Chris Johns: Britain plays its hand amateurishly in Brexit poker

UK stance in discussions with EU reveals damaging ignorance of negotiating skills

British prime minister Theresa May: few think she can get the necessary Brexit legislation through parliament. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

British prime minister Theresa May: few think she can get the necessary Brexit legislation through parliament. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

 

The British government is retreating fast from its previously-declared Brexit negotiating position. The capitulation is so extensive I am surprised that foreign secretary Boris Johnson, given his fondness for second World War metaphors, has not tried to invoke the spirit of Dunkirk. At this rate they will be applying to join the euro by Christmas.

Earlier in the year, David Davies, Brexit minister and one of several wannabe prime ministers, promised an almighty “summer row” once the negotiations got under way. It was, apparently, all about sequencing: the British wanted everything all at once, the European Union calmly stuck to its “one thing at a time” line. The most revealing fact about the strength of the British hand was that it took about 10 seconds for them to fold.

Davies wanted an instant free-trade deal, an agreement to end free movement of people, acceptance of exits from both the single market and the customs union, the end of the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice and Europe was to drop its nonsense about a large exit bill. Six impossible things before breakfast and plainly idiotic: poker played with all the cards face up and a total lack of appreciation that Europe sees this list as a series of trade-offs. The more you want of one thing, the less you will get of another.

Compromise

Failure to see the existence of trade-offs renders compromise impossible and makes you look like an idiot. Or, at least, someone who knows nothing about negotiating skills.

“May survives June” has been the inevitable headline over the past few days. The Tory party has settled into a sullen acceptance that any false move, including deposing the prime minister, will catapult Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn into Downing Street.

Whether by accident or design, Corbyn has played all this brilliantly. He has even managed to capture the votes of frustrated Remainers who have so far failed to see through the contradictions of Labour’s Brexit proposals.

Corbyn is as anti-EU as the hard right of the Conservative Party but for very different reasons. He sees it as a capitalist conspiracy designed to do down workers. Indeed, he sees most things this way. Sooner or later, his appeal will fade once pro-EU Labour voters figure this out.

Key to making any kind of sense of all of the current situation is its inherent and utter unsustainability. It can’t go on like this and something, probably something pretty dramatic, will come along to turn everything upside down.

Given Theresa May’s obvious vulnerabilities, MPs are beginning to realise that each and every one of them has the capacity to thwart legislation and to push for pretty much anything they want. The DUP are the most obvious beneficiaries of this: the fiscal cupboard has proved to be not quite as bare as successive chancellors have been making out.

Most obviously, few people think that May can actually get the necessary Brexit legislation, particularly hard Brexit, through parliament. At least not without a brutal fight and several compromises.

Project Fear

News that the UK economy is growing more slowly than any other G7 economy should not have come as much of a surprise. Stripped of its hyperbole, “Project Fear” should have focused on that message rather than talking up the chances of outright recession: whatever the growth outlook, Brexit makes it worse than it would otherwise be. It really was a vote to be poorer. Again, this will gradually sink in as other economies continue to do better than the UK.

Europeans move to Britain mostly because it is where the jobs are; that may no longer be quite so true going forward. Immigration is likely to fall as a result, irrespective of what is negotiated with Brussels.

Winston Churchill once said that the Americans can be relied upon to do the right thing once they have exhausted all other possibilities. That was in the context of the United States finally coming, again, to sort out a European mess. Given the political situation across the Atlantic, it is most unlikely that anybody in the US will bang European heads together and force a sensible outcome.

The governing party in the US resembles a dog that has finally won the chase and caught up with car: but what does it do now? American interest in Europe has never been lower. We really could do with an internationalist president.

It is, of course, the UK that is now exhausting all of those other possibilities before it figures out the best course of action. Given that so much could yet go wrong, it could well be that a groundswell of outright and effective opposition to Brexit itself could yet emerge.

Equally possible in my view is that we reach the fast-approaching talks deadline without a deal. It is a mess that is going to get a lot worse before it gets better.

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