Hard Brexiteers insist we were sold out by devious Remainers. But this is fantasyby David Henig / November 13, 2018 / Leave a comment
You can already hear the talk among a number of MPs and campaigners now supporting a no-deal Brexit: the will of the people is at risk of being betrayed. The prime minister’s Lancaster House speech was sabotaged, perhaps because the PM was a Remainer. Civil servants, Remainers all, conspired with her. David Davis and Boris Johnson were constantly overruled. The EU wants to make the UK suffer. Business, in an overly comfortable relationship with the EU, is part of the problem. Ultimately anything other than no-deal means political division and distrust growing.
What will not be shown is any measure of self-awareness. Yet those who said Brexit could deliver the exact same benefits as EU membership turned out to be wrong, there isn’t any magic technology that can now deliver frictionless borders, and we won’t be at the table when regulations are set. In short, those who push no-deal show no acceptance that there has to be trade-offs. These are thepub bores who could have been a contender. In reality, it was obvious from the start that there would have to be compromise.
Theresa May’s Lancaster House speech of January 2017 could soon be remembered in much the same way as Margaret Thatcher’s Bruges speech of 1988, more for what it was meant to have said than what it actually did say. For sure it said we would leave the single market and customs union, but there is rather a lot of ambiguity, starting with “there will have to be compromises.” The section on the single market says we will leave but anticipates that an agreement “may take in elements of current single market arrangements in certain areas—on the export of cars and lorries for example, or the freedom to provide financial services across national borders.” On customs the PM says “I do want us to have a customs agreement with the EU” and “I want to remove as many barriers to trade as possible.”
So there was already a desire for retaining a close economic relationship with the EU, and that is without May’s words on the Irish border, “nobody wants to return to the borders of the past, so we will make it a priority to deliver a practical solution as soon as we can.” As we know, it has not yet been possible to find a mutual solution to the question of the Irish border, any more than it has been possible for the two parties to define a new customs partnership, or for the UK to cherry-pick parts of the single market. But Lancaster House is certainly not inconsistent with what has happened in talks since, and also suggests a UK actively seeking a close relationship rather than an EU wanting to keep us prisoner.
Of course none of this means that a devious EU-loving civil service didn’t manipulate the whole process to ensure a continuing close relationship, or that we don’t leave at all. The role of advisers is always a fertile subject for conspiracy theorists, but all the more so in negotiations when they handle the detail. This should be done according to the instructions of politicians, but there needs to be a relationship of trust where the lead civil service negotiator can speak honestly with ministers.
In the case of Brexit though, it is worth noting that those with the greatest experience of EU negotiations were generally kept away from the talks. We cannot know the intentions of the late Jeremy Heywood as cabinet secretary, but it would not have been beyond his powers of foresight to fear that civil servants would be blamed, and make sure the top team were not seen as Brussels “natives.”
There is a theory that clever civil servants deliberately withheld the meaning of the agreements made in December and March from Brexiteer ministers Davis and Johnson. However this theory doesn’t work well when we consider that the front page of the latter agreement consists of a blue box which includes the explicit words “with respect to the DRAFT PROTOCOL ON IRELAND/NORTHERN IRELAND, the negotiators agree that a legally operative version of the ‘backstop’ solution for the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, in line with paragraph 49 of the Joint Report, should be agreed as part of the legal text of the Withdrawal Agreement, to apply unless and until another solution is found.” We can also recall that the DUP held up agreement on the December 2017 report over the Ireland-specific paragraphs about a backstop. For two of the main ministers involved to have been unaware of the implications stretches credulity too far.
There is a more likely explanation for how we got to this point, which is that in their hearts Davis, Johnson and others expected the EU to have abandoned Ireland by now, choosing instead to believe that notional technological solutions would prove satisfactory. This reflects a quite spectacular misjudgement on two counts, first as to how the EU works, and second as to how borders work, and how the EU has managed to be the only entity in which infrastructure has been removed at borders between countries. But obviously Davis and Johnson are not going to take responsibility for their own shortcomings, so instead they and their supporters’ clubs wish to drive us towards the cliff edge no-deal Brexit.
Thankfully, it looks as if enough conservative MPs will choose not to believe the conspiracies. They will put the economy before sparing the embarrassment of senior colleagues. But the country at large waits nervously. For conspiracy theories and stories of betrayal, however ridiculous, have a habit of being rather persistent.