Chris Johns: UK still in denial over what is required for Brexit
British government is negotiating with itself, its supporters and the tabloid press on Brexit
Theresa May: she and other Brexiteers keep insisting that things are proceeding smoothly when clearly they are not. Photograph: PA Wire
The evidence continues to pile up: the UK government is woefully underprepared for Brexit, and remains in denial about what is now required.
Theresa May and other Brexiteers keep insisting that things are proceeding smoothly when clearly they are not. As the EU’s negotiator-in-chief Michel Barnier said this week, all that he sees and hears about Britain’s preparations is a “clock ticking”.
March 2019 approaches inexorably. And we get this week’s intervention by Boris Johnson in which he told the EU “to go whistle” if it wants the UK to honour its financial obligations.
An absence of serious engagement with the details of Brexit is one thing but the refusal to prepare the electorate for the damage that leaving is going to cause is just as big a failure. The British people deserve – and need – better.
Leading commentators are growing ever bolder in their efforts to heap derision on the government’s non-strategy and on the absence of any engagement with the details.
It simply isn’t true, as the Brexiteers keep insisting, that current free-trade agreements between the EU and other countries can be adopted by the UK overnight. Trade agreements take years to negotiate, and are about much more than simple tariffs on physical goods. That’s the easy part. The rules and regulations surrounding trade in services – much more important to the UK – are mind-numbingly complicated and fraught with difficulty.
Another example: nobody in the British government appears close to understanding that the EU regards its four freedoms – of movement of goods, capital, services and people – as fundamental and indivisible. While there may be wiggle room on some of the details, you can’t trade one off against the other in any material way.
The obvious question is now being asked: if voters had been asked a slightly different question, “Do you want Brexit with all of its complexity and cost?”, what would the answer have been?
The commentator Nick Cohen, writing for the Spectator, this week brilliantly evoked the physicist and Nobel prize-winner Richard Feynman in an attempt to try and make sense of what the British government is up to. Feynman said that only torment awaits those who try to understand quantum mechanics. “Do not keep saying to yourself, ‘but how can it [nature] be like that?’, because you will get down the drain, into a blind alley from which nobody has yet escaped.”
That’s Brexit: it is what it is but it defies attempts to understand what it actually is.
David Allen Green, writing in the Financial Times, describes it slightly differently.
“As pro-Brexit ministers attempt to chuckle their way through any form of scrutiny, the EU negotiating team is there waiting patiently…there will be attempts by ministers and their supporters at avoidance, evasion and diversion. There will be name-calling and strident demands for patriotism. There will be blame-mongering and jockeying for succession. But what there will not be is any relevant minister taking this as seriously as the EU is doing.”
The British government is negotiating with itself, its supporters and the tabloid press. It is not seriously talking to the EU.
Tony Blair, not listened to by anyone, published a thoughtful piece in recent days arguing that Britain currently has “more followership than leadership”. With no serious people at the centre, the country can only stagger on to whatever happens next. He thinks that a proper engagement with Europe would reveal a more nuanced view of one of those four freedoms, the movement of people: here, he suggests, there is room for manoeuvre.
The UK National Audit Office last week warned that the government’s approach was so chaotic that the Brexit process “could fall apart like a chocolate orange”. A “horror show” awaits if custom officials have to process new trade arrangements manually, it warns, something that awaits if a new computerised system of checks is not ready.
Rather than take any of this seriously, the UK inches ever closer to what is now probably the most likely outcome: crashing out of the EU without a deal.
Sensing the national mood on Brexit is starting to shift, the hard right of the Tory party actually now wants “no deal” as the preferred outcome. Any kind of compromise to avoid this disaster is now a matter of high treason.
Brexit’s critics come at all of this with arguments, reason and detail. Anyone interested in Brexiteer response should read the comments at the end of any of this columnist’s recent articles (and probably this one).
Ian Dunt, a leading critic of the Brexiteers, points out that the Tories keep May in her job only as a human shield, protection against both ridicule and Corbyn as prime minister. At least that’s what they hope.
Nick Cohen likens the Brexiteers to Hitler’s appeasers: every option except the most difficult one was discarded.