The resignation earlier this week of Sir Ivan Rogers, head of UKREP at the EU, and his revelation that he did not yet know what the UK government would try to aim for in Brexit, has prompted a new round of criticism of Theresa May’s effectiveness. This has been a persistent theme since she took office.
I argued for Remain on purely economic grounds, so I am no fan of the direction the government is headed in. But I think the criticisms are greatly overdone and misunderstand the problem she and her government are facing.
Leave won partly because it united a broad church of people who wanted to get out of the EU but for sometimes different and sometimes contradictory reasons. Some wanted to control immigration and were even content to watch trade barriers emerge, or perhaps even welcomed it as a reversal of globalisation. Some wanted to make steps towards freer trade and exit the EU’s system of agricultural and regional subsidies. Others had political reasons for leaving, seeing the EU as a socialist, internationalist and a failing political construct.
The price of victory was arriving into the post referendum world without a concrete plan.
This broad church got broader still when May won the Tory leadership, and the Parliamentary Party got down to the business of calculating how it would hold onto power. There were added a lot of Tory Remainers. Their support is bought: Brexit must not be too hard. And there are some amongst them who might feel threatened locally at some point by a party – finally revealed to be the Lib Dems – that campaigned on a Remain platform.
The reason no detailed plan has emerged yet is because the different sides have to negotiate a compromise. And like all high stakes negotiations, parties won’t agree to anything and tie themselves in publicly until the last possible moment. Witness the deal Cameron brought back from the EU. Or the negotiations between the EU, IMF and Greece. Or countless other examples.
Making sure everyone is on board is vital because the Government majority is very slender. That begs the question why May boxed herself into not holding a general election before 2020 despite buoyant poll ratings. But even that can be put down to this negotiation problem. An early general election can’t be fought confidently unless the different Leave and Remain groups within the Conservative party are signed up to something that sounds coherent, concrete and can be put to the electorate.
Short of capitulating to the other side, I don’t see how the PM, Chancellor and the three Brexiteers Davies, Fox and Johnson could have got to a plan yet. And that is not likely. Not just for reasons to do with personal conviction about what the best kind of Brexit would be. But because there are big political risks in finding yourself owning the wrong compromise. A sharp, post-referendum recession might have triggered a capitulation by hard Brexiters, but that hasn’t happened.
Tony Yates is Professor of Economics at Birmingham University.