This blog entry is going to be like a red rag to a bull to some people. The focus, as readers who persevere beyond this first paragraph will see, is on the practicalities of why Brexit will not happen, not on whether Brexit is right or wrong, or what sort of Brexit is favourable. Please read it with that in mind. I have some experience working both in Whitehall and in the EU institutions and what I write is based on that. I am also not in denial, or some sort of Remainiac – I only voted for Remain with a heavy heart, I am professionally and personally sheltered from the effects of Brexit, and will get a German passport as an insurance policy anyway. Part of me would like to see the UK out of the EU as soon as possible. Anyway, I suspect haters will be haters, but if you’re not that then read on.
The first and most decisive decision to make Brexit not happen was David Cameron’s decision to not trigger Article 50 the day after the referendum, despite having said during the campaign that he would trigger it. So rather than launch the UK headlong into the process of leaving the EU, and setting the clock ticking on the two year period prescribed by Article 50, Cameron left the decision to his successor. Theresa May was installed in office just two weeks after the referendum, but even she was not ready to trigger Article 50 – despite her line that “Brexit means Brexit”, she has repeatedly stated that Scotland’s position on the EU needs to be taken into account, and is now talking of triggering sometime ‘not before the end of year’, something that has annoyed über-sceptic John Redwood. Andrew Grice in The Independent is right to point out that with a Commons majority of 12, May is not in a strong position to face down backbenchers like Redwood, but her other problems might mount to make this immaterial, as I explain below. Meanwhile bookmakers have narrowed the odds that Article 50 will only be triggered after 2018, or never.
One of the reasons Article 50 has not yet been triggered is because the UK government does not know what it wants from the negotiations – indeed it does not know what sort of Brexit it wants more generally. The Sunday Times (summarised by Reuters here) has more on this, and even cites a government source who reckons Article 50 might slip until autumn 2017 – also sensible as it would also be after the French and German elections. The Independent has more on these internal issues here. So while May might be under pressure to work towards Brexit, she has to answer what Brexit can command the support of her party.
Part of the reason that the government does not know what it wants is due to the people May has put in charge of the process; Johnson (Foreign Minister), Davis (Brexit Minister) and Fox (International Trade Minister) were all in favour of Brexit and have basically been charged with trying to make it happen – but they cannot agree amongst themselves yet as Fox has been trying to muscle in on Johnson’s department (more on that from Politics Home here), Davis’s efforts to explain how Brexit could work are legally incoherent, and Fox’s department had to delete its statement about how the UK could fall back to the WTO rules if it needed to. Immediately after Johnson was appointed I thought this could have been a master stroke by May, and I stand by that position – it is not a question of if the three Brexiteers fail, but a matter of when.
Even if the broad political direction can be sorted out, there are big questions about whether the staff can be found to actually make Brexit negotiations happen – at least in the short term. Huffington Post has a detailed article explaining how difficult it even is to get staff to fill Davis’s DExEU Department, and these issues have been confirmed to me by former colleagues of mine still working in the Civil Service. If you set a direction for civil servants they can work towards an end, but at the moment – as David Allen Green points out in an excellent blog entry for the FT – it’s not that the UK government does not have a plan for Brexit, but more that they do not even know what to put in such a plan. The Flipchart Fairytales blog has an excellent post about how just stating that Brexit will happen will not make it happen – this is not the time for David Brent, but this is serious.
In other words, it might have been handy for the Brexit side to trash the role of experts during the referendum campaign, but it’s not so handy when you need to rely on them to actually make your policy happen.
The behaviour of the main Brexit advocates since the referendum is also rather peculiar. While Johnson, Fox and Davis have been bound up in government, the other advocates of Brexit have run for the hills – Farage has resigned as leader of UKIP