Thsi blogpost was written early on Tuesday Sept 10th
An article in the Times reports that David Frost, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Brexit negotiator, told Johnson that there was no hope of agreeing a new deal on the Irish backstop while uncertainty in parliament continues. According to the Times:
In a one-page memo to Mr Johnson and his chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, Mr Frost wrote that until there was clarity on the domestic front the European Union would not offer a renewed deal.
“The EU are not under pressure to agree alternative arrangements until they know the process will not be taken over by parliament,” he wrote. “Until then they will listen to us but avoid committing. Talks will only become serious when it’s a choice between deal or no deal.”
Frost’s comment on the opposition in Parliament to the Johnson approach to Brexit reminded me of when I first started thinking and writing about Brexit some two years ago. Then it seemed to me that if the UK was to “make Brexit work” three things were of fundamental importance.
- The government needed to develop a consensus in the UK about what Brexit meant, some form of widely-shared vision of what the UK outside the EU should look like.
- Resulting from one, negotiate a future deal with the EU that would minimise the impact of withdrawal on the UK economy and provide for a “good neighbour” relationship for the future
- Hope that geopolitical developments across the globe would fall favourable for a UK out of the EU, facilitating the conclusion of new trade deals which would open new export markets.
To be clear. I never believed that Brexit would be economically beneficial for the UK. I was never able to figure out the logic of wanting to leave the biggest and most sophisticated single market in the world, right on the UK’s own doorstep, to chase deals with countries many thousands of miles away.
The EU accounts for about 50%, give or take some, of all UK imports and exports. Putting such a chunk of business at risk is somewhat akin to a business telling its single biggest customer that, while it appreciated the orders, it thought it could do better elsewhere. So, could the customer offer it new terms so that it could direct resources to new market, as yet undiscovered? Oh, and it might be going into competition with the customer, rather than just being part of the supply chain.
Now, do you think the “customer” is going to offer the departing business better terms than it has now? The “leaving” business is bound to be badly hit in the short to medium term at least.
Brexiteers sold the idea that the UK could leave the EU on existing, or better, terms than it now had. It could have all the benefits without any of the obligations. Such a sweet deal was never going to be on the table. A small majority of UK voters bought it, nonetheless.
But, for the Brexit elite, as writers such as Fintan O’Toole and Stephen Haseler have pointed out, Brexit is about a lot more than “mere economics”. It is about Britain or, to be more precise, England, reclaiming its rightful place as a world power. It is about lost glories.
It is no accident that many of the leading Brexiteers are ex-public school boys, schools whose mission it was to train the leaders of the British Empire and to instil in them a sense of effortless superiority. The Empire may be gone, but the sense of superiority, of exceptionalism, lingers. For them, Britain, England at any rate, cannot be “just” another European country. It has to be something greater than that.
Out of such delusions do political calamities come.
As any seasoned negotiator knows, you cannot hope to reach an agreement with the other party if there is an absence of consensus on your own side as to what it is you want to achieve. “You can’t always get what you want”, sang the Stones, but if you don’t know what you want you certainly aren’t going to get it. “Getting what you want” in negotiations means setting objectives, objectives that the majority of those you will be representing in the negotiation can relate to and support.
In general, to be successful in negotiations objectives should be positive, not negative. A union leader telling the members that they should just cancel the contract it not going to cut it. Rightly, the members are going to ask: what sort of new deal are we then looking for and what happens between cancelling the contract and getting the new deal? And what happens if a new deal that is not better than the old deal is not on offer? Do we stick with the status quo?
The “original sin” of the Brexit campaign is that it was just all about cancelling the contract, pushing for the UK to leave the EU. It was a deliberate decision on the part of the Leave campaign not to spell out what “Brexit” would mean in practice, least it split the coalition they were trying to build.
While the Brexit elite were dreaming of a “Global Britain” or the UK becoming “Singapore-upon-Thames” Brexit voters wanted a more “drawbridge Britain”, a country that would protect them from the wild winds of globalisation, economically and culturally.
The trick of the Brexiteers was to associate “globalisation” with immigration, scarcely mentioning during the referendum campaign their desire to tear down “protectionist barriers” through a raft of trade deals. They let the idea hang in the air that if you closed down freedom of movement all would then be well. More money for the NHS through “Brexit savings” was part of the mix.
After all the leading Tory Brexiteers had slit one another’s’ throats in the campaign to become party leader after David Cameron resigned, Theresa May, a previously “light remainer” got the job. On the day she became PM, Brexit was a blank page. Brexit was simply a decision to leave the EU.
Keep in mind that Brexit was a 52/48 vote, hardly a ringing result. It is also worth keeping in mind that the leaders of the Conservative and Labour Parties, Cameron and Corbyn, were lifelong Eurosceptics who could hardly find a good word to say for the EU during the campaign. Their attitude might be summed up as “Vote for the EU. It is a necessary evil”. With the tabloid press, which had been pushing anti-EU stories for close on thirty years, on their side, Leave was an energised team of 11 playing against an opposition team knocked together at the last moment.
