Inside Story

A mad riddle, plus plus plus

Britain’s exit from Europe is showing the flaws of both parties to the negotiations

David Hayes 27 July 2018 2528 words

Another sticking point: British prime minister Theresa May at the Belleek pottery factory on the northern side of the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, which is back in contention as a result of the Brexit vote. Niall Carson/PA Wire

“It’s like this mad riddle that no one knows what it is!” Danny Dyer plays a Cockney geezer in a TV soap and has a daughter on Love Island. A political fixture he is not. But his take on Brexit, spat out on a chat show during a terse put-down of David Cameron, the prime minister who unwittingly delivered Britain’s vote to leave the European Union in 2016, cut through to the public like nothing else has.

Why did that moment, on 29 June, turn viral? Dyer’s vehemence and the Edward Lear-ish flavour were a good mix, but the fuse was the nerve he hit. Without taking sides on the ins and outs, he captured what millions feel Brexit now to be: not an issue or choice, but a swamp without end.

It looked deceptively simpler two years ago, thanks to the binary referendum question (abridged, “should the UK stay in or quit the EU?”) and slogans (“Take Back Control,” “Stronger In”). Then came the slim vote to leave, by 51.9 to 48.1 per cent — the most vexing of all possible outcomes, combining maximum disruption with, on the losing side, peak frustration, suspicion and demands for a rerun. After an ugly campaign, not even the winners were happy. There was but one lodestar: the people’s will. Follow that, and how much could go wrong?

Pretty much everything, as it happened. Constitutionally, parliament found the plebiscite hard to digest. Politically, a new prime minister, Theresa May, failed to build consensus, chose a formal exit date (29 March 2019) without a plan, then lost her party’s majority in a snap election. Emotionally, “leave” and “remain” tribes dug in to their respective trenches. Diplomatically, talks with the EU on terms of withdrawal veered from chary to sour. Administratively, bloated Brexit sucked time and energy from other vital areas. Strategically, a want of planning deprived it of inner momentum. Internationally, the United Kingdom’s confusion and drift invited ridicule. Lexically, an arcane new vocabulary suffused higher discussion. Psychologically, the country became stuck — the very opposite of what was sold.

Brexit’s original sin was that so few, in their heart, expected it to happen. Each side clung to it as the dream or nightmare of its imagining. Thus neither put in the detailed work to prepare for it. Voted for, it was from day one a shapeshifting orphan given the run of the house, as if a character in Spirited Away. Responsible ownership by a temporarily unified political class might have domesticated it — but that was always a fantasy beyond even Miyazaki’s jewel. In any case that error of conception was fateful. Without definitive form, Brexit moved ever further from many people’s grasp or attention.

Central to the estrangement was linguistic hyperinflation. Across politics and media, its foes routinely defined the Brexit outcome — even as the UK was still inside the EU — as catastrophe, disaster, chaos, meltdown, shambles, car crash or nightmare (ad infinitum), and its supporters as racists sunk in imperial nostalgia. Its fevered advocates, with nothing practical yet to boast of, saw the anti-Brexit camp as spoilers, saboteurs, traitors, enemies of the people, or — in May’s notorious phrase — citizens of nowhere. Though many argued coolly across divides, and numerous think tanks were channels of reason, such noisy labelling further corroded the public realm.

As the referendum’s second anniversary passed, and a heatwave descended, there was no clear way out of the limbo. Several options were touted: a follow-up referendum (which its proponents call “a people’s vote”), another general election, a new parliamentary coalition or centrist party to build a majority for a new course, an agreement with the European Union to extend the departure date beyond 2019. The last especially stirs leavers’ fear and remainers’ hope that the European Union is, like the Hotel California or Royston Vasey, a place you can never leave.

But under the baking sun — as Trump prepared to land, Putin’s Novichok took a life, and World Cup optimism gave respite — a new phase in the Brexit process arrived to test every scenario. It began on 6 July at Chequers, the country residence of British prime ministers, when the cabinet met to mull the government’s negotiating position to the European Union on Britain’s departure.

Drafted by Theresa May’s influential adviser Oliver Robbins and finalised by her inner circle, the 104-page document is an odd hybrid whose expository tone is at odds with its concessions and contortions, while overall it lacks cohesion and detail. For starters, it embraces “a common rule-book” (in practice, EU regulation) on goods and agricultural trade, state aid and competition; is ambiguous on trade policy and services; is evasive on freedom of movement; offers little on Ireland’s border, a major obstacle to any deal; and volunteers as tariff collector for EU-destined goods entering via the United Kingdom, in order to solve a problem of its own devising.

