Here is a thought experiment: what would it take, in practice, for a UK government to self-sabotage a “successful” Brexit? And how would that differ from current policy?
We all know the government’s position is that “Brexit means Brexit” and that Britain will make “a success of it”. We also know that, now Article 50 has been triggered, the UK will not be a member of the EU in two years’ time (unless something happens which cannot currently be foreseen). Brexit will therefore take place, whether it is to be a success or not.
There are perhaps at least three ways in which a “successful” Brexit could be sabotaged. But the curious thing about each one is that it seems to describe what the current prime minister and her government are doing in practice. This is odd as presumably the intention of the government is that Brexit will be successful. But there are reasons for those who want Brexit to be a success to be concerned.
The first way that a successful Brexit would be sabotaged is by wasting time.
Time is crucial because of the way Article 50 is structured. The two-year time limit is both strict and consequential. The exit date can only be changed as part of the exit agreement or by the unanimous agreement of all 28 EU member states.
But what is the government doing in the critical first few months of the two years? It has decided not to get on with the job but to have a general election instead. This means it will be June before any proper negotiations can start.
This general election is likely to benefit the governing Conservative party in domestic political terms, but in respect of the exit period, the effect can only be negative. There is not time to waste, but the government is wasting it anyway. The supposed justification that the election is needed to strengthen the government’s negotiating position does not wash: the European Council’s guidelines are now in place and the size of any UK government majority makes no difference to what the EU’s negotiating team can accept or not accept.
This is not the first time the government has wasted time with Brexit. In the months just after the referendum result, when the EU was swiftly getting its act together (see my posts here, here and here), the government decided to have the distraction and disruption of a major departmental reorganisation, creating two new departments from scratch. And when the High Court held (correctly) that an act of parliament was needed for the Article 50 notification, the government again wasted time and resources appealing to the Supreme Court (where it lost), rather than passing a bill straight away.
Lack of any grasp of issues and process
The second way the outcome can be sabotaged is by the government having no firm idea what to achieve or how to achieve it.
On the EU side, the negotiating position has been clear since the hours after the referendum and the process has been mastered (again, see here, here and here). The EU appears to have been ready to deal with Brexit since last year. The negotiation “guidelines” were adopted quickly at the last European Council meeting because of the detailed preparatory work. The European Commission’s negotiating team TF50 is well briefed and well resourced.
And Britain? On the basis of publicly available information, the UK appears not to have any developed view on what it wants to achieve or how it is going to get there. The few published statements are not impressive: a flimsy white paper and a rhetorical notification letter. The country can only complain about the EU’s insistence on the phased approach and the priority to be given to an “orderly” Brexit. A week before the UK even issued its notification letter, the EU’s chief negotiator was setting out the methods and procedure that he expected to be followed.
The impression is that the UK is at a loss over how to go about the negotiation process. Of course, it may well be that Britain knows what exactly it is doing but has just chosen not to disclose this yet. But one must feel gullible nodding-along with such a reassuring thought. The leaks of what was said at the now-infamous Downing Street dinner will not provide comfort to those wanting to feel the government is on top of the job as well as (supposedly) getting on with the job.
Needlessly closing down options
The third way means of sabotage is by closing down options prematurely.
The referendum provided a mandate for the UK to leave the EU but not for any particular model of Brexit. There are many ways in which a country can be not a member of the EU but still have a close relationship: ask Norway, or Turkey or Switzerland. And there are many ways in which the referendum mandate could be achieved. The only outcome that the vote result prescribes is that the UK not be a member of the EU.
But in her October speech to the Conservative party conference (and in her Lancaster House speech in January), Theresa May, the prime minister, closed down any option that meant the UK would continue to be part of the single market and the customs union, or accepting any jurisdiction of the Court of Justice of the European Union.
The UK therefore combined not knowing what it positively wanted from Brexit with ruling out various potentially viable ways in which a successful exit could be achieved. There is, of course, an argument that these possibilities were never real options: but the country ruling them out so completely at an early stage means we will never find out.
Would a committed Remainer government be able do more than the current government to sabotage a successful Brexit?
There are no doubt further ways in which a successful Brexit can be sabotaged by a UK government: being needlessly confrontational and accusatory, failing to carry all the home nations and stoking unrealistic expectations in the media, for example.
And with these ways also, you can see a case for saying the government is sabotaging a successful Brexit. It is almost as if it is doing what it can not to make Brexit a success, despite claiming otherwise. This is a strange conclusion but that is where the evidence seems to point.
Many in favour of Brexit will stoutly defend the government’s handling of the matter. But beyond the partisanship that means your preferred leaders can never be wrong, there is little concrete for a supporter of the government to show that it is guiding the UK to a successful exit. For example: there is little or nothing to show that time has been (or will be) used well, there is little or nothing to show the government has a grasp of the issues or of the process, and the government has loudly closed down various options.
Brexit can be a success, and the UK can be successful outside the EU (I have no objection in principle to Brexit). But neither eventuality is bound to happen, just as neither is bound not to happen. A great deal will come down to how the government approaches the negotiations.
As it stands, however, it is hard to see how even committed Remainers could do more than the current government in sabotaging the UK’s prospect of a successful Brexit.