Silver-tongued British ministers hide the reality of Brexit

Janan Ganesh: Boris Johnson is like an incompetent doctor with good bedside manner

Britain’s foreign secretary Boris Johnson, pictured in Kenya on March 17th, continues to overpromise on Brexit at every stage. Photograph:  Thomas Mukoya/Reuters

Britain’s foreign secretary Boris Johnson, pictured in Kenya on March 17th, continues to overpromise on Brexit at every stage. Photograph: Thomas Mukoya/Reuters

 

There are medical students who glide through every stage of their training bar the bedside manner. They know the human body and its processes but cannot manage patient expectations or break bad news.

The three men in charge of Brexit, that elective operation on Britain’s body politic, evoke the opposite – and the worst – type of doctor. What they lack in core competence they redress with tongues of purest silver.

Pressed for detail on his work by MPs last week, David Davis, the minister for exit, left them vaguer. It hurts to inform you that diplomats find him well-briefed next to Liam Fox, whose trade portfolio is a phantom thing until Britain leaves the EU, and Boris Johnson, who has not let his rise to foreign secretary disrupt his work as a jester for the kind of Tories who laugh when a bird lands on centre court at Wimbledon.

But then look at what these ministers have achieved as manipulators of public debate. Over the past year, the terms on which Britain will leave have been talked down on such a fine gradient that even vigilant observers of politics are only semi-conscious of how far the country has been led.

As an opening pitch, voters were told that Britain could retain single market membership without its corollary burdens. Norway and Switzerland have tried for the same Utopia but our superior size would clinch it. When Leavers were disabused of this dream, they spoke of “access” to the market and zero barriers for traded goods. German exporters, blessed with supernatural lobbying powers that somehow failed to soften European sanctions on Russia, would persuade the EU of the mutual interest in such an arrangement.

When even this diminished plan ran into trouble, when it became clear that Britain’s desire for bilateral dealmaking power could not be accommodated inside the customs union, Leavers fell back on a formal trade relationship with the EU instead. Britain would do business with Europe as Canada does, as if geography had been abolished and the access terms enjoyed by a nation 4,000km away would serve for a nation whose physical and economic orientation is to the continent.

Promissory slippage

That seemed to be the last recourse. But now ministers are trying to normalise the idea of total exit without a trade pact. Johnson says this would not be “by any means as apocalyptic as some people like to pretend” (roll up, roll up for a future that stops short of apocalypse) and Davis describes it as “not harmful”. Economists disagree with him but politicians are allowed to question their record of clairvoyance.

What they are not allowed is a pardon for a solid year’s worth of promissory slippage: from single market membership to a commodious niche in the customs union to a trade deal to absolute severance. Even if they are right that Britain can prosper in its principal market as a World Trade Organisation member, this was never their vision.

At every stage, they overpromise. At every stage, reality finds them out. At every stage, they spin the new bottom-line as something they half-expected all along and as nothing to fear. If the sun melted the northern hemisphere, they would hope to finesse these isles out of the generalised inferno with a bespoke deal. This is the kind of confidence that arouses the opposite of confidence in others. It is the confidence of a lost tour guide who cannot be seen to scrutinise a map in front of paying holidaymakers.

If these ministers erred in different ways at different times, they could hope to improve through practice. But they consistently err on the side of optimism. The problem is not technical incompetence so much as a mystical belief that the EU will unpick its fundamental principles to accommodate Britain, that the whole world will make exceptions for the nation of Shakespeare and the spinning jenny.

If these men were shocked that the EU turned out to be a tough interlocutor with interests of its own, imagine their first contact with the American industrial lobby or the Indian state.

On March 29th, the government will file article 50 and begin talks that have no precedent in sweep or complexity. If we are now inured to the prospect of the very hardest of exits, that is some feat by Leavers. There is an art to the gradual normalisation of previously extreme ideas. In the hands of a good politician, you cannot tell you are being let down.

It is just that you would rather be in the hands of statesmen. Seeing these ministers talk their way out of old promises leaves you with a sense of sinuous political skill but also smallness – of a trio pulling themselves up to their full height to look at the monumental work of exit straight in the ankles.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017

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