It would be fun to write a Westminster column that wasn’t about Brexit. I’m afraid I can’t. Brexit is Britain, to a large extent, these days, at least as far as the news is concerned. It has made the political and media classes go mad. Normal people, those who don’t spend their lives reading the Internet, are more immune to what’s been called “Brexosis”—which should by now be a recognized medical condition—but the world can’t help noticing that Britain is now horribly stuck.
So if this article reads a bit like the last, I’m sorry. But mind-numbing repetition sums up what Brexit has become. It is the shambles story that never ends, a political joke with no punch line, a great national embarrassment, an existential challenge for the country. Who are we? How do we leave the European Union? May we? Please? Is it just less tedious to roll over and let those ghastly unelected men in Brussels win? Anything for an easy life. But hang on, why can’t we leave? Who are we? On and on it goes.
We keep seeming to hit crunch points, Westminster dramas that promise to resolve the impasse. Prime Minister May’s leadership challenged! May’s deal defeated! A no-confidence vote! May’s Plan B! The news cycles spin wildly. Then nothing changes. Plan B is a lot like Plan A, only more hopeless. May may be the worst Conservative prime minister Britain has ever had. But she does have an amazing ability to hang on as she fails. The European Union doesn’t blink. The Brexiteers make angry noises about Britain being a “vassal,” but they don’t do anything about it. Pro-Brexit insiders whisper about cunning plans to eviscerate May once she gets us over the line. But what do they mean? And if she is wrecking Brexit, as they say, shouldn’t they push a bit harder to remove her?
Nobody is sure about anything. March 29, the deadline by which time we must leave the Union according to Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union, comes closer and closer, but even that date is uncertain.
The Eurocrats—the aforementioned ghastly men—now say that the can can be kicked down the road. They told us the opposite when we triggered Article 50 two years ago—no going back, they said, gravely. That’s the E.U. for you: They don’t budge but fudge.
That now leaves open the possibility that Brexit might never end, at least not in our lifetimes. We could be in a state of sovereign limbo for a generation, suspended between European federalism and national independence, or perhaps falling between the two.
What are the other possibilities? There’s the so-called People’s Vote option, much favored by the hard-core pro-E.U. crowd, and talked about more and more. This involves holding another referendum to see if we really want to leave. Americans I meet tend to scoff at this idea: Didn’t you guys already vote? Well, yes, we did. But the argument behind the People’s Vote is that the People didn’t know what they were voting for the first time, poor lambs. And the hope is that enough inconvenient old right-wingers have died since June 2016, and enough adorably pro-E.U. youngsters have come of voting age.
Tony Blair, the former PM, is deeply involved in the so-called People’s Vote campaign. He was at Davos recently, the World Economic Forum, urgently making the case in a puffy skiing jacket and open-collar shirt. “The process is a mess,” he said. “The sensible thing in this situation is to go back to the People.” Would a second referendum damage democracy? No, says Tony.
We’re going back to the people. We’re not asking anyone else, we’re asking them. We’ve had 30 months of negotiation, there’s a much clearer knowledge now of what Brexit really means. There’s a much greater understanding of all the issues around it.
The old devil makes it sound so reasonable, doesn’t he? Curiously, a lot of Brexit supporters now don’t mind the second-vote idea: It might finally shut the other side up. But it’s hard to put aside how annoying it is to listen to Blair talking about common sense for common people as he and his powerful friends dream up more ways to become ever richer and more relaxed at Davos. The 21st-century elite will never quite understand how much the People loathe them. Everybody knows that lots of rich people are petrified of Brexit and have thrown huge amounts of money at stopping it. That is precisely why so many poor people like Brexit. Shortsighted of them, you might say, the politics of jealousy. But it is strange how cut off from reality the Davos Men have become, from what real people think.
