I expected, by now, to be coming round to the idea of Brexit. A lot of my friends were Outers – clever folk with whom I agree on much else. Prior to June 23, 2016, I would have described myself as a Eurosceptic Remainer, my position perhaps best summed up as: the only thing worse than being a member of the European Union would be not being a member of the European Union. Cumbersome and frustrating as the institution was, the benefits made belonging worthwhile. The world consists of shades of grey.
I’ve been wrong before – like many in my trade, too often for comfort recently – and after the referendum result took some heart from the fact that good people with the UK’s best interests at heart and a decent track record had backed Brexit. I had no desire to see Britain founder simply to provide people like me with an “I told you so” moment.
But, Brexiteers and Remainers together, let’s admit the bleedin’ obvious: it’s not going well, is it? Let’s not pretend we’re cruising towards a generous “have cake and eat it” deal with the EU. Don’t claim the Government has its act together, that ministers have a cunning plan, or that they have a shared plan – or that they even have a plan.
Don’t say that the civil service machine is humming smoothly, spooling out sophisticated proposals for how to come out on top in the negotiation process and build an exciting and shinily sleek New Britain in the aftermath. None of that is happening.
First, Brexit was sold to the electorate – or at least just enough of them – on the basis of dayglo economic lies and shabby anti-immigrant rhetoric. Second, the Labour opposition, the only real hope of swinging a Remain vote, found its campaign deliberately hobbled by its darkly sinister, hard-left, anti-EU, anti-Western bosses. Third, the national Remain campaign was, as expected, hopeless.
Then came the subsequent tragicomedy: David Cameron gone, a Tory leadership contest which threatened to give us Andrea Leadsom as Prime Minister, which nearly gave us Boris Johnson as Prime Minister, and which finally gave us Theresa May as Prime Minister. Johnson, Liam Fox and David Davis appointed to the key jobs.
A total misjudgement of what the electorate’s pro-Brexit vote had meant, with the British government behaving like a swaggering goon who had brought a gun to a knife fight; a snap general election intended to improve on Cameron’s small overall majority, which instead destroyed May and the decent wing of the Labour Party in one fell swoop; both main parties divided, unhappy and, to be honest, as much use as a chocolate euro.
That’s just the internal stuff. We’ve also made a pig’s ear of the negotiations so far. Sir Ivan Rogers, our estimable and respected ambassador to the EU, warned we risked getting the sequencing of the talks wrong. Get the important trade stuff done before agreeing on the size of our divorce payment, he told them, otherwise they will hold us to ransom. They fired him, did the opposite, and are now facing the consequences.
Civil servants in the key Brexit departments tell how they have been discouraged from devising innovative policy in case it leaks and embarrasses the uber-cautious occupant of No 10. The departments are anyway hopelessly understaffed and lacking in expertise. The EU watches all this, understanding its own heft, shaking its head at our daily misapprehensions and vainglorious boasts, and simply waits.
On Thursday, in front of the European Economic and Social Committee in Brussels, Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, delivered the frankest and most detailed exposition yet of what awaits us. “The decision taken by the UK to leave the EU will have major consequences. It is my duty to say so,” he warned.
Then came the body blows, delivered one after another like a heavyweight slugger laying into a hopelessly mismatched opponent.
The free movement of people, goods, services and capital are indivisible. There can be no sector by sector participation in the single market, including for the automobile industry or financial services. The EU would retain full sovereignty for deciding regulations: “the EU is not only a big marketplace. It is also an economic and social community where we adopt common standards. All third countries must respect our autonomy to set rules and standards.”
If the UK is outside the Customs Union, it will face “checks to determine rules of origin” of goods. All farm produce will be subject to border inspections, which has serious implications for Ireland.
And what of Theresa May’s insistence that “no deal is better than a bad deal”? “No deal” would mean reverting to WTO rules: customs duties of almost 10 per cent on vehicle imports, an average of 19 per cent for booze, and an average of 12 per cent on lamb and fish. It would mean “cumbersome [border] procedures and controls, without facilitation, which would be particularly damaging for companies that operate on a ‘just in time’ basis”.
Barnier warned that the products of UK industrial manufacturers, which currently ship to the single market without delay, would instead sit in stock for perhaps four days, adding additional costs for warehouse space and transport, and with greater logistical risk. There would be an inevitable end to frictionless trade. “I am not sure whether [all these facts] have been fully understood across the Channel,” he added, with a rare flash of dry wit.
Reader, it is my duty to say it: oh shit. I have scanned the horizon for a hero riding to Brexit’s rescue and found none. I have spoken to politicians, civil servants, academics, experts both at home and abroad, and have identified an overwhelming consensus: Britain is screwed. Even my Brexiteer friends are behaving like wonks on the edge of a nervous breakdown.
The situation is so grim, that for the first time since June 23, I wonder whether the country might rethink. The polls suggest the mix of fear and uncertainty, plus the show of blatant incompetence put on by the Government, is cutting through. Fifty-four per cent of voters would now vote to Remain in the EU. Sixty per cent would like to keep their European passport. Unsafe though predictions are in these complex times, I bet these numbers will go up rather than down.
Imagine the following combination of events, some of which are certain and some just very likely.
- Real wages fall over the next year for a clear majority of workers, and growth stalls.
- Chaos continues inside the Cabinet as the leadership maneuvering continues, and there are further serious internal splits inside the Tories over soft vs hard Brexit.
- The negotiations continue to look like they are not going well, and the British PM is forced to sign off on a stonking great divorce payment before the EU will deign to discuss trade arrangements.
- Poll ratings for May and the Government drip lower and lower and the anti-Brexit sentiment climbs and climbs.
- Legislative progress on even the first stages of the eight Brexit bills is slow to non-existent, with the Lords playing silly buggers and the Tory backbenchers embarked on their usual process of blackmail
- The EU, with its new Macron/Merkel unity, its growing economy and its rejuvenated spirit, continues sending hints that it is not too late to turn back.
It, of course, remains highly likely we’ll leave, regardless of the consequences. But in a healthier climate, with strong moderate leaders and political parties that made some kind of 21st century ideological sense, you could see how we might decide to adjust our destination in light of the evidence.
Perhaps the scenario outlined above will fundamentally change the terms of the debate. Maybe a hero will appear. “Stop the £350 million Brexit bus, we want to get off!” we would cry. And we would be right. Poor, poor Britain.