britain would have offered to take over the management of European security, possibly by way of a European Security Agency, based in London, while further benefiting our friends caught on the wrong side of the Channel by generously maintaining our participation in Europol, the European Space Agency, Euratom, Erasmus and Galileo.
Within five years, the revitalised, Bojovian economy would be growing at a rate not known since … well, since we joined the European Union. Our navy would patrol the world’s oceans, the Prince of Wales would re-energise the Commonwealth and the people of Scotland and Northern Ireland would rejoice in their continued membership of a truly United Kingdom.
Does anyone believe this rubbish? Actually, yes. Quite a few, in fact, more’s the pity. There are millions of people out there, mainly in England, who cannot bring themselves to accept that Brexit as a remedy for the nation’s ills has gone catastrophically wrong and that only emergency surgery can save the day.
If you have read my stuff before, you will know that I have reluctantly come to support a second referendum. It seems to me that you would have to be mad to want to continue with things as they are. But I also recognise that a People’s Vote #2 might end up very like its predecessor. It would almost certainly not be clear-cut or decisive. In the circumstances, and with time running out, I am forced to the conclusion that we must instead opt for membership of the European Economic Area, which would keep us within the Single Market while freeing us from the requirements of the Common Agricultural Policy, the Common Fisheries policy and EU funds aimed at international and regional development.
At a stroke, we would be billions of pounds better off each year. Though our farmers would be anxious, with only Michael Gove to rely on for subsidies, our fishermen would be thrilled. At the same time, having left the Customs Union, we could at once embark on securing those “brilliant” trade deals which Liam Fox assures us lie just around the corner.
Vitally, the Channel Ports could carry on much as now, and the Irish Border would, in effect, cease to be an issue, other than for Sinn Fein. The City of London would remain as Europe’s banker and EU citizens in the UK and Britons living in Europe could relax and live out their lives in peace.
True, we would no longer be part of the decision-making process. We would lose our seats on the European Council, the Commission, the Court and the Parliament. And we would also have to accept continued freedom of movement But you can’t have everything, and there would be nothing to stop us from pursuing our interests via a beefed-up diplomatic mission in Brussels.
I wouldn’t call it win-win. Win some, lose some is probably the best description. But it would avoid the cliff-edge towards which we are currently hurtling with a lemming-like determination, and that, surely, has to be good.
Needless to say, I do not expect this to happen. What I do expect is that the government will continue to blunder through what’s left of the negotiations with Brussels and then leave us to crash out of the EU on the worst possible terms. The only way, short of a miracle, to avoid such a outcome would be for Parliament finally to assert itself and – against all precedent – impose a cross-party solution on the clapped out executive. But who would bet on that? Much more likely, MPs would opt for yet another general election, believing, as they always do, that with a new mandate comes renewed confidence and strength.
In either case, the role of the Labour Party would suddenly move to centre stage, which can give no confidence to anyone. Given his near-absolute refusal to adopt a position on Brexit, credible or otherwise, Jeremy Corbyn would simply take over from Theresa May as Ditherer-in-chief. Gawd knows where we’d end up. Sadly, we may be about to find out.