I told myself that my previous piece at the end of September was the last on this subject for 2018. After all, we had had our fill of Brexit and there are plenty of other things that merit discussion. But events of the last couple of weeks have changed my mind. Just when I thought the current UK administration couldn’t make an even bigger mess of the whole business, up pops our Prime Minister and engineers a political crisis in a matter of days. It takes a rare talent….
To minimise the pre-Christmas misery, especially for my British readers, I’ll keep this as brief as I can. First off, the story so far.
At the very outset, as the referendum result was announced and the fog of battle began to clear, three things at least were evident [or should have been!]:
One, two years was not going to be nearly long enough to disentangle the UK from the EU. We have been members for nearly half a century. Supply chains of our major manufacturing industries – aerospace, automotive, food processing and pharma being the most significant – were too closely integrated with their supplier bases in mainland Europe. You only had to look at the chaos on both sides of the channel when ports ceased to operate as normal for only a few days. That gave the British powers-that-be two choices. Either buy more time than was provided for under Article 50. Or come rapidly to terms with the idea that this was going to be a staged process: the UK could not eat the elephant in one gulp.
Two, adding weight to the first point, year one of any negotiation with the EU was going to consist largely of a punishment beating. UK withdrawal would mean a big hole in the Commission’s budget and thus the EU negotiating team had every incentive to hang the UK out to dry. Don’t even think about it would be the less than subtle message to everyone else.
Three, the British public and British industry needed certainty as rapidly as possible. That in turn called for a clear strategy and charismatic leadership. I’m a great admirer of Theresa May’s tenacity and determination. One of my children is a type 1 diabetic so I have some understanding of the burden that places on her health. I particularly respect the fact that she has never used her condition as an alibi or excuse, and regards it as a private matter. But she is no strategist and even her closest friends would be pushed to describe her as charismatic. She is unquestionably a very competent tactician – she survived the ministerial graveyard that is the Home Office longer than any other post-war British politician and, despite all the setbacks, she is still in office – but a competent tactician is not what the country has needed. It is rather, as the late George HW Bush put it, “the vision thing”. It exasperated him, but there are times in a nation’s history when it is indispensable to leadership. A sense of duty and a dogged work ethic are not enough.
Of course, none of this happened. A few perceptive commentators, such as Christopher Booker, identified early on that rejoining EFTA/EEA – the Norway option – as the best approximation to squaring an impossible circle. But they were voices crying in the wilderness. Our political class was convinced it could do better and banged their collective heads against a brick wall for two years in the search for an ideal solution. Finally it seems to have grasped there isn’t one. As that great philosopher Sir Mick Jagger put it, you can’t always get what you want.
So, where do we go from here, with the UK government and parliament fighting for supremacy like rats in a sack? The range of feasible options is narrowing. Donald Tusk is a sympathetic anglophile, like many Poles, but the real power in the EU lies with France and Germany. Merkel and Macron have got more than enough on their domestic plates. May might get a few cosmetic concessions, more out of pity for her predicament as a fellow leader, but Brexit is way down the list of priorities. It’s the UK’s problem, and if she can’t sell a revised deal to her fellow-politicians, tough.
May cannot command a parliamentary majority for the current deal and it looks like “no deal” – ie quitting and reverting to WTO terms – won’t get through either. Extending the leaving date under Article 50 won’t solve anything if she persists with trying to flog a dead horse. That leaves us with a second referendum [actually number three, as the first took place in 1975, and those who lost abided by the result], or Norway/Norway plus.
I’ve already argued that another referendum should be resisted at all costs. It will prolong the agony and uncertainty and perpetuate the division that scars the country. The people pressing hard for it are Remainers like Tony Blair [remember him?] and Anna Soubry MP. I watched an interview with her last night on Channel 4 News, and she gave herself away almost immediately. This will give the people who voted leave the chance to change their minds, she repeated. What if they don’t? What if it merely stiffens their resolve? On the same programme was a live vox pop from Blyth in the north-east of England, which voted overwhelmingly in favour of leave. It was highly revealing. No one was prepared to change their minds, and the majority were prepared to leave on WTO terms. Even the prospect of another referendum is almost certain to provoke widespread civil unrest. If you want to see what that looks like, you have only to view the coverage of the gilets jaunes revolt across the Channel. It’s not legitimate protesters you need to worry about. It’s the right-wing thugs and lefty anarchists who ride on the coat-tails and are just spoiling for a barney. At a time when we have a seriously depleted police force and army, that doesn’t look to me like a smart outcome.
Ms Soubry was emphatic that it’s too late for the Norway option. Why? She wasn’t pressed and didn’t explain. But then she wouldn’t. If a large number of MPs are starting to coalesce around the idea, perhaps even a majority, it seems improbable that they can all be deluded. Commentators pick holes in it, but any solution is an imperfect one. If you can get 75% or 80% of what you want, and satisfy those who voted Leave that this is a return to where we were before we joined the European Community – as it would be – that’s a good enough base from which to start. And we have to start somewhere, because this nonsense cannot continue. As Sherlock Holmes observed to Dr Watson, when you have eliminated the impossible, only the possible remains.
Merry Christmas, everyone! And here’s hoping for a better New Year.