Most people do not realise that the prime minister has already warned us of the possible consequences of Brexit. One year ago she stood outside 10 Downing Street and made them explicit.
“If we don’t get the negotiation right, your economic security and prosperity will be put at risk and the opportunities you seek for your families will simply not happen,” she said. “If we do not stand up and get this negotiation right, we risk the secure and well-paid jobs we want for our children and our children’s children too.”
One year later, she cannot even agree a negotiating position with her own cabinet.
Her customs plans are in disarray. The Lords have voted, in the face of tabloid denunciations of treason, to keep us in the single market. The government is refusing to present new trade and customs bills to parliament for fear of their rejection. And in just seven weeks the European Union will demand a concrete and workable solution for the Irish border as a condition of progressing talks on the future trade relationship. Needless to say, the government has not yet provided one.
The government is not yet in freefall only because it has not finished building its own scaffold. Indeed, like a tower of wooden Jenga blocks, the structure stands—for a period—while one brick at a time, it gets dismantled from within.
A key block is perhaps the most overlooked: the current state of the national finances. While the prime minister no longer mentions the risks to our prosperity or our grandchildren’s future careers, the economy is incontrovertibly flatlining. News recently emerged that the UK had posted just 0.1 per cent growth in the first quarter of 2018—the lowest figure in six years. The Bank of England has reduced growth forecasts for the year from 1.8 per cent to 1.4 per cent. The respected economic commentator Will Hutton, pointing to stalled manufacturing and investment figures, speculates about an approaching recession.
The government, contradicted by the Office for National Statistics but largely unchallenged by a distracted media, attributes this economic paralysis to the snow. Certainly, the economy appears to be entering a deep freeze—and the government’s response is to remove the insulation and tear out the radiators. What medicine, after all, could be stronger or tougher than imposing comprehensive trade barriers with our largest market, cutting off financial passporting rights and introducing a new, byzantine and entirely unnecessary customs infrastructure for all our imports and exports? Whatever else the government may do to the economy, it will certainly teach it to flatline.
Which brings us to the central block currently undergoing removal: the government’s customs policy. Weeks of cabinet wrangling, briefing and in Boris Johnson’s case, freelancing, have done nothing to alter facts that are as real now as they were two years ago. A fully open Irish border requires a full customs union and single market in goods, and a full customs union will prevent the UK from signing tariff-based trade deals. The first government solution of “maximum facilitation” requires the EU to disregard its own laws; the second option of a customs partnership requires science fiction. More to the point, the EU has comprehensively rejected both. Certainly, there are no signs in Dublin that officials are warming to either. Quite the reverse: they have been rejecting the ideas consistently for the last nine months. On that side of the Irish Sea, at least, peace in Northern Ireland is valued more highly than the UK’s trade with New Zealand.
“The government is not yet in freefall only because it has not finished building its own scaffold”
While the government ignores the situation’s underlying gravity, its customs spectacle attracts almost addictive horror. Bystanders in the EU are slowly accepting that there is no clever subplot behind the superficial chaos and no method in the madness. This really is all they’ve got. It must then be the case that ten months before Brexit day, and just five months before the agreement of the withdrawal treaty, the government is not even attempting to move forward with customs proposals, but instead fighting over ground it has already covered, and which the EU has already invalidated. News that some Brexiters are now demanding an extended transition so Britain can be ready to implement “maximum facilitation” simply compounds the woozy sense of disbelief. It is as though the Wizard of Oz has been exposed by the curtains and simply asked Dorothy to re-draw them.
As the government continues its games, another significant deadline approaches. Ireland and the rest of the EU are not bluffing when they demand to see serious progress at the June summit. Ireland’s foreign minister Simon Coveney is moreover sincere when he openly questions how we can sign any deal at all in October if we do not have a clear and credible plan for the border next month. As with previous crunch points, it is eminently possible that the government will engage in tedious weeks of jingoistic grandstanding before it inevitably capitulates; but this time Theresa May could find that the hardliners behind her are not prepared to do the same.
Wherever May looks, danger lurks. She cannot present necessary trade and customs bills because she fears, correctly, her moderate backbenchers will defy her. She cannot plead for rationality as her Brexit zealots will defenestrate her. The House of Lords, meanwhile, has shown its teeth. To the fury of those who demanded Brexit in order to boost parliamentary sovereignty, peers have performed their constitutional function by holding the government to account and rigorously amending the withdrawal bill. The new legal demand for no hard border in Ireland is significant; the instruction to remain in the single market is explosive. May now faces fresh unwanted battles to prevent the spread of rebellion in the Commons.
All of which risks distracting her from the key cog in the Brexit machine: the power of the EU. If asked, Brussels will intervene to rescue the British economy, but not the Tory party. Certainly, the EU will reject any request for extension to either Article 50 or the transition—despite that being absolutely essential—if the government’s only motivation is to engineer a fudge and save its own electoral skin.
One year after May threatened us with the consequences of a botched negotiation, she has not even begun to discuss a final deal, and does not know what to ask for when she does. She is right that our children and grandchildren’s jobs are at risk. And it is more important to save their jobs than hers.
The tower of Brexit is being simultaneously built and razed. It places too much weight on feeble foundations and surrenders too many bricks from different angles. It cannot satisfy the demands of reality because it was only ever designed to exist in the imagination. The tower will collapse. Jenga is a frivolous game, and the government is a frivolous game-player. It should know only too well that the question of its collapse is not if, but when.