Both camps prefer simple slogans to concrete proposalsby Pawel Swidlicki / August 10, 2018 / Leave a comment
It is now well over two years since Britain voted to leave the European Union but despite the huge political volatility that the result unleashed, for the most part the debate about how to proceed remains stuck, unable to move meaningfully beyond the rhetoric of the referendum campaign. On the whole, neither side has demonstrated that it is willing to grasp the unpalatable trade-offs inherent in Brexit, and instead these are wished away. This in turn has exacerbated what would in any event be a very difficult and complicated process, and contributed to the government’s long periods of paralysis.
On the Remain side, many have still not fully come to terms with Brexit and jump with relish on allegations of Vote Leave misconduct in the belief this renders the result invalid, or that the vote ought to be re-run. This fails to consider what such a decision would mean for confidence in the democratic process at a time of creeping authoritarianism around the world.
The actions of most Brexiteers on the other hand bring to mind the proverbial dog that caught the bus and didn’t quite know what to do next. The lack of a concrete plan was an asset during the referendum as it allowed Brexit to be a sufficiently blank canvas for a wide range of groups—from nostalgic nationalists to cosmopolitan advocates of globalisation—to support it as the necessary first step towards the realisation of their respective agendas. In victory however, this lack of a workable plan has proved to be a major liability. It has hobbled the government’s attempts to deliver Brexit as it tries to square several competing and at times contradictory imperatives.
For example, during the campaign it was easy to dismiss concerns about the status of the Irish border and therefore the Good Friday Agreement as “scaremongering” and claim it would not be difficult to find a solution that would allow the border to remain “just as free-flowing as it is today,” in the words of the Brexit campaigner and then Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers. In practice, however, it has become apparent there is no magic solution that allows the UK to leave the single market and customs union and avoid a hard border in Ireland, while also avoiding a new border down the Irish sea.
The torturous and unloved Chequers plan with its proposed Facilitated Customs Arrangement is the government’s attempt to meet all of these objectives and while doubts abound as to its viability—with many seeing it as a stalking horse for an eventual full customs union—it is at least a genuine attempt to engage with the Irish border trilemma. In contrast, confronted by the reality of the situation, many Brexiteers have decided it is a problem “invented” by Dublin and Brussels to sabotage the Brexit negotiations and prevent the UK from really leaving and thriving on the outside.
“Brexiteers bring to mind the proverbial dog that caught the bus: they didn’t quite know what to do next”
This retreat into a comfort zone where perpetual campaigning trumps governing and the compromises that entails is evident across the board. It was revealing that in his resignation speech, former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson used the word “dream” to characterise Brexit, a dream that is fast dissipating as it comes into contact with reality. Reunited with his Telegraph column, Johnson along with the rest of the Brexit commentariat is free to pour scorn on any practical attempts to deliver Brexit while insisting that things would have been—and still could be—different if only a true Brexit believer were at the helm.
With the Withdrawal Agreement hanging on some precarious parliamentary arithmetic, the government is counting on ramping up concerns about what a no deal scenario would look like in practice. Brexiteers used to be big advocates of visibly stepping up no deal contingency planning, but they now dismiss reports about the need to stockpile food and medicines as “Project Fear Two,” again harking back to the referendum campaign.
Some of the more apocalyptic scenarios are overblown and unlikely to materialise, and they also illustrate Remainers’ failure to identify an alternative strategy. However, blinded by hubris, many Brexiteers are flat out refusing to engage seriously with the prospect of no deal chaos at all. It has become received wisdom that “Project Fear One” was a flop, and indeed it was in electoral terms, but in terms of what actually happened after a vote to Leave, the situation is much more mixed.
While George Osborne’s more lurid claims of a severe shock failed to materialise, the UK’s growth rate has fallen to the lowest in the G7 and inflation driven by the fall in the pound has further eroded living standards. Equally, many other warnings dismissed by Brexiteers at the time have proven remarkably prescient, most notably that German industry would prioritise the integrity of the single market over pressuring the German government to offer the UK a highly bespoke and favourable arrangement.
This absolute self-confidence in Brexit has led to the bizarre spectacle of pro-Brexit MPs and commentators explaining to the likes of the Road Haulage Association or the British Sandwich Association how their industries work. Leavers have also completely misrepresented World Trade Organisation arrangements, much to the despair of former WTO officials who spent years drawing up and implementing these measures.
“They retreat into a comfort zone where perpetual campaigning trumps governing”
Much of the media also remains stuck in a referendum mindset, where (otherwise laudable) attempts at balance are met with demands from Tory backbenchers that broadcasters “believe in Brexit.” As though this were as important as detailed and forensic examinations of the legal and practical implications of no deal.
There is a very important distinction to bear in mind when comparing “Project Fear Two” with its predecessor, namely that the mere act of voting Leave changed little in and of itself. It was therefore much easier for Brexiteers to dismiss warnings and concerns as hypotheticals. For example, in response to claims that the UK would fail to strike a favourable deal and therefore suffer negative economic consequences, it was easy to respond along the lines of “no, it is in the EU’s interests to give us a good deal, they need us more than we need them.”
The negotiations have however revealed the shortcomings of that response, and due to the rigid structure of Article 50 the default outcome is that in the absence of an agreement, the UK crashes out without a deal. This is not to say that an emergency, last minute deal on aviation would not be struck, but again it is important to stress this would not be the default outcome of no deal. Even a “soft no deal” would have severe negative economic and political consequences, in turn putting Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour in a strong position to win any subsequent early election.
With just over six months until Brexit day, politicians need to snap out of campaign mode and level with the public about the feasible options facing the country—a Withdrawal Agreement containing an Irish border backstop, followed by a compromise roughly along the lines of Chequers, or a damaging and chaotic no deal. Thankfully some Brexiteers, such as Environment Secretary Michael Gove and new Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab, appear to grasp the seriousness of the situation and are trying to find a workable compromise. Too many others are stuck in the 2016 campaign.