Whatever the outcome of Brexit, it’s already clear the UK’s leaders weren’t up to the job, writes Paris Gourtsoyannis.
So it won’t all collapse today. But as sure as Theresa May kicks the can further down the road when faced with the consequences of her Government’s Brexit decisions, there will eventually have to be a reckoning.
What then? The UK’s political system is buried so deep in this process, smothered under the weight of repeated political arguments and disputed facts dumped on the public by the lorry load, it becomes impossible to catch a breath.
It won’t be now, and the moment may not come for years yet, but this much must be beyond doubt: the UK’s political class, collectively, has not been up to the task of Brexit. Even if there is no economic or social disaster, there already is a political one that demands an inquest.
When it happens, it would be easy for the post-mortem to be conducted into Theresa May’s career. But the errors haven’t just been hers, and if the UK feels leaderless it’s because so many of the leaders have made bad misjudgments or given up on the tough decisions altogether.
The problem has its roots deep in the UK’s understanding of Europe and the institutions of the EU, and its relationship with them. Brexit Secretary Steven Barclay offered a reminder of this by suggesting the end of free movement was a “big win”.
To most of the British political class – Conservative and Labour – free movement is a type of migration, and European citizens living here are immigrants. But free movement is a reciprocal right enjoyed by British citizens, and one that makes a net contribution to the UK economy, to say nothing of culture or learning.
It is also a pillar of the single market, and foundational to EU membership. In a purely objective sense, ending it is therefore neither big, nor a win – it just happens when you leave the EU, and will damage the UK economy, as the Government’s own analysis admits.
Fundamental misunderstandings like these have made it impossible for the UK to build a functioning strategy for Brexit. It’s reflected in the consistently hostile tone May has struck, poisoning the well with remarks from “citizens of nowhere” to “queue jumpers” to calling an election because a senior EU official leaked details of a dinner meeting.
Yesterday the Prime Minister told those seeking a second EU referendum to “be honest” and admit they were dividing the country, but she has consistently pitted one half of the UK against the other, accusing her opponents of frustrating and betraying the will of the people. That kind of language works in the pages of the Daily Mail – but who was advising the Prime Minister?
Voices of experience, like Sir Ivan Rogers, who resigned as the UK’s ambassador to Brussels with a warning of the impossibility of the task set by the Prime Minister, were chased out. Meanwhile, as her first standard bearer for Brexit, the May appointed a man who openly promoted a plan to fly to Berlin and cut a trade deal with Angela Merkel, without consulting Brussels. The Prime Minister tacitly endorsed an approach that was both impossible and illegal.
Davis turned up at meetings in Brussels without bothering to be properly briefed, then stopped turning up at all. Appointing her first Cabinet, May tried to build a bridge between the Leave and Remain camps in her party while sweeping away the remains of the Cameron government. She now finds herself reliant on the loyalty of Michael Gove, the one serious Brexiteer she dismissed, while facing an inevitable challenge from Boris Johnson.
To answer the old question with the benefit of hindsight: it would have been better to have Davis and Johnson on the outside, pissing in, than inside, making a mess of everything.
On top of bad strategy have been heaped countless tactical errors. Of course, these began with May’s predecessor, who after winning one historic referendum thought he could roll the dice again.
With incredible timing, May’s humiliation in the Commons came as the European Court of Justice ruled Article 50 can be unilaterally revoked by the UK (suggesting member states have been sovereign all along). Remarkably, it has taken until now, just over three months before we are due to leave the EU, to learn the UK doesn’t have to go through with it if it doesn’t want to. It’s ironic, too, because the only significant leverage the UK ever had was Article 50. The timing of the Article 50 trigger was entirely in the UK’s hands.
Political pressure was wholly internal – Brussels complained about uncertainty, but could do little to demand the trigger was pulled. May could have told Tory Brexiteers there would be no Article 50 letter until the EU agreed with London about the sequencing of talks.
Knowing she would eventually have been forced to produce it, the Prime Minister could also have commissioned legal advice and economic analysis that her Government held on to until the last minute, allowing her opponents to paint her as aloof and irresponsible.
The Government could also have begun preparations for no-deal, which its ministers admit have been half-hearted and piecemeal. That might have focused the minds of Brussels negotiators and Conservative rebels.
The mistake wasn’t just May’s, though. Jeremy Corbyn famously demanded Article 50 be triggered the morning of the referendum result. But Yvette Cooper also lashed out at fellow Labour MPs who said they would vote against triggering of Article 50 – when a clear argument could have been made that the country wasn’t ready yet.
A case study: Northern Ireland barely featured in the national debate during the referendum campaign, and was barely managed by the Government as an issue during the negotiations. It should have been obvious the border presented a serious problem.
May’s Brexit deal became impossible when she set her red lines and needlessly called an election for fear of being seen as a bottler, like Gordon Brown. Now she risks picking up that reputation anyway after ducking today’s big vote.
The Prime Minister’s personal brand is her never-say-die spirit, which is seen as inflexibility and contempt in most people’s eyes, but nonetheless cuts through with some who admire her strength and pity her struggle. The public either want Brexit to be stopped, or want our politicians to just get on with it. What will they make of this?
Too much of the past two years have been dominated by the drama inside the Westminster bubble – about who is up and who is down, who wants which job, and which side of their party they’re on.
When this is all over, the UK will have to confront the real issue: why it went so badly wrong.