Theresa May’s lonely walk across a dark, windswept Downing Street was a potent symbol of the extent to which she is now a hostage to events she cannot control. Instead of making the Brexit deal announcement from inside the Cabinet Room, surrounded by the collective, and more importantly visible, strength of her ministers, she was banished from the building to speak amidst the fallen leaves and the jeers of protestors at the gates. Has any Prime Minister ever seemed so isolated and enfeebled? Far from being witnesses to a triumphant moment in history, it was like watching a scene from a slasher movie, where all those sat at the Cabinet table had linked hands around a Ouija Board and had sent the Prime Minister to tell the country what the animal spirits had revealed.
And what they have revealed is basically we are all in deep shit.
If it had been a horrific night for Mrs. May, things didn’t get any better when the sun came up. Dominic Raab, the man who only recently realised that the UK was an island, now decided that he couldn’t support the Prime Minister’s deal after all. When it was pointed out that this was the very deal that he himself had negotiated, he muttered something about duress and went off to find a fresh straightjacket ahead of the imminent Tory leadership contest. This is where prominent Conservative politicians will attempt to knock each other out by banging their heads together, with the last man or woman standing to be duly elected leader of the party. You need the straightjacket because you would be insane to want this job right now.
That leadership content looks likely to have been duly triggered by Jacob Rees-Mogg, the prominent Brextremist memorably described by the journalist James O’Brien as a ‘mewling pencil’. Oh how Mr. Rees Mogg must have dreamt of this moment! A press conference in front of Parliament, in the eye of the constitutional storm, thronged by journalists hanging on his every word, like a great statesman-in-waiting ready to answer his nation’s call.
Cometh the hour, cometh the pencil!
Sadly for him, the reality was less inspiring. As he read his prepared statement, sirens wailed around Parliament Square as if the emergency services were responding to a reports that a tall, thin, bespectacled fanatic was preparing to blow up the government. And even when the sirens headed off elsewhere (maybe someone else was preparing to resign), hardly anyone could hear Rees-Mogg speak because his words were being drowned out by a lone but persistent protester yelling incoherent abuse in the background. Jacob smiled. Forget all that inspiring, Ode to Joy, European crap. This was exactly as things should be. Upper class twits being abused by the oiks as they lead them into a disaster. We’re making Britain great again.
But when pressed, Rees-Mogg justified his disloyalty by talking about how he had “changed his mind about the Prime Minister over many months”, ignoring the obvious point that changing their minds as events moved on was the very principle he was trying to deny the British people. As always, he reeled off a long line of spurious, half-baked promises, long since disproved by experts, as to why ‘no deal’ was a good idea, whilst missing the most important and relevant one, namely that his hedge fund would make colossal amounts of dosh.
It has taken two years for a deal to emerge during which time we have discussed just about every possible permutation of what ‘Brexit means Brexit’ could actually signify in the real world. The people were only asked to say whether they wanted to leave or stay. It was up to the politicians in charge, specifically leading Brexiteers like David Davis, Boris Johnson, Liam Fox and Steve Baker to determine what form our exit would take. It wasn’t an unreasonable expectation. Tory Eurosceptics have built their entire political career on trying to remove Britain from the EU. We might have expected that when their big moment came, the plans of half a lifetime would simply click into place. Instead, what remains is simply an enormous pile of empty promises and gestures, stacked into a gigantic bonfire of the vanities that is about to burst into flames in a full blown constitutional crisis.
To anyone who voted Remain, this doesn’t come as a surprise. The only shock is that ministers are deserting Theresa May whilst still claiming there is any credible alternative. Maybe the truth is simply that after forty years of EU membership, there is no practical or beneficial way for Britain to remove itself. Being part of the EU has altered our nation – Agincourt, Waterloo, Empire and all – and unless we are prepared to become an entirely different country – isolated, opportunistic, less settled, more cynical in terms of who we make alliances with – there is no way back. We’re like a cyborg. We’ve been enhanced. The EU has penetrated who we are as a country too deeply. Removing it destroys more than any alternative can provide. The phrase ‘neo-liberal’ has gone out fashion in recent times but politicians like Liam Fox and his ilk are great admirers of economists such as von Mises, Hayek and Friedman who effectively advocated “blowing up” economies in a free market scouring that wrought havoc in countries like Chile and other Latin American countries in the 1970s. The things that people care about – the NHS, decent public services, education, law and order – are incompatible with the values of the Conservative neo-liberals who have been most strident in their support for a ‘no deal’ Brexit. They want the chaos of Britain crashing out of the EU because the confusion is the shock they need to dismantle British society and remake it as a deregulated, cut-throat sweatshop in which the winners certainly won’t be the ordinary workers who have been so ruthlessly conned.
