David Cameron, the former Prime Minister, once mocked his fellow Tories for “banging on about Europe.” He meant that the European Union had become a tedious right-wing obsession—the root of all governmental problems, the enemy without, the reason Britain was going to the dogs.
Now, thanks in large part to Mr. Cameron, all the British seem destined to spend their lives banging on about Europe. It’s dull and depressing, but we can’t help ourselves. Most Brits now identify as BoB—Bored of Brexit. Even the more ardent Brexiteers, if honest, sometimes wish that Cameron had never called the referendum on our membership in the European Union.
What a mess. Britain is in a state of what Michael Lind called “turboparalysis”; political crisis follows political crisis, the March deadline for leaving the E.U. fast approaches, yet events seem to change nothing. Westminster journalists and TV panelists have taken to announcing that they—yes, even they—don’t have a clue what might happen, as if their audiences ever thought different. The point almost everyone agrees on is that the Brexit outlook is very poor.
Donald Trump, as he so often does, summed up the way most people feel when he said that Prime Minister Theresa May’s new Withdrawal Agreement with the E.U. sounds “like a great deal for the E.U.” It is. Under its terms, Britain will pay €40 billion for the privilege of a temporary arrangement that nobody wants. Far from “taking back control,” which was the Vote Leave slogan back in 2016, we seem to be giving up on sovereignty. Boris Johnson, the former foreign secretary, calls it “vassalage,” and, while know-it-alls scoff at such old-fashioned talk, it is hard to think of a better description. The E.U. has the right to veto talks about any future permanent separate relationship. The closest the E.U. has come to compromise is a promise to use “best endeavours” to agree on a long-term trading arrangement. By the time you read this, May’s deal will almost certainly have been voted down in Parliament. But then what?
The only arguments in favor of the transitionary Withdrawal Agreement are that it prevents an immediate “no deal” crash out on March 29 and that, because temporary, it leaves open the hope of a real Brexit later. But since May’s deal is so thin on guarantees from the European side, there can be no guarantee it won’t lead to “no deal” in the end. Under May, Brexit’s last, best hope is that the technocratic, hopelessly vague language of the document has left Britain enough wiggle room to escape from the E.U.’s grip at some point in the future.
Honest Brexit supporters accept that remaining in the European Union would be preferable to this arrangement, since at least we have some sway within it. This is a source of glee for Remainers. What did you expect? they crow. Did you think the E.U. would roll over and accept Britain just dropping out on our preferred terms? Turkeys don’t vote for Christmas, etc. Maybe they are right. Maybe it was naive to hope that the relatively benign peasants’ revolt which was Brexit could ever amount to much. Didn’t we know that “global supply chains”—disrupt them at your peril!—decide politics?
What’s striking is that so many people, especially in affluent, anti-Brexit London, want a deep-state conspiracy to defeat Brexit, just as so many Washingtonians relish the idea that intelligence services can bring down Trump. There is undoubtedly a strong desire among British civil servants to keep us in the European Union, to resist the vulgar jingoism that they believe lies behind the vote against Europe. Theresa May’s administration and her chancellor, Philip Hammond, are Remainers. They have always treated Brexit as a damage-limitation exercise. But it is not healthy for a government to pursue a policy—withdrawal from the European Union—that it believes is a bad idea. In fact, government leaks suggest that, as Britain barrels toward a “no deal” on Brexit, the government is banking on the hope that a major panic about economic catastrophe will force everyone to accept May’s way. This is Project Fear XVIII—yet another example of elites hoping to frighten the little people into submission by showing them how little control they have over markets.
A big media dispute in recent days has been over which historical analogy best sums up how terrible things are. Jo Johnson, Boris’s brother and a Remainer, quit the government when May’s deal emerged and deemed it the greatest failure of British statecraft since the Suez in 1956. No, said others, it was worse in 1976, when Britain requested a bailout from the International Monetary Fund. Others talked of appeasing Hitler (as someone has to). Others still compared it to Home Rule, only this time we were Ireland.
