Kenny MacAskill: Brexit bluster has replaced bravado as our accidental PM makes return to Eden

Sixty years ago, there was another accidental prime minister in Anthony Eden, who didnt last long. Picture: Keystone/Getty Images
Sixty years ago, there was another accidental prime minister in Anthony Eden, who didnt last long. Picture: Keystone/Getty Images
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A week is a long time in politics and it’s a year since the Brexit vote. Bravado followed, with Farage and others proclaiming they’d taken their country back. A revival almost was under way. The true faith had triumphed.

Sadly, it has been replaced by bluster as the Minister for Exiting the EU bluffs his way through negotiations in Brussels. That’s confirmed as he isn’t even reading from the same script as the chancellor.

Far from bullish pronouncements of being in a strengthened position, the UK finds itself weakened. Moreover, the EU they disparaged, often in undiplomatic language, finds itself rejuvenated. Bluster has replaced bravado.

Ambition was limitless for those who had won the referendum. A new golden age would dawn for the UK with global trade replacing the shackles of Brussels officialdom. All would be well despite the fact that there was no plan. The insurgents had done so in hope and belief, or more like a wing and a prayer. The government that opposed it failed to make any contingency plans.

That a Conservative prime minister fell, they cared not. They had been mutinous back in the 90s, but 20 years on had succeeded. A fair price, they thought, for Cameron’s vacillation and his failure to adhere to the true gospel.

Onwards it would be. A new prime minister was appointed who renounced her previous agnosticism and adhered to the one true faith. Brexit means Brexit became her mantra. The omens seemed good: a kindred spirit became president of the USA and a crushing victory for the new regime in an election seemed destined. Britain would easily vanquish the heretics in the EU. Those who had delivered the victory were anointed and placed in Cabinet with key roles. Liam Fox was made Minister for International Trade, his task to evangelise around the globe. As the wisdom of the new gospel was spread it was assumed others would joyously convert.

However, there have only been false messiahs. Donald Trump refused to convert and stuck with his belief in America First. No other doors have opened despite the fervour of the preaching. Had they done so you could have bet we’d have been told, as they’d have been lauding their fellow believers.

The reality, as the governor of the Bank of England has stated, is that it’s making us poorer and that’s before Brexit has even occurred. The lies told of huge sums for the NHS repatriated from Europe have been admitted. Businesses are making contingency plans about possible job relocation. Even if that doesn’t happen then as Scotland has experienced over the years, it’s likely to cost you future investment and then jobs. Sterling has plummeted and many who voted to Leave but still wish to express their fondness for abroad by holidaying there are going to get a nasty fright. Inflation is rising and other economic portents are unfavourable.

But fear not, we’re told David Davis has a plan. Eh, really? Have cake and eat it has been exposed as vacuous. The tables have turned. May sought a mandate in the election and ended up hanging on by her fingernails. Meanwhile the opposition has strengthened. Macron won a crushing victory in France on a very pro-EU line and Merkel has seen off challenges in Germany and still reigns supreme in Europe.

It’s hard to see an easy way out. Suggestions of soft Brexit now replacing hard Brexit are all very well, but depend on EU agreement. The “have cake and eat it” position of hard Brexiteers is being replaced by similar views by those seeking a softer exit. That may prove to be just as unrealistic, even if it would be less calamitous for the economy.

The Franco-German alliance has been solidified. The EU, as Davis has experienced, has dug in and is in a position of strength. I voted Remain but did so with a heavy heart, partly due to the EU’s attitude to Greece. There the full power of the EU, driven by Germany, was used to face down a democratic decision of the Greek people and enforce austerity. The UK isn’t Greece and the EU will not wish to ensure mutually assured destruction for all on the Continent. However, they may well be more intransigent and less willing to be flexible, given not just respective strengths but recent British attitudes. The boorish behaviour of the foreign secretary may come back to haunt the UK.

So those negotiating for the UK are scrambling to minimise a huge divorce settlement before trying to regain the trading access for goods and services that’s so vital. It’s no wonder that the stance on immigration, which ironically brought them victory, has softened.

If the UK pays to leave, to rejoin on the terms of Norway and succeeds in some agreement on access for labour, it’ll be a hollow victory. The Norwegian government privately accepts that their position is not what they would prefer. It’s payment without influence, a form of taxation without full representation. It would be a huge cost for the same deal but without the say. Immigration restrictions to those with employment a significant comedown from the huge restrictions boasted of. They’ll claim it as the deliverance they believed in but people will see through it. Many may well begin to ask if it’s worth it.

Sixty years ago there was another accidental PM in Anthony Eden, who succeeded the ailing Churchill. He didn’t last long when he misread the runes of world opinion and invaded Suez. An ignominious withdrawal followed, as soon did his departure from office. That was the Rubicon for the decline in British influence in the Middle East. Maybe this will be likewise for its power in Europe. If I were Theresa May I’d be worried.

But, I’m more concerned about the UK, as the full disaster of Brexit dawns. There’s no easy road back and no soft Brexit out. The harshness of the deal may need to become starker before the false prophets are fully exposed.