The truth is a People’s Vote would hardly settle the matter. If the Leave side won, do we think the powerful forces for Remain would acquiesce? Perhaps they would. Perhaps they wouldn’t. What if Remain won? A large part of the British population would feel cheated, powerless, and furious no matter how much the Blair brigades assured the public that their pain had been felt. Besides, the score would be 1-1. We’d need another referendum to break the tie, and perhaps another after that—a “neverendum.” Direct democracy is a crazy business.
Which leads us to the second possibility: The British Parliament and the E.U. accept some version of May’s Withdrawal Agreement in the nick of time. In this scenario, May might obtain further, temporary concessions on the Irish border backstop—don’t ask—which would make the deal more palatable to Brexiteers. But that seems hugely unlikely, given the intransigence on both sides. Or she might move more toward the E.U. side and try to put together a cross-party coalition of Remainers and reluctant Brexiteers behind a deal to leave the European Union that meant not meaningfully leaving the European Union at all. That would probably be May’s preferred path, given that she never really believed in Brexit to begin with, but she would never be able to find enough MPs to support her on it, since the Labour opposition have shown little inclination toward any withdrawal agreement so far. Parliament, in other words, is deadlocked.
So we move toward option three: the dreaded no deal. Britain ceases being part of the European Union. On March 29, we drop out of the customs union and the single market and splash into the great unknown. For years, the pro-E.U. side has said this is unthinkable. We’ve been warned of planes not being able to fly, of food shortages and endless lines of goods-carrying trucks logjammed in northern France, even of outbreaks of disease because of lack of medicines. Matt Hancock, the health secretary, added to these fears recently when he said Britain had become “the world’s largest buyer of fridges” in order to stockpile hospital supplies ahead of March 29.
It is facetious to underestimate the difficulties of suddenly stopping “frictionless” trade with Europe. But one can’t help wondering how realistic many of the doomsday no-deal scenarios might be. There would be terrible logistical headaches, of course. But would they be insurmountable? We would pay tariffs under World Trade Organization rules, which would average out at three percent on most manufactured goods. French President Emmanuel Macron may wish to punish the United Kingdom by blocking or restricting the flow of British goods. But would he really be willing to risk the political capital by distressing so many French businesses when he is already so unpopular?
In a no-deal scenario, May could put the ?40 billion “divorce bill” payment to which she agreed toward helping businesses get through the difficult transition. No-deal Brexit would be painful. But it need not be the end of Britain’s world.
Moreover, no deal could have been a lot less painful if the British government had begun to prepare for it earlier, but May’s team stubbornly refused to contemplate the possibility. This not only weakened her negotiating hand but left Britain more vulnerable to the economic shocks that might come after March. That is the crux of the current paralysis: Brexit is a challenge to our political leaders with which they cannot cope. Our elite isn’t good enough. Take the British government’s interactions with President Donald Trump. Trump was willing to offer May a “beautiful, beautiful” free-trade deal with Brexit Britain. But Brexit Britain wasn’t willing or able to take him seriously.
I recently met a former senior White House official who described what it was like dealing with Britain’s top politicians in early January 2017.
“Almost everyone in Washington is second-rate,” he said. “But these British guys weren’t even second- or third-rate. They just sort of mumbled around. I like dealing with serious people, they’re not serious people.” May, he added, was like “a f–king school ma’am—I know that’s sexist, but she was.”
Trump offered to strike a trade deal with May “in 90 days,” said the official. The President even explained to her that she could use the deal as “leverage, in her back pocket,” when dealing with the E.U.: a quick primer on the art of the deal. But May’s team were “just so mumbly-mumbly” and tentative. “They kept asking about the rules,” and the whole idea fell flat.
Nobody should be foolish enough to think that a big trade agreement between Britain and America could instantly replace our relationship with Europe. Trump’s offer would not have been quite as benign as he made it sound.
But it seems incredible that a British prime minister was given such a remarkable diplomatic opportunity, at such a vital time in British history, and just failed to take it seriously.
“When I left I said this is going to take years,” said the official. “I told people at the time, on 29 March 2019 at ten o’clock in Brussels they are going to bounce with no deal.”
“Somehow you’re not getting the best. There’s something wrong with British politics.”