As CON MPs prepare to vote a look at the bigger picture
There is a political divide in Britain. No, not that one. But one between those seeing Brexit as an end in itself and those for whom it is a means to an end. The former seems to comprise most of the Tory party. The candidates for leader seem to agree. “We must do Brexit” they cry. In some cases, one suspects it is said with all the sincerity of a certain type of English middle class woman on holiday in a favoured part of Europe mwah-mwah-ing the nice couple she’s met saying “Let’s do lunch!” while secretly hoping it never happens.
Brexit is seen as something which simply must be got over with so that they can move on to more familiar political territory. It’s Brexit as a painful toothache. The root canal surgery simply cannot be put off any longer. Once done life can go back to normal. You think I jest. Observe how little actual detail is being provided about how to do Brexit, let alone what happens after. It is almost as if it has to be done not because of the opportunities and improvements it will bring – and there will be some (though there is remarkably little discussion of these gains these days nor whether these will be outweighed by the opportunities lost) – but to avoid being beaten up by the Brexit Party. Brexit is a self-defence move for Tories worried about a grinning marauder opportunistically stealing their voters.
Well it may work. Still, once the Tory party has stopped treating its own survival as the country’s most important concern, it might question its comforting assumption that Leave voters will reward the Tories for doing Brexit, particularly if it’s a No Deal Brexit. Yes, I know: the polls and the Euro elections. Bear with me. How seductive a clean slate No Deal Brexit sounds: just up sticks, walk away, no backward glance, all eyes fixed on the shining horizon, the great adventures ahead. Who hasn’t sometimes dreamt of closing the door quietly on demanding families, in-laws, chores, bosses, bills, responsibilities, the endless cycle of obligations, of compromise, the feeling of being taken for granted? This sort of step can be taken, of course, if one is oblivious to those affected. Still, just do it already: that seems to be the message of the Euro elections. It is, alas, never as simple as that.
There are two issues with the No Deal Brexit now being presented as the only proper Brexit (three if one includes the idiotic belief that keeping No Deal on the table is a viable negotiating tactic when the status quo is not an option in the negotiations). First, it is not an end point but the start of a journey? Where next? What sort of architecture does Britain envisage for its relationship with the EU? Or is it simply a rehash of Vicky’s “Very well. Alone” cartoon? What sort of economy does Britain want? Pointing at Australia or Singapore or Switzerland really isn’t an answer. What sort of role in the world, given the new chill between the US and China and Russia reverting to an unfriendlier bellicosity? And how to get from where we are now to there? Merely saying that “mojo” and “belief” and “charisma” are needed because poor Mrs May had none of these is insufficient. Personality without a plan makes for an amusing party guest not a leader.
Merely repeating WTO is not a plan. It’s not even a destination. What effect will WTO tariffs have on different sectors of Britain’s economy? On different parts of the country? What about rules of origin? Tax? Or services? Or medicines? Or security matters? Or the cross-border sharing of information, pretty much essential for any modern economy? Or peace in Northern Ireland: an issue which has rather more terminal consequences for its people than technical questions about tracking cattle over a porous border. Questions, questions everywhere. And ne’er an answer.
And so to the the second more important issue. Those who voted for Brexit did not do so because they wanted something called Brexit, whether No Deal or otherwise. They wanted what they thought (or were promised) it would – or might – bring. If the vote for Brexit was, in part, a cry of pain by those who felt that the status quo did little or nothing for them, a complaint that its costs and benefits had not been fairly shared, if it was a demand that their voice be heard, their needs met, that policy should be made for that part of the country lying outside the M25, a wish to be insulated from some of the effects of globalisation, a desire to preserve the familiar even at the cost of not being completely a la mode – and it was, how will those voting for it feel if it delivers none of those things? Or if it makes matters worse? “We gave you Brexit. It’s made things worse for you. But, hey, vote for us anyway. And Corbyn – he’ll really mess things up, you know.” It’s not an obviously winning slogan, certainly not from a party now willing to contemplate shutting down Parliament to get its way. Do No Deal Tories really think they will hold onto the votes of those facing unemployment or the loss of businesses or finding themselves as ignored as before just because they’ve delivered a Brexit which, it turns out, provides no solutions to the problems that led to it? Do they even care – beyond some platitudes about the “left behind”?
Judging by the likely candidates’ policy proposals, they mostly seem to assume that a No Deal Brexit itself will have no consequences beyond maybe some customs disruption and a few traffic jams and that some reheated Thatcherism, complete with a handbagging of those obstinate Eurocrats, will do the trick. One even had a photo of her when launching their campaign. Imagine likely successors to Blair in 2007 touting photos of Harold Wilson (a PM who had left office 31 years earlier) to see how odd this looks. At a time of pressure on councils, on schools, on those facing the heartless rigidities of Universal Credit, on graduates facing an interest rate on their loans unobtainable to any saver other than those entrusting their money to fraudsters, tax cuts for those on salaries unimaginable to many in Bridgend or Sunderland or Port Talbot is, apparently, the solution. Money set aside to mitigate the effects of No Deal is to be spent on the haves, the have-nots presumably being expected to be grateful for having got Brexit.
No Deal Brexit may now indeed be inevitable, however unprepared the country is. It is being presented – now – as the only possible fulfilment of the referendum’s mandate. It is in reality the result of a failure of negotiation, a failure to realise that compromise is necessary, a failure to realise that how Brexit was implemented would send a strong signal to the rest of the world about how Britain would meet this challenge. Whatever blame can be attached to the EU for such a failure, it is Britain which, having failed its first test – leaving on reasonable, orderly terms – will need to strike new deals, work out a new strategy, persuade investors of its worth and reliability.
No Deal Brexit will have costs – as all such unilateral steps do. And those costs may not be borne fairly or by those most fervently advocating it, a point studiously ignored by those politicians pushing it the hardest. In their desire to get it off their backs, the Tories have forgotten what mischiefs Brexit was intended to remedy and seem oblivious to the fact that the world has changed from a time when tax cuts and labelling Labour as dangerous was all it took to win. They do not seem to know whether Brexit is a chance for Britain to retreat to a more comfortable, quasi-protectionist niche (see the rush to warn the US off the NHS), even at the cost of falling behind. Or is it a chance to become globally adventurous, opening itself up to all sorts of new markets, turning itself into a low tax, low regulation, low welfare state country. Perhaps their confusion is understandable: some Brexiteers want the former, others the latter. Yet others want all the benefits of globalisation and the EU with none of the obligations. Some just want fewer foreigners. Someone will end up disappointed.
The Tories are gambling that ticking Brexit off the To Do list will be enough and that voters will have short memories. It is an insouciant, not to say reckless, approach. Of course, the country will adapt. Eventually. But there will be costs. These may be significant. Who they fall on and who bears them will be the central question of British politics post-Brexit, whatever choices are made. What those choices should be is something the Tories seem remarkably unwilling or unable to address. In trying to deal with one charge of betrayal, the Tories are simply ensuring there will be many more betrayal narratives in the future.