Tony Blair: May’s deal is a recipe for chaos. There is another way

UK needs Europe’s help to avoid doing what is contrary to the true interests of all sides

My message to Europe’s leaders is: don’t believe this Brexit “deal” will hold. It is a bad deal for both sides.

It isn’t liked by the British parliament or the British people or even a significant part of the remaining cabinet. So be prepared for all eventualities, including the possibility of a new referendum.

Theresa May has shown courage and resilience in concluding the draft deal, and both the British and European negotiators should be respected for their immense efforts in hugely difficult circumstances. I sympathise deeply with both them and her.

But at the heart of this negotiation has been two big flaws, one technical, one political.


The technical one is that it is possible for Britain to simultaneously to be out of the single market and customs union and to have access to European markets without friction at the border – that is, to be able to trade in goods freely across Europe as now but without a binding legal commitment to Europe's rules.

Theresa May says her deal achieves this – at least when talking to a UK audience. Europe knows it doesn’t.

In other words, Theresa May wants Britain to leave the political structures of Europe but keep closely aligned to its economic structures

Likewise the elaborate backstop arrangements necessary to keep the Irish Border open as now are presented in the UK as meaning the UK will stay in the customs union for a finite period as determined by the UK. Europe knows this is not correct. The UK stays until both sides agree it shouldn’t. In other words, Europe has a veto.

These are all clever formulations – the product of experienced and smart wordsmiths – but they seek to mask a fundamental divergence. This is not wise. It is a recipe for future chaos.

The political flaw is equally profound. The whole purpose of the May negotiation has a good intention: to unify the country after the divisions of Brexit by giving to the Brexiteers the fact of Brexit, yet minimising economic damage by keeping in step with Europe’s rules so that we have as little economic disruption as possible.

The problem is that the very reason the Brexiteers give for wanting Brexit is to be able to depart from those rules. In other words, Theresa May wants Britain to leave the political structures of Europe but keep closely aligned to its economic structures. It is a sensible ambition, but it leads to a Brexit that is pointless: all Britain will have done is to give up our say in these rules while still abiding by them, a bizarre way of “taking back control”.

This is crazy

Europe’s attitude is: we agree this is crazy, but hey, if that’s what you guys want, okay. But it isn’t what we want. For the Brexiteers this is not really Brexit. For ardent remainers like me, it is a ridiculous outcome for the country. For both leavers and remainers it is not the best of a bad job, but the worst of both worlds.

In the opinion polls, Remain now scores just over 50 per cent, true Brexit scores just over 30 per cent and the highest Theresa May’s proposal gets is about 15per cent. In the interests of pleasing everyone it pleases virtually no one.

This political flaw is reflected by the tensions in the government and even the cabinet. Some cabinet ministers have resigned. But the Brexit supporters who are staying don’t disagree with their colleagues who have resigned on the substance; they merely disagree on the tactics.

The Brexiteers who are still in cabinet believe it is better to drag Britain the other side of March 2019, and then, when it is too late for Brexit to be stopped, reopen the argument both on the backstop and on the access issues.

One half of the cabinet sees our trading future with Europe like Norway; the other like Canada.

The point is this “deal” won’t end the fight. It will prolong it.

Unhelpful camouflage

I understand completely why sections of business, the British state and the European system want to get behind the deal. And as someone with long experience of politics – British and European – I understand also the elegance of camouflage language to escape a tricky situation.

But in this case clarity is a better friend than camouflage.

It is not too late to reverse up the cul-de-sac. Brexit is bad for Britain. It is also bad for Europe. We all know this

Leave aside all the politics for a moment and ask yourself this question as a European leader: is this solution really in the interests of Europe? Free to deliver all outcomes, would you really deliver this outcome for Europe’s future? The answer is obviously no.

Then realise the same answer would be given by the overwhelming majority of the British parliament. So, we’re about to do something collectively that we all know is wrong, foolish and contrary to our true interests. How crazy is that? There is another way, and Europe should be prepared for it.

This way is as follows. The British parliament rejects this deal. We table a vote for a new referendum. Europe steps forward with an offer, including around immigration, which – let us be frank – is not just a British concern but one across Europe. And we the British determine our future, not based on the claim and counter-claim of June 2016 but based on what we now know is true and what is false; realising what Brexit really does mean; and knowing that staying in Europe is remaining in a Europe that has listened to our concerns.

It is not too late to reverse up the cul-de-sac. Brexit is bad for Britain. It is also bad for Europe. We all know this. There is also now more support for a new referendum than for any other option. I say to the leaders of Europe: help us to help you to avoid a mistake that will blight not only our destiny but yours.

Tony Blair is a former UK prime minister