You didn’t need to be a political or campaign genius to win in such circumstances. The wonder is that Leave did not win by a much bigger margin.
Given that Brexit was a blank page Theresa May could have decided to build a consultation process which might have allowed a broad consensus to emerge in the UK as to what Brexit would mean in practice.
I have always thought that if, at the time she became PM, May had proposed a deal that, in effect, kept the UK in the customs union and the single market, such a proposition would probably have found majority support in Parliament and been a viable basis for negotiations with the EU. Issues around freedom of movement, a large driver of the Brexit vote, could have been dealt with by tightened UK labour market rules, as happens in other EU countries. Some role for the UK in customs deals and single market decision making might have been hammered out. Such an approach would have meant that the Irish border never would have become an issue. Brexit could have been gotten “over the line”.
But May’s obsession with ending freedom of movement, a carry-over from her days as Home Secretary, blinded her to such an approach to defining Brexit. She closed down possible directions of travel before they were even explored. She painted herself into a corner with red lines and gave space to Brexit radicals to frame Brexit in the most extreme terms. Brexiteers who, just five years ago, would have bitten your hand off for a “pre-Maastricht” customs union/single market deal between the UK and the EU, now wanted Brexit to mean a complete rupture with the EU. Britain alone.
Brexit has, always and ever, been a Tory project. This meant that Labour, the Liberals, the SNP and everyone else was cut out of the conversation. May decided that the Tory party, and the Tory party alone, would determine what Brexit meant.
The chances of building a national consensus in the UK were blown apart before construction even began.
If the UK did not know what it wanted how could it possibly negotiate a deal with the EU? I think the UK’s position was summed up neatly in the exchange between Merkel and May. Merkel asked May what she wanted. May replied, make me an offer. Merkel responded by telling May that it was the UK that decided to leave and the EU would not be making it any offers. Tell us what you want and we will see what we can do, was Merkel’s position. May simply repeated: make me an offer.
By the time May worked out what she wanted, the so-called Chequers Deal, the radical “no-deal” Brexit ship had already sailed.
Nevertheless, the EU responded and the all-UK backstop was agreed. A backstop that would have given the UK “cake and eat it” access to the EU market for goods. This was a British ask to which the EU reluctantly agreed.
(As an aside, the UK backstop throws the services sector to the wolves. Goods are prioritised over services. Sheep farmers would have been happy. “Data farmers” considerably less so. But then, people get emotional over little lambs. Very few get emotional over little packets of data.)
But the good ship “No Deal” was now out on the high seas and the UK failed to build a national consensus about what Brexit should mean and what a post-Brexit Britain should look like.
Such is the absence of agreement that the same minority Conservative government that was elected in 2017 has, under two different leaders, May and Johnson, adopted radically different negotiating positions with the EU.
May’s Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration settled the issues of citizens’ rights, the UK’s financial obligations and the Irish border, and laid the basis for negotiating a close future economic relationship between the UK and the EU. A transition period from EU membership to non-membership was also provided for to make it easier for businesses to adjust from the old order to the new.
For its part, the Conservative government 2:0 under Johnson wants to tear up the Withdrawal Agreement and “bin the backstop”. David Frost has told the EU that, for the future, Johnson wants to negotiate a “best in class” trade agreement, modelled on the deal the EU has with Canada, but with no provisions for a “level playing field” when it comes to labour, environmental and product standards.
The UK wants to take full advantage of Brexit to diverge as fully as possible from EU regulations. If the EU will not give the Johnson government the deal it wants it stands ready to crash out with a “no-deal” Brexit. Except Parliament has voted to block a “no-deal Brexit.
Given the current political deadlock in the UK over Brexit it is highly likely, if not certain, that there will be a general election before December. The outcome of such an election is impossible to predict, not least as its timing will be crucial. Some polls suggest that the Conservative Party could be comfortably returned to power after it has delivered an Oct 31st Brexit, with or without a deal.
But, if it fails to achieve Brexit on Oct 31 and the UK is in a continuing extension other polls suggest that there will be a hung parliament in which a Labour government, or Labour-led government, committed to a Norway-style deal with the EU might emerge.
The EU would then be faced with a UK government following a radically different Brexit policy from that of May or Johnson. In opposition, the Conservative Party would be loudly proclaiming its “True Brexit” credentials and vowing to undo whatever deal the Labour government did with the EU.
None of this takes into account the contrasting positions of both Northern Ireland and Scotland compared to England when it comes to leaving the EU. In both Northern Ireland and Scotland majorities voted to stay in the EU and there is no evidence that this has changed since. A dis-United Kingdom is in prospect.
Years of political uncertainty lie ahead of the UK. All the while the other two dimensions of “making Brexit work”, the agreement with the EU on future trading relationships and the changing geopolitical landscape have to be dealt with. It is to these two that we will return next week (Part II).
Rather than a “stairway to heaven”, Brexit is turning into the “highway to hell”.