What I’ve Got Wrong About the Brexit Process

While the overall destination of Brexit was reasonably foreseeable what has caught me out is the lack of will to decide on a long term destination for the U.K. The willingness to fudge and to postpone making any choices that entail any trade offs has been spectacular. Even now the Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration Leave almost anything on the table from Norway to something more like Canada. Issues around the border in Ireland are significantly due to the limits on the fudge the EU is prepared to accept where they apply there.

Surprised by May

I honestly thought she was smarter than to trap herself into corners with red lines like she did, alienate “people of nowhere” and to fail to listen to the experienced advice around her like Ivan Rodgers.

The other surprise was May’s decision not to reach across to Labour to make them complicit in the deal and to provide her with more routes through Parliament. There were two main opportunities to do this; after the referendum and again after the general election. She could have said “Things have changed”, acknowledged her lack of majority and sort to find a compromise option. She could then have shared blame for aspects that were softer than the ERG wanted, could have blamed Labour if the walked away and critically potentially had a majority without DUP or ERG. The only thing she would have lost would be being able to act as if Corbyn was unfit to be near responsibility, a threat to be used against all who oppose her except Labour, maybe that was too high a price for her to pay.

Sufficient Progress (December 2017)

That this stage was crossed without it seems the DUP or the ERG understanding the contents and melting down at that point was a surprise as the now unacceptable Withdrawal Agreement was essentially set out at that point. It did also seem at times like May didn’t understand what it meant either as she claimed the backstop was something that “no British PM” could agree to despite having done so in December 2017 and then proceeding to do so again in December 2018.

I think it was this deceit as to the meaning of the agreement then (possibly self deceit in some cases) that allowed it to work. I think calling it fudge has even too kind, it has been many faced lies to different groups.

It should also be noted that in the originally declared negotiation plans there was no “sufficient progress” stage. The idea was to wrap up the withdrawal agreement over the summer of 2017 to be agreed at the October 2017 summit so that discussions could move onto the future relationship to get that tied up before the U.K. enters transition so that business could plan. Does anybody remember that now?

Withdrawal Agreement

I didn’t think the deal would be done especially after Salzburg.

I got this wrong because I took May’s vehement rejection of the backstop at face value (duh) and didn’t think that she would do a deal that the DUP couldn’t accept which left me unable to see how a deal could be done.

Common Theme - May

She constantly acts in ways which I struggle to see the logic of whether I look at her aims as being for the country, her party or even herself. I just don’t get her. Does she see something or know something I don’t that allows a logic to be seen? Or is she always just hanging onto power and party unity hoping that something will save the situation. That is one of the really scary and unpredictable things at this point. I don’t know that she wouldn’t really try to drive the country off the cliff. She doesn’t give the impression of being in control of events.

I thought there was a fair chance that when she lost the vote in the Commons she would take it to the people in a referendum but she would really come at it from the side of “Parliament is blocking your Brexit, I need your help to deliver it” rather than from a position of preferring a remain vote. But having delayed the vote that leaves less time for that referendum and does more damage to business in the meantime.

With the latest no deal planning and spending it is either an awfully expensive bluff (and given there is now both a deal and an option to revoke an unnecessary bluff) or she is serious that she might try to leave without a deal (which is scary crazy).

What I might be wrong about

I’m pretty confident that the Labour leadership will vote to avoid a Brexit on this deal or a no deal. While there are some dispiriting statements from Labour (often Barry Gardiner but depressingly I hear Diane Abbot was bad on migration this week)I still think that they are necessary positioning to enable them to oppose the deal without being against the idea of Brexit. The sheer weight of many people I respect being so sure Corbyn (or Seamus Milne) are die hard Brexiters does give me pause but I don’t see the evidence in recent actions and statements so I stick by my judgement.

May’s Trump Opportunity

Theresa May is unlikely to to be able to talk Trump around back to the international system of rules and organisations and back towards human rights. She is also unlikely to be able to talk him down from the trade war that he has declared with the rest of the world. Without the USA as a trustworthy partner the precariousness of the UK’s currently planned place outside the EU is crystallised and it could become a moment of opportunity to change course.

The opportunity comes in how she responds, either in the closing press conference of the visit or within the days after Trump departs. This is an opportunity for Theresa May to say something resembling the following and potentially go down in history as one of this country’s greatest Prime Ministers (unfortunately from my point of view preventing a Corbyn government).

Things have changed the world is not the one in which a majority voted for Brexit, and this presidential visit has made clear to we no longer have a reliable partner for free trade across the Atlantic, that nationalism and even facism rising across the world and the current US government. Given this changing world it is time to rejoin forces with our strongest allies for a rules based global order, democracy and human rights. It is no longer even clear that we can rely on the systems of the WTO to enable trade to continue effectively.

Given this I have today spoken to my fellow leaders across Europe and received agreement to withdraw the Article 50 notification which I have now done. This means any Brexit will be substantially postponed and for the next few years we will return to our full place in in the EU to strengthen the values we hold dear across the continent of Europe and beyond. We will remain in the EU until at least the next election in 2022. 

Now this does not mean the end of Brexit. We will keep DExEU operating to plan in detail how to implement Brexit effectively. We have learned a lot from the negotiations so far that will assist in this planning and legislation will be prepared so that when a future Parliament decides to proceed the bulk of the legislation can be in place before we again start an Article 50 process. They will also be producing a series of different proposals and the OBR will provide associated forecasts for their impacts especially in the run up to the next general election. The full information will be available for all parties and the public to read an understand.

I realise that this delay to Brexit will be disappointing and frustrating to many of you; this was not the news I wanted to deliver to you but global circumstances have changed and we must adapt our plans. Let me be clear, this is not the end of Brexit; all parties will have opportunities to set out their plans in their manifestos for the 2022 election based on the reports produced by DExEU and the OBR.

The collective sigh of relief that would come from across much of the country including virtually all of industry would audible from across the Atlantic although there would be a scream of rage from about fifteen percent of the country and the right wing press but I don’t believe there would be any substantial civil unrest and the papers would soon return their attacks to Labour. There would be a Tory leadership challenge but I think Theresa May would survive. In Parliament either the DUP or the Tory Brexit ultras would have the power to bring her down but to what end? The outcomes would either be Theresa May with a bigger majority or a Corbyn government for whom Brexit would be a low priority and if they did pursue it (unlikely I think if they went into an election more Brexity than the Tories they would lose).

Well, I can dream can’t I? While I think this is possible and would be good for May, the country, the government and Europe it is still a vanishingly unlikely fantasy and I’ll be out on the 13th July joining the protests against the criminal in the White House.