I have always believed that it is relatively easy to agree a transition deal along the lines that May is now suggesting. It simply is no longer possible to organise the necessary border posts, lorry parks, paperwork and software in time to sort out the practicalities within 18 months. There is therefore not the remotest possibility of a clean break in March 2019 without queues of vehicles, angry and frustrated businesses and an unacceptable level of chaos. There is, however, every reason to strike a deal which says nothing much happens on the day of formal departure and the UK sticks by almost all the current arrangements until the end of the current EU budget round. We carry on making promised payments and we carry on obeying the rules of freedom of movement whilst both sides get ready for a gradual move apart.
The obvious critique from anyone like myself who wishes to remain is “why bother”? Surely we’d be better off shaping the rules as well as obeying them. The obvious critique from fanatical leavers is “when will we ever be free?”
The answer to which is, of course, never. You can’t free yourself from reality – as most sensible people are starting to realise. If you have trade deals with the EU then you have to have a set of arrangements to police that trade and that involves agreeing to common standards and the judgements of a court that has sovereignty over all those trading. Exactly the same reality applies to any fresh trade deals we strike with the US, India, China or wherever. The only difference with the EU is that we have spent a lot of time creating some small degree of democratic control over those institutions (and a lot more time criticising the limitations and the stupidities of that control). When it comes to a trade deal with the US the policing arrangements won’t be remotely as clear and transparent as the flawed, bureaucratic but slightly democrat ones inside the EU. Instead, we’ll have rulings handed down to us by US corporate lawyers.
Personally I have been very much hoping that during the long drawn out drag of leaving it will gradually become clear to almost everyone that the promise of an easy, quick and economically glorious Brexit was one of the worst lies the British public have ever been exposed to. I want a head of steam to emerge for a vote to be offered to the British people that allows us to endorse or reject the actual deal that is negotiated on Brexit rather than sticking to the result of a plebiscite on wild promises and wild threats.
It is, however, important not to confuse wishes with likely outcomes. May’s speech recognising the realities changes the dynamics. We are no longer in for a quick and dramatic cock up. We are in for a long drawn out gradual cock up. The plan now is that there never will be a day when we leave the EU. Instead we will move away steadily hoping no one will really notice. That way we might get to keep London as a major financial centre for some time, we may be able to retain rather more of the vital foreign doctors and nurses working in the NHS and we’ll lose fewer multinational manufacturing businesses. We may even get to retain most of the rights at work and environmental protections for a bit longer. May is going for a boring and non-spectacular Brexit. One that matches her personality.
It is also one that might just be able to unite enough of her party to let her lurch on. There is a very voluble faction inside her party that wants an all out exit straight away and still thinks it can somehow magically be organised in time to transform everything overnight in March 2019. They have the advantage of a very simple argument – “out should mean out” and they have a lot of media support. But they have the very simple disadvantage that what they want to do can’t be made to happen in time. There also aren’t actually enough Conservative MPs behind them and with UKIP having completely shot its bolt May might just be able to get away with standing up to them. Most Conservative MPs voted to remain because that was best for business. In any vote on hard versus soft Brexit May can command enough of their votes and enough support from other parties to crush anyone on her far right who rebels.
So I now think the future will pan out a little like this.
- May will stay on and consolidate her leadership within the Conservative Party
- Most people will become very bored by a gradual transition away from the EU and will put up with leaving
- The Conservatives will seek to restore their reputation by trying to pull off the quietest possible Brexit. Whether they succeed will mainly depend on how far and how quickly the economy slows now that quantitative easing is over
- Public frustration is likely to be expressed in by-elections and in the May 2018 local elections with the Conservatives losing a lot of seats
- Labour will force through many Brexit amendments but will have too many of its own rebels to ever bring the government down on a vote
- If Labour does force an election and win it then the Brexit policy will scarcely change and they too will try for a quiet exit.
Incredibly we will go into the next General Election with over 50% of voters opposed to Brexit but two major parties both offering to lead us through a steady as she goes exit. I have always been cynical about the merits of two party politics. We saw it at its worst when both parties backed the Iraq war. Now we are about to see it once again at its very worst.
Get ready for some impressive bluster from Labour over the difference between their Brexit and May’s but get even more ready for a serious coming together of their positions and a consensus. Unfortunately it is an agreement to make a huge mistake slowly and at leisure rather than go at it quickly. What could possibly go wrong?