It began as easy-peasy. Then it became a hot potato. Now it’s a poisoned chalice. Who would want to be batting for Britain six months on from the triggering of Article 50?
You may remember how confident Theresa May and her top team were in the first few weeks after the referendum. The Prime Minister, nominally a Remainer, was almost ecstatic. This was her chance to secure her place in the history books as the Boudicca of Brexit. David Davis would teach those pesky Europeans a few home-truths, while Liam Fox would tour the world, picking up trade deals like they were going out of style (which in fact they are). Boris Johnson, meanwhile, would be, well, Boris, a cross between Billy Bunter and Dan Dare. If the Fat Owl of the Remove and his alter ego, the Pilot of the Future, couldn’t keep the foreigners at bay, well – cripes! – who could?
But then reality dawned. A new mood of pessimism, disguised as defiance, seems to have come over the Tories in recent days. Where once Brexit was a fait accompli in waiting, requiring only that the EU should strike its colours and admit defeat, today we are groping for the Dunkirk spirit, retreating from the perimeter (which in any case is being held by the French) and preparing to evacuate to Blighty under heavy fire.
I say “we”. But I must allow for a divergence of view. There are some who say “pay the fellows and damn their impudence”, and others who believe we should cry havoc and unleash the dogs of economic warfare. And then there are those who argue – too late, I fear – for a reasonable settlement that allows both side to back off with dignity, as well, of course, as the Liberal Democrats, who think we should do the whole thing over again and, having achieved a different result, pretend that Brexit was just a bad dream.
You will note that I haven’t mentioned the Labour Party yet. Allow me to put that that right. Labour has been less than useless throughout the last 12 months. Jeremy Corbyn was always a Leaver, in the tradition of Benn the Elder. His grudging endorsement of Remain, based exclusively on the spurious issue of workers’ rights, never rang true. The truth is, he doesn’t hold much with foreigners – unless they’re black or Muslim. Socialism in One Country is what he’s after.
As for (Sir) Keir Starmer, what a disappointment he proved to be for those of us hoping for a positive outcome to the negotiations. When he wasn’t wishy he was washy. He was against staying in the Single Market, then he was for it – maybe. Even now, with the Tories in disarray, he doesn’t have the guts to stand up for what he believes in and has committed Labour to nothing more than playing silly buggers during consideration of the EU Withdrawal Bill. I don’t know what Momentum thinks. Mr Attlee would be embarrassed and deeply ashamed.
Wot an ‘orrible shower! Is this really the best they can do? The problem is, our EU walkout isn’t something that can be undone with fresh elections. It’s a permanent arrangement. So what sort of Brexit do we see emerging out of the fog, like the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone after 1918?
If we listen to David Davis, the future is rosy. But then he would say that, wouldn’t he? When he reported to the Commons on Tuesday, all he could come up with was that there were “significant” differences between the two starting points and that [sic] “no one ever said it would be easy”. If anything, the Brexit Bulldog is setting the talks up to fail so that he can claim he was right all along and the sooner we head for those sunlit uplands across the world’s oceans, the better. Either that or he realises the game is up and that, as with the HMS Prince of Wales after the sinking of the Hood, it is time to make smoke.
If the latter, the best we can hope for is that the UK will pay out no more than £50 billion in reparations “to show willing,” plus a fudge on the Irish border that pleases no one and a deal on citizens’ rights that reduces the numbers of EU migrant workers slowly, over time, with an impact on the economy, and the NHS, that can only be guessed at.
As far as trade is concerned, we surely have to give up dreaming of a “frictionless” border with Europe. That would require us to remain in the Single Market after what will almost certainly be a three-to-four-year transition period, rendering Brexit, at least as defined by Ukip and Vote Leave, almost meaningless. Global Britain, too, as trumpeted by Fox and Johnson, is likely to end up on the back burner. New trade deals, even if we had sufficient experts to negotiate them – which we don’t – require first that we should no longer be part of the EU Customs Union, regulated and governed by Brussels. In theory, this should happen on March 19, 2019, but our departure could, like the Single Market, fall victim to an extended transition and, if the Tories lose the next election, may be permanently postponed.
The result of all this: a victory for the 27 over the One, but a sorry tale all round.
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
Leavers should be assured that I don’t absolve the EU from blame in what I nevertheless regard as a debacle. From Day One following the referendum, Brussels has been deeply engaged in posturing. Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker – possibly Europe’s most irritating man – spoke of an “existential crisis”, the fear that other member states might be tempted to follow the UK example, bringing the whole edifice tumbling down. Even when the defeat of populists in Austria and the Netherlands, followed by the victory of Emmanuel Macron in France, robbed the crisis rhetoric of its potency, the conceit was that nothing mattered more than the ideal of unity and its recovery from the blow rendered it by Brexit.
From this, everything else flowed. Britain had to be punished. An example had to be made of it pour encourager les autres. As ever, there were those only too willing to take advantage of what was increasingly perceived as Britain’s weakness. The countries of the former East Bloc, which without Britain would have had to wait years for admission into the EU and whose surfeit of migrant workers precipitated the referendum, were emboldened to demand more and more by way of a final settlement. The fact that the sums mentioned rose week on week to ever more grotesque levels was a clear demonstration of greed masquerading as principle. Europe did not simply want its pound of flesh, it wanted it by the hundredweight.
Making things worse from a UK perspective is the economic role reversal experienced by the two sides since the referendum. Sterling, once a currency darling, has lost 16 per cent of its former value and Britain, previously a star turn (“the fifth-biggest economy in the world), is once again the Sick Man of Europe in terms of economic growth, anchoring the bottom of the EU league table. At the same time, the euro has confounded all those who predicted its demise, while the Eurozone as a whole is moving into what looks like a sustained, export-led recovery. Those on the Tory benches who prophecied doom and gloom for the hapless 27 should, it turns out, have been looking inward, not outward – and all this when Brexit has not yet even taken place.
We should have known what we were going into, or at least factored in the uncertainties. But we didn’t. As a result, Davis & Co. risk being hoist by their own petard. Not only did they delude themselves on the ease of departure and the benefits that would accrue, they accepted the procedure laid down, beginning with the divorce, the Irish border and citizens’ rights. Only when it became obvious that these were hugely problematic in themselves did they seek to extend the scope of the negotiations, linking everything to progress on a future trade settlement. “Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed” became the new mantra – except that Europe didn’t agree.
But no need to top ourselves just yet. It could be that a deus ex machina will be cranked up from the Berlaymont stage that miraculously resolves all of the outstanding issues and ends with both sides raising their glasses of prosecco to a job well done. Perhaps a new Tory prime minister will emerge, with Ken Clarke as his “hand”, and Queen Angela, from her seat on the Iron Throne, will dispense justice and goodwill to all. Alternatively, Theresa May could write a cheque for £50 billion, agree some form of Irish customs union and place a rose and an After-Eight mint on every migrant workers’ bed. Stranger things have happened. Where there’s a will there’s a way. But don’t count on it.