The drama reaches a crescendo, the excitement is almost too much and the Prime Minister appeals to the national interest to gather support for her deal. It is as if a play had been put on for the nation’s benefit with words meaning what you will and the suspension of reality allowing a player to say that something weak looks strong. As Shakespeare had it, “A goodly apple rotten at the heart, /O, what a goodly outside falsehood hath!”
Since Theresa May became Prime Minister, her words have sought to give reassurance, albeit sometimes of an elliptical kind. “Brexit means Brexit” and “no deal is better than a bad deal” are phrases that come to mind. At an early stage, Mrs May even set out a vision for the United Kingdom as “a truly global Britain – the best friend and neighbour to our European partners but a country that reaches beyond the borders of Europe too”. This meant leaving the customs union because “full Customs Union membership prevents us from negotiating our own comprehensive trade deals”.
As the Prime Minister said: “our objective… explicitly rules out membership of the EU single market” because, again in her own words, respecting the four freedoms “would to all intents and purposes mean not leaving the EU at all”. Mrs May promised a deal that would last because “after Brexit both the UK and the EU want to forge ahead… not find ourselves back at the negotiating table because things have broken down”.
Regrettably things seem to have broken down. If the rumours are true, the deal will be worse than no deal, with a backstop more onerous than membership of the EU: one that will impose the rules of the single market when we are a third country. We will become an EU colony ruled by our overlords in Brussels.
The suggestion that the UK, which is currently free to leave the Customs Union with the two years’ notice that was given in 2017, would require permission to depart in the future means we are exchanging an hotel for a prison. Even more foolish is the Irish settlement, which will separate Northern Ireland from the rest of our nation. It was not so long ago that Mrs May said no Prime Minister would ever agree to such a backstop – but her own view has evolved so far and so fast that it would be hard to put any reliance on her further reassurances.
Once upon a time, the implementation period was meant to be one when the new deal was put into practice. Then it became an indeterminate extension to the negotiating period with a £39 billion price tag. Had the Prime Minister’s initial plan been delivered upon, there would be no need for a backstop. But, somehow, in spite of the great rush to the second stage in December last year, there has not been any serious progress on our future relationship.
Words have consequences. As Saint Matthew wrote: “every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment”. But before that final day, the Prime Minister’s words will be judged by the Cabinet, the House of Commons and by the British people. As it stands, the proposals that have been trailed do not meet the promises made to the voters either in the referendum or in the subsequent General Election. Instead, the half-in, half-out situation that was specifically rejected is almost upon us.
Fortunately, it is reported that the Prime Minister has called for the Cabinet to act in the national interest. Now, this patriotic call may be intended to encourage its members to back the Government’s climbdown – the vassalage that is the best our feeble negotiators have been able to achieve. However, the clearer national and democratic interest is to deliver on earlier promises.
Trust in politicians is in short supply. A failure to deliver Brexit would erase the little trust that remains, but a sturdy response would begin to restore it. This may not happen as the Cabinet is selected by the Prime Minister, and is dependent upon her for patronage, but all are answerable to some authority and, ultimately, Mrs May is held to account by Parliament.
Any deal must not only be approved by the House of Commons in a meaningful vote but must also be passed into law. As this happens, Members must consider their constituents. It is estimated that 406 constituencies voted to Leave, while both the Conservative and Labour parties promised to respect the result of the referendum in their manifestos for the 2017 General Election. The Tories must particularly pay attention to their own manifesto and the promise to leave the Single Market and the Customs Union. There was no small print or get-out clause saying that unless it is in a backstop or otherwise thought advisable by No 10. It was a clear, unambiguous guarantee.
Jo Johnson has written that the deal risks being a national humiliation on the scale of Suez. He is right. Yet the Conservatives recovered from Suez and won an election two years later with a majority of 100. Harold Macmillan was able to do this because he presided over economic prosperity but also because he was a charismatic leader, unflappable and elegant. Unfortunately, this did not work so well after the failure surrounding the nation’s departure from the Exchange Rate Mechanism in 1992. The party’s reputation for economic competence did not recover in spite of a strong economy, and the defeat that followed in 1997 was the worst since 1906.
The deal that is proposed is not in the national interest, does not keep faith with early commitments and will not succeed. Escaping from it could be accidental or deliberate. The country could find that the Cabinet demands the path to a sensible free trade solution or that the House of Commons votes down the Government’s plan leading to no deal. In this case, plans must be made and policy directed to making it succeed even in the event of the EU pursuing a punishment Brexit.
To make this happen, a new style of leadership will be required – not one that accepts responsibility for gently managing decline but one that sees the real advantages of a global Britain as Mrs May once set out. Can the Prime Minister, in a good Tory way, restore the optimism that she once had?
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