The developing Brexit process has reached the point now where it’s one of the most extraordinary things I’ve ever seen. If it wasn’t for the fact that I’m increasingly frightened for the future of the country I live in, it would be a great thing to settle down and watch with a big bowl of popcorn.
I honestly never thought I would see such monumental, terrifying incompetence from a British government. Sure, I haven’t been the biggest fan of any of the Westminster administrations of the last few decades, I didn’t vote for any of them and I’ve disagreed with all of them on plenty of things, but up until a couple of years ago I would have grudgingly admitted that they’d kept the country functioning and reasonably stable.
Not anymore, it would seem. A few months ago when I inflicted my last Brexit blog post on the world, I still believed (as I said in that post) that a catastrophic “no deal” Brexit probably wouldn’t happen; that sanity would prevail in the end and some sort of deal would be done, even if it was just the bare minimum to prevent disruption on a huge scale. But my hopes of that happening have been fading ever since, and it’s getting hard to see how the “no deal” scenario can be avoided now.
On the face of it it seems unbelievable that a mainstream political party could be so irresponsible – just imagine how the tabloids would react if a Labour or SNP government were pressing ahead with a policy that had a significant chance of causing food and medicine shortages! But Theresa May seems determined not to negotiate in any meaningful way with the EU. Last week, after a bruising humiliation in Salzburg, she announced that it was either going to be her Chequers deal or no deal. And since the EU had already rejected Chequers, and neither side appears willing to give any ground at all, that can only mean no deal.
What’s most striking to me is how unnecessary this all is. Even if you take the view that the referendum result is sacred and can’t under any circumstances be challenged (which I don’t personally agree with, primarily due to the lying and overspending by the Leave side), there was no need for things to become such a mess. The only reason we’ve ended up here is because before the negotiations even got going, Theresa May set out a number of completely unnecessary “red lines” that effectively ruled out any of the deals the EU might have been willing to offer us, and has refused to compromise an inch on them since. She then proceeded to trigger Article 50, starting the clock counting down before even getting internal agreement on what sort of deal we should be trying for, and wasted a large chunk of the very limited negotiating time by calling an unnecessary general election (which of course backfired spectacularly when she lost her majority).
A lot of people are blaming the EU for not giving us what we want, but that’s not a view I have any sympathy with. Firstly, they’re not throwing us out, we chose to leave – Britain ultimately set this chain of events in motion itself. Secondly, it was widely predicted before the vote that the EU would hold all the cards in the negotiation and wouldn’t compromise on its “four freedoms”, so anyone whose post-Brexit plans relied on the EU rolling over and giving us everything we wanted was pretty stupid. Thirdly, the people who are now moaning about the EU being inflexible and “punishing” us are by and large the same people who would have hit the roof if the EU had bent the rules for a non-member (let’s say Turkey, for example) while we were still a member, so I find it hard to take anything they say seriously.
And fourthly, I don’t actually think the EU have behaved badly towards us under the circumstances. Despite all the antagonism from certain British politicians, they’ve offered a choice of future relationships that they would accept, giving us at least as good terms as any other “third country” enjoys. That doesn’t seem unreasonable to me.
It’s been depressing, but at the same time strangely impressive, to see that every time someone has tried to offer a possible escape route from the impending disaster, our politicians quickly swoop in to block off that possibility and make sure there truly is no way out. It’s not even confined to the Tories: for example, John McDonnell recently stipulated that any “People’s Vote” on the Brexit deal should not include an option to remain in the EU, thus completely nullifying any point of holding such a vote in the first place.
It’s easy just to blame the “extremists” on both sides of the house for all this, but I’ve also been less than impressed by how the supposed “moderates” have conducted themselves lately. We’re constantly told that most MPs supported Remain and most of them want what’s best for the country… but where are they, and what are they doing to try to stop the no deal disaster? It seems as if, like much of the media, they are terrified of criticising Brexit in case they alienate people who voted Leave. But by not speaking out in stronger terms, they’re lending a sort of legitimacy to the process – people might reasonably think, “Well, if the majority of MPs are going along with this, and if the BBC portrays it as being just as legitimate as any other option, it can’t be that bad, can it? Those Remainers must just be scaremongering”.
Maybe most of all, though, I wonder what the hell the drivers of Brexit are hoping to get out of this at the end. I just can’t see a scenario where it ends well for them. If “no deal” does happen, and if it’s even half as bad as most of the warnings say it’s going to be, their careers are surely finished. Maybe they’re relying on being able to blame it all on the EU, but I’m not convinced that will work – for a while polls have been showing that most people already think the government is doing a bad job of handling Brexit, and that percentage is only going to increase if the country gets plunged into chaos at the end of March. Governments tend to get blamed for the bad stuff that happens on their watch even when it isn’t really their fault (e.g. New Labour and the 2008 financial crisis), and in this case it undeniably IS their fault.
Or maybe they don’t care about their own popularity. One theory is that they just want out of the EU so that they can implement their dream of a Britain closely aligned with the USA, with regulations slashed and the NHS sold off to American healthcare providers. I wouldn’t put it past them, but I’m still not convinced it’s going to work – unless they plan to let things get so bad that they actually suspend democracy, there’s going to be an election at some point, and the party that brought on the chaos will surely be annihilated. Will they have enough time to get their plan past the point of no return before that happens? Would they even have enough support in the current parliament for it? Who knows.
Another theory is that no-one has a clue what to do because no-one (including the leading Leave campaigners) ever expected Leave to win, so they’re just making it up as they go along right now. After the shambles of the last few weeks, this seems by far the most likely explanation.