Would it fly? That the text’s disingenuous officialese cloaks a retreat from May’s earlier stark “no-deal-is-better-than-a-bad-deal” rhetoric, and is driven by expediency without a conceptual framework, is cruelly plain. That raised the stakes for the away-day, an advance briefing for which verged on intimidation. This is leader Theresa’s path, was the message; “collective responsibility will be asserted at the end of the day”; “those who can’t face making the right decision for the country” will immediately forfeit their government car, so you’ll find “taxi cards in the foyer” to help you home; a “select number of narcissistic cabinet ministers” may find their “spots taken by a talented new generation of MPs who will sweep them away.” When a cabinet majority endorsed the document, it seemed that a weak person’s bullying had worked. That balmy Friday evening, the instant takeaway was a rare May triumph.

The story flipped as weekend resignations began: head of the main Brexit department and nominal chief negotiator David Davis, foreign secretary Boris Johnson, a tranche of lesser ministers, two Conservative Party officials. The party’s grassroots were not amused, and wider polls unfavourable. Even staunch remainers such as Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson scorned the plan, now embodied in a government white paper, as the worst of all worlds. “This Brexit is just mush… The practical upshot is to tie us to Europe over large parts of economic life, without a say in its rules,” wrote Blair in a forensic lost leader’s statement.

But opponents had unlike agendas. Davis claimed that his more exacting paper had been replaced by Robbins’s, and that May had let slip a pre-Chequers stitch-up with Angela Merkel. The tarnished Johnson, after an inglorious spell in office, held to his “global Britain” schtick. Michael Gove, Liam Fox, Dominic Raab (Davis’s replacement), and others favouring a cleaner break with Europe stayed in cabinet. The traps were not yet sprung.

Action moved now to a febrile House of Commons, where a perilously small government majority is exposed to backbench ploys. Tory factions — up to fifteen hard remainers, and a few dozen leaver ultras led by the lordly (and Johnson-backing) Jacob Rees-Mogg — vied in laying down rival amendments to a trade bill that would, if passed, bend Chequers to their side and bind May in EU negotiations. Four Brexiteer revisions, accepted by the government to prevent the bill’s derailment, provoked Rees-Mogg’s arch-rival Anna Soubry to say he “is running Britain.” Tory MPs traded insults across the green benches. Two needle-eye votes saw a senior MP break a pair, seemingly in cahoots with the Conservative chief whip. Four pro-Brexit Labour rebels saved the government from defeat. The government tried, and failed, to call a recess a week before it was due. One incendiary row followed another.

A post-Chequers plunge in the Tories’ numbers and May’s own ratings adds to the jitters. Some MPs called for a vote on May’s leadership, the number confidential but evidently still less than the forty-eight needed for a contest. Many MPs are paralysed by shared fears: of where May is taking them, of potential splits, of their pro-Brexit constituents, of an early election, most of all of a Jeremy Corbyn–led Labour government. Labour’s deliberate vagueness — take pot shots at Tories rather than sides on Brexit, could be its motto — flummoxes its pro-EU base. The policy has a cynical appeal, but it makes nothing happen.

Britain’s pity is that the same is true of Theresa May. Her tenacity in office earns credit and sympathy, but it is not allied to imagination or persuasive skills. Or, arguably, emotional intelligence, which today equally amounts to a requirement of the job. Over Brexit, her fortified office and unhealthy dependence on key aides replicates exactly the situation before her election flop in 2017 — right down to her outsourcing of the Conservative manifesto to close adviser Nick Timothy, whose text was vouchsafed to the cabinet on the day of its launch.

The prime minister’s nationwide tour to sell the Chequers fix also echoes the election and prefigures a repeat of its blowback. Among Gateshead factory workers on 23 July, the Times’s Patrick Kidd says, her “question-and-answer session had all the energy and excitement of a nervous librarian reading the phone book to a conference of narcoleptics.” The people “terrify her. And she, in return, cannot connect with them.”

All this is old news. Nothing has changed, as May’s most cringeworthy moment on last year’s campaign trail had it. If party and voters are indeed already certain that Chequers is a dud, May is the last person to convert them. Her “machinery of government” statement on 24 July, announcing her direct control of the Brexit talks along with civil servant Robbins, and explicitly relegating minister Raab, is of the same tin-eared piece.

