Monday 21 October 2019

Colm McCarthy: 'Harsh reality shows Brexit is a disaster long foretold'

As the UK stumbles towards Brexit, Theresa May no longer seems the answer to any question

REQUEST: Theresa May has sought a three-month extension to the UK’s departure from the EU. Photo: Getty
REQUEST: Theresa May has sought a three-month extension to the UK’s departure from the EU. Photo: Getty
Colm McCarthy

Colm McCarthy

The UK is blessed with an embarrassment of media riches - the ever-alert Daily Mail managed to detect a negotiating triumph last Friday morning: "May Calls the EU's Bluff", it pronounced, as Simon Nixon, a columnist with the London Times, summarised an opposite and more popular response:

"Is there any precedent in modern history for the vital interests of a major country to be determined behind closed doors by 27 other countries and then presented as a fait accompli? Even for those of us who always expected it would come to this, the humiliation is hard to take."

The Guardian columnist Rafael Behr offered a more concise understanding of the summit message to Westminster: "If you want to leave with a deal, vote for the damned deal. If you are foolish enough to leave without a deal, do not blame us. But if you want something else, a referendum or a softer Brexit... send someone who isn't May to talk to us about it."

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Sky News, sticking to the facts, reported last Thursday that the British army had arranged a command headquarters in a nuclear bunker deep underneath the Ministry of Defence, an imposing edifice located conveniently on Whitehall, just a hundred metres from Downing Street. Upwards of 3,500 troops will be available from tomorrow (not all billeted in the bunker) for Brexit duty.

The alarming announcement coincided with Theresa May's request to the European Council for a three-month extension to the UK's departure from the EU. The council deftly declined the request in the form sought, seeming to offer a whole new supply of cans to kick towards new dates in April, May or even later. There is a catch in the offer, since it is designed to force choices and bring the can-kicking to an early end.

Having accepted the EU's Plan B last Thursday, lacking one of her own, Theresa May sent a letter to MPs last Friday evening intimating that Tuesday's vote on the withdrawal agreement (her promised Plan A) will not go ahead, in the absence of support. Her response to the EU, whose bluff, according to the Mail, she had called just a day earlier, reads "The dog ate my Brexit".

The outcome extolled by victorious Leavers through the sunlit post-referendum summer of 2016 was meant to be very different. Swashbuckling entrepreneurs should by now be cruising the seven seas harvesting the fruits of freedom for Britannia Unbound. The actual outcome is not just a harsh lesson in economic and political realities, it is a disaster foretold. It has been on the cards since Mrs May's intentions emerged at the Birmingham Conservative party conference in October 2016, and more definitively in her Lancaster House speech in January 2017. The red lines meant departing the EU's single market, ironically the handiwork in large degree of Margaret Thatcher's Conservative government of the 1980s. The intention to escape also the EU's customs regime ensured an end to the frictionless trade with Europe which May also promised, not to mention problems with border controls in Ireland.

There was no possible negotiation which respected the red lines and delivered on May's promises. Any version of Brexit which respected the red lines would do serious economic damage, mainly to the UK itself, while any solution minimising economic damage would never satisfy the Brexiteers. Only if the EU really was the arbitrary, unaccountable super-state of Eurosceptic imaginings could it have torn up the treaties, jeopardised the internal market and abrogated its existing trade agreements around the world in order to accommodate delusional UK demands for 'flexibility'. A trouble-free Brexit has been unattainable since the speech Mrs May made at Birmingham to appease the minority of Tory ultras. To sustained applause, of course, and fawning coverage. Happy days.

The list of possible outcomes has not even been pruned. A withdrawal agreement could go through if it is ever put to a vote, perhaps with a new political declaration after a further delay; there could still be a crash-out, a second referendum, a general election, a change of government without an election, or a straight revocation of Article 50 and the cancellation of Brexit. But the European Council has imposed order on the process, and the UK parliament must start pruning next week. One possibility is that the prime minister could herself be pruned through a vote of no confidence, with the sovereign forced to send for an alternative prime minister, since she cannot be removed as Tory leader against her will until next December. She could resign if the Tory men in grey suits come calling, and a more self-aware individual would already have done so.

The structure and sequencing in the council decision is important. Crash-out will not come next Friday but could occur just two weeks later. A further extension to May 22 would follow a positive House of Commons vote, endorsing the withdrawal agreement, should it be tabled again. If the Commons fails to endorse, a longer deferral requires decisions which a May-led minority government is unlikely to take - an abandonment of red lines and a new Brexit framework, plus agreement to hold European Parliament elections in the UK. If May survives, the available options will narrow to accepting her deal or crashing out. Her replacement without an election could lead to a second referendum, a wholesale revision of the political declaration towards an eventual soft Brexit or even to revocation of Brexit, a unilateral get-out-of-jail card still available to the UK which May would never use.

All will be revealed in Westminster over the next three weeks. The judgment of history, or at least of the commentators, on the Theresa May premiership is already in draft. She will be competitive with David Cameron, the author of the spin-the-bottle referendum, for the title of the UK's poorest prime minister of modern times. It was open to May when she assumed the leadership of the Conservative party in July 2016 to pursue a policy reliant on the centre-of-gravity in the Commons which is for some soft form of Brexit, but she opted for appeasement of the ultras, reinforced by the Ulster battalion when she blew her inherited majority in the needless general election of June 2017.

The damage was done in the immediate post-referendum period. Many Leave campaigners had signalled that a softer Brexit was acceptable - several, including the official Leave campaign in its leaflets and advertising, had explicitly committed to remaining in the single market. May chose instead to side with the Brexiteers, has backed the wrong horse and may be gone as parliament takes control next week.

The European Council may have killed the no-deal outcome last Thursday and the eventual deal could consist of a similar withdrawal agreement plus a very different political declaration, signposting a Norway-style alignment for the whole UK with the single market and a close customs arrangement. Theresa May declined this approach in October 2016 in order to avoid splitting the Tory party.

The failure of her strategy means that the split may now be unavoidable. Sticking close to both single market and customs union minimises the damage but raises the unavoidable dilemma of Brexit. Why bother?

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