The Irish question has in fact been Brexit’s great weakness. Since May lost her majority in the 2017 general election, she has had to rely on ten Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party MPs. The E.U., showing an almost Trumpian understanding of the “art of the deal,” have exploited this weakness for leverage. The E.U. has made the Irish border issue—the debate over what happens to Irish and Northern Irish sovereignty after Brexit—its negotiating priority. This has forced the Conservative Party to agonize over its two chief loyalties: protecting the United Kingdom (of which Northern Ireland is part) or standing up against Europe for British sovereignty.
As things stand, May’s deal has left the Democratic Unionist Party unhappy. Tory Euroskeptics, meanwhile, have reportedly resorted to saying that they might support May’s terrible deal only if she promises to resign after it is passed. The European Research Group, the chief Brexiteer force in the House of Commons, led by Jacob Rees-Mogg, has already tried to engineer a coup against May, but found it didn’t have the will among its members or the parliamentary support to carry it out.
The opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn’s Brexit strategy is to be as ambiguous as possible. It’s working. His position neatly reflects the country’s mood. Corbyn neither really supports Brexit nor really opposes it. He waffles about how terrible May is, about how Labour would get “the right” Brexit, about honoring the referendum. His hope is that, when May falls, a general election would follow, one which he’d win, if the polls are right.
Fear of a hard-left Corbyn government spurs the Tories to try to resolve their own divisions. But they can’t. So May carries on. Like a zombie Thatcher, she presents herself as the only alternative between Venezuelan socialism and economic apocalypse over Brexit. “I can say with absolute certainty that there is not a better deal available,” she says, and Remainers tend to believe her. For May, the E.U. decides how we leave, so we must accept their punitive deal for now and kick the harder dilemmas of Brexit down the road. Philip Hammond and several others in her cabinet have offered to be Remain lemmings for her deal, threatening to resign if it doesn’t pass.
May’s approach to winning Brexit seems to be an exercise in public masochism, showing the people how hard she battles on for the national interest. This appeals to something deep in the British psyche: fighting on even if—or because—the cause is lost. We like to call it the bulldog spirit. But perhaps it is more an English kink: May conspicuously torturing herself so we can all nod our heads and say fair play to the woman. The British have always been into pain; it’s our puritan streak. May is surprisingly popular outside Westminster, but it won’t be enough to save her from her party.
The Remain media, for their part, continue to turn themselves on by spelling out what a disaster no deal would be. A recent issue of The Economist explained everything we have to worry about. Overnight, it said, the frictionless trade we now enjoy at ports such as Dover would turn to chaos. Bankers would lose their “passporting” rights, which would cripple the City of London. Inflation and interest rates would spike. Supermarkets would run out of food in days; Mars Bars would disappear from shelves. Trucks would suddenly be unable to carry goods because of complicated licensing agreements under the Vienna Convention on Road Traffic. Short delays at tariff entry points could mean enormous traffic jams. We could face power outages, as the E.U.’s “market coupling” energy scheme would have to cease. Medicinal drugs would become scarce: According to the Nuffield Trust, no deal would cost the National Health Service an additional £2.3 billion by 2020.
That’s not wrong: No deal would be frightening. But it is odd that a nominally free-market publication refuses to see that “logistical seizure” might not cast such a deathly spell. Shouldn’t every closed opportunity present another new avenue for profit? Is The Economist writing on behalf of enterprise? Or speaking to a managerial elite who are concerned more about next quarter’s growth than about Britain’s long-term financial footing?
The European Union, meanwhile, continues to stagnate. Brexit is perhaps the least of its problems. Italy, under her populist government led by Matteo Salvini, is having a showdown with Brussels over budgets. Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel is a lame duck. Europhiles now throw their support behind the French President Emmanuel Macron, who has ambitious plans to reform the European Union to make it more adaptable to the global age. But if the E.U. were more amenable to change then its members might be slightly happier, and Macron’s Bonapartist vanity is turning him into something of a joke. As I write, Paris is burning because of fuel-tax protests, and Macron’s approval ratings are stuck around the low 20’s (considerably lower than that toxic Mr. Trump). He could easily be defeated by the National Rally (previously named the Front National) in three years. A European convulsion is due. Fast-forward to 2023, and imagine how the National Rally’s Marine Le Pen, Salvini, and the increasingly nationalist governments of Eastern Europe will treat the overbearing mandarins of the European Union. What might Brexit Britain do then?