Accepting that the definition of sovereignty has changed is a big step but it’s perhaps one that is necessary for us to break the impasse. Admitting that the EU has benefited but changed us seems obvious to myself as a Remainer. And it also seems obvious that being a leading member of an institution which represents the interests of 28 European countries, and has the power to influence world affairs in a way that no single European country can ever do again, is actually a great and glorious thing. Seen in this light, our decision to break ranks and go it alone is not a strategy for taking back control, it’s the path to weakness and irrelevance. And it has failed.
Every single official government forecast, covering all possible Leave scenarios, show that the economy will be negatively affected by Brexit. There is no NHS windfall. There is no Brexit dividend. Voting Leave has, and will, make us poorer and it seems disingenuous for anyone to now say that they knew this all along. Being poorer was not plastered all over the side of the big red bus. I don’t know any person on an average income who says they prefer finding it harder to pay their mortgage so that Jacob Rees Mogg can utter some triumphant Latin epithet on the floor of the House of Commons.
Nor will we be in control of our borders in the way that Leavers have been deceived into thinking may be possible. The cold reality is that the British economy needs migrants to come to the UK. Anyone who thought that Brexit would lead to a fall in the number of people “speaking a foreign language” has been sorely disappointed. And with UK employment at an all time high in absolute terms, there aren’t legions of displaced British workers who will finally be able to secure work. Although migration from the EU to the UK has slowed to a trickle, it has been more than cancelled out by increases in non-EU migration leaving the government as far from its “tens of thousands” migration target as ever.
This also exposes the lie that EU freedom of movement has somehow reduced native access to public services. Being younger and healthier, most EU migrants don’t have a great need for UK health care and since most of them are in work, they’re contributing to the services they do use. While net migration from the EU has virtually stopped, the queues in doctor’s surgeries and A&E wards are as long as ever, the result of UK government policy, conceived and inflicted on a weary population by our own ministers, not ‘bureaucrats in Brussels’.
Ultimately, a services-based economy needs people and freedom of movement to be successful. In this regard, Britain has benefited more than most from the Single European Market and the four freedoms enshrined within it. And it is worth observing that if immigration really was the government’s concern, it has always been free to stop non-EU migration any time it likes. Under EU rules, it could track the arrival of EU nationals and deport them from the UK if they were unable to work and support themselves after three months, but it has chosen not to do so.
I hear lots of Leavers preach about how the EU is unfair to developing nations. I don’t hear them being quite so vocal on why it’s perfectly okay to replace EU migrants from developed countries (with similar socio-economic profiles to our own) with workers – and especially health care professionals – from less advanced societies, especially from the Commonwealth. But this is what has happened. The Referendum result has had barely no impact on net migration except to deter EU citizens from coming to Britain. Meanwhile, migrants have poured into the UK from every other corner of the globe, and in record numbers, because our economy needs them.
Aside from being able to somehow ‘stop’ immigration, the other great myth of the Referendum campaign now laid bare is the idea that we would ‘take back control’ and become a ‘sovereign’ nation once more. Here reality has not so much bitten as sent us hurtling like a comet into a Siberian forest of empty rhetoric and ignorance. Even before the vote, Leave campaigners were promising there would be no barrier to the frictionless trade with Europe upon which our prosperity has come to depend. The problem with this position is that you cannot have frictionless trade unless you are part of the Single Market and the Customs Union or have a trade deal and repeating ‘Brexit means Brexit’ until you are hoarse does not change this fact. All the ‘free trade’ options provided, ranging from Norway, to Switzerland, to Canada, offer us less than membership, a principle upon which the EU has been robust and clear upon since 24th June 2016. Meanwhile, no amount of trade with the rest of the world will make up for what the UK loses by disrupting trade with our biggest partner. Who cares if Singapore is growing at 4% per year if it only represents 1% of our total trade? So why would you proceed with such a dubious strategy? Have the British truly become so unreasonable and dogmatic?
No one from the Leave side of the argument has ever been able to explain how you resolve this dilemma except by invoking a vague, ‘it-will-be-alright-on-the-night’ notion that “technology” will save the day. And in the end, it is this effort to align two diametrically opposed positions that has swamped the Prime Minister. Because the simple truth is that a snake which attempts to swallow its own tail sooner or later reaches the point where it has to acknowledge the impossibility of the task.
Even if the UK exits through the trapdoor marked ‘hard Brexit’, EU rules will continue to govern us. The EU is an extremely powerful negotiator of trade deals and has driven harmonisation of regulations with the countries that it enters into agreements with. These countries will not offer the UK different terms if they collide with, or undermine, existing free trade deals with the EU – this is a key principle of ‘most favoured nation’ status under the rules of the WTO. Thus it is likely that the UK, outside of the EU, will be forced to align with the EU’s principles because these will be the common standard applied by other countries who will not want to disrupt the agreements they have with the EU-27 bloc just to close a deal with the UK on its own.
I could go on but I feel as helpless as anyone to stop the runaway train. Perhaps we’ll all wake up and realise that the Mewling Pencil only has the power to terrorise our dreams. But this is the real world. And the horror show looks set to continue.