A popular delusion among pro-Brexit politicians is that the UK’s departure from the European Union could be made painless if only the Prime Minister were more confident in negotiations.
Take former foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, for example. Having backed the Leave campaign in 2016 because he calculated that would maximise the chances of him one day becoming prime minister, Johnson now sits on the back benches, from where he may pontificate about how to solve a crisis for which he is in great part responsible. Last week, days after his resignation from Theresa May’s cabinet, Johnson could be heard to complain that “a needless fog of self-doubt” had descended on the process of departure from the EU.
To those already duped by Johnson, this was stirring, statesmanlike stuff.
It was nothing of the sort. Rather, Johnson’s resignation statement to the House of Commons was stuffed with meaningless platitudes which refused to acknowledge that the EU has every right to negotiate as it sees fit. It boiled down to a rather Trumpish “make Britain great again”, with neither detail nor logic playing any kind of part in achieving this.
Throughout the referendum campaign and in the two years since, the Brexiteers’ response to legitimate questions about how exactly departure from the EU might be painlessly achieved has been to fall back on platitudes about confidence, as if somehow “self-belief” will protect sterling and prevent job losses.
In Johnson’s cynically constructed fantasy world, if we walk meekly into a lion’s den, we should expect to be mauled to death. But if we hold our heads up and instruct the lion that we’re here to take back control of the den then the beast will roll over in defeat. Oh, and if that doesn’t work and the lion does eat you, well that’s the fault of all those people who told you not to go into its den in the first place.
Having failed in the two years since he and Nigel Farage and sundry snake-oil salesmen won the referendum to come up with anything approaching a workable version of Brexit, Johnson took the coward’s way out. He did not resign because of principle (a concept entirely alien to the man), he resigned because he had no idea how to make that victory look like anything other than a spectacular act of national self-harm.
May is not, even her fiercest critics would surely concede, a politician in the mould of Johnson. Charged with leading the UK out of the EU, she has to come up with ideas more substantial than “just be confident”. She has to engage with the real world – a real world in which the UK has no cards to play during Brexit negotiations with the EU.
Yet May has begun to show worryingly Johnson-esque tendencies.
A call from the Prime Minister for the EU to “evolve” its position on Brexit, for example, is pure Johnson.
Support for May’s white paper on Brexit – the document that provided rats such as Johnson and Brexit secretary David Davis with the excuse they required to flee the ship they helped sink – would require huge compromise (or evolution) from the EU which would have to be willing to allow the UK to retain the benefits of a trade deal while absolving us of any responsibility to honour the free movement of people or to recognise the jurisdiction of the European Court.
Little wonder, then, that the EU Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, has signalled his… let us diplomatically describe them as “concerns” over the document.
According to Barnier, the Prime Minister’s plan for a future trade relationship could weaken the single market and create burdens for business. The white paper, he said, opened the way to a “constructive discussion” but it had to be “workable”.
Those labouring under the misapprehension that the EU is in the business of ensuring the UK gets precisely what it wants (whatever that is) will seize on that word “constructive”. They would do better to pay attention to his warning about the things being “workable”.
In the febrile atmosphere created by cabinet infighting over Brexit, the fact that the white paper represents nothing more than a series of aspirations is frequently ignored. The arrogant assumption that the EU is obliged to take seriously proposals that would undermine the integrity of the institution might comfort true believers in the Eurosceptic mission but, meanwhile, back on Planet Earth, the reality of a no-deal Brexit looms ever closer.
Johnson once said that when it came to Brexit, he was pro cake and pro eating it. A pithy little soundbite, to be sure, but one that assumed the UK could force the EU to make compromises in our favour.
It is time, surely, for us to get real about what exactly we can expect from the EU by way of a Brexit deal. And what we can expect is nothing.
Yes, the EU might be willing to give a little here or there but it will only do so when such concessions are in its interests.
The European Union will, inevitably, be weakened by the United Kingdom’s departure. This will be welcomed by Russian President Vladimir Putin along with various nasty little blood and soil nationalists around the word. And that, among other reasons, means the EU will want to do all it can to discourage other member states from leaving.
It simply makes no sense for the EU to send a message that says a nation may walk away from the shared responsibilities of membership and then pick and choose what parts of the relationship it wishes to maintain.
Countless analogies about divorce or golf club membership have been made in pursuit of driving home this point in recent months yet the ludicrous idea that the UK has cards to play persists.
Barnier had said nothing to encourage the belief that the UK can strike a deal on Brexit.
Rather, his remarks should remind us that our European partners have more important things to worry about than playing along with the fantasies of right-wing ideologues who insist cake may be both had and eaten.