This surfeit of local drama is the latest shadow over Brexit’s impending deadlines. European Union summits in October and December are supposed to wrap up the withdrawal deal and future EU–UK trading relationship, before approval by the European parliament and the twenty-seven member states. Britain’s turmoil puts that schedule in jeopardy, but also begins to exert rare pressure on EU negotiators.

Rare, because London’s political theatrics during the Brexit process have fuelled confidence in Brussels — HQ of the European Commission, which runs the European Union — that it would get much the better of the withdrawal terms. Continuing uncertainty at this stage means Brussels must now judge how far Britain can be pushed without risking a late breakdown. In a gauche attempt to bypass the Commission, May’s ministers are also being despatched to sell the white paper to their EU equivalents. (The translations of its executive summary into twenty-two European languages are being mocked for their illiteracy, which too is all of a piece.) Michel Barnier, the chief EU negotiator, derided the UK’s diplomatic effrontery in his meeting with Raab on 26 July, just as he had reacted to the document itself with trademark hauteur (his motto should be the Turkish insult: you must give what we don’t want).

Yet to make a Brexit deal feasible, Europe will also have to be flexible. That would be a historic first. But if it were to come on the basis of the Chequers plan it would be to no avail, for even a modified version of that incoherent proposal will never pass a House of Commons vote. The next stage could bring into play other emergency options that May previously dropped: Norway-style membership of the European Economic Area only, or a Canada-style free-trade agreement “plus plus plus” (Davis’s preference). A savvy British approach, if that is still conceivable, might even seek to cherrypick — the word gives Barnier apoplexy — elements from the EU’s thirty-plus free-trade agreements, and ask: if South Korea and Mexico, why not us? To unbowed Brexiteers the question would have the collateral benefit of smoking out Barnier and the European Commission’s all-powerful Martin Selmayr, whose theology requires Britain to be seen to suffer for its impertinence, not least pour décourager les autres.

Alternatively, there is the possibility of the United Kingdom leaving with no deal at all — one the two sides are now, for the first time, raising openly and preparing for. Realism without panic is the British motto here, hoping the terms won’t be reversed. In principle Britain would then default to World Trade Organization rules and tariffs, at a cost of widespread economic disruption. Any reserve supplies of that hyperinflated language might then come in useful, especially if the financial markets put a horribly exposed currency in their sights. But one of many Brexit paradoxes is that not preparing seriously for a no-deal outcome has cramped Britain’s negotiating leverage. Similarly, Raab’s suggestion that Britain’s £39 billion (A$70 billion) divorce payment is conditional on progress in other areas might well have been deployed earlier as an effort to quicken pulses.

A more strategic and holistic view of the European Union, nowhere visible in the British government’s crabbed, defensive approach to Brexit, might also concentrate minds. Its own predicaments, ably dissected by analysts such as Ivan Krastev, Ulrike Guérot, Carnegie Europe’s Stefan Lehne, Chris Bickerton, Ian Kearns, and the Financial Times’s Wolfgang Münchau, are also a mad riddle. Among them are security, immigration, populism, regional division, eurozone policy and structural reform. But here is another paradox, or maybe not at all: Brexit is way down the list; Britain is so over already. As Münchau writes in the latest issue of Prospect, “The leaders of the EU are officially disappointed that Britain is headed for the door; secretly they will be relieved when it goes. In fact, the EU does not really want Brexit to be reversed.”

The larger point here is that these two woeful years, completing a post-crash decade, have created a fluid new milieu for the now disassembling EU–UK relationship. Deal or no deal, each entity is on the move, separately embarked on a disputatious mystery tour, strategically bereft, internally strained, in want of leadership, a plaything of global forces. The four decades of “living together, apart” are also over. Britain, mainly England, initiated the break, but the European Union has been first to internalise it.

This new milieu generates one more paradox: within the EU–UK distancing capped by Brexit, there is also unsought kinship. Ivan Krastev’s judgement, speaking to the geostrategic setting in the context of Trump’s visit to Europe — “The gravest risk the EU faces is to be the guardian of a status quo that has ceased to exist” — works for the UK too. So does his injunction: “The Europeans must also discover that while their unity is important, it can also help to be a little unpredictable themselves.”

Adjust the perspective and Brexit is child’s play turned grandiose by mandarins and mediocrities on both sides, incapable of descending to the level of events. They can’t be expected to solve the mad riddle. That leaves the British people. After two grim years it won’t be easy, but if you’re going to trust anyone it had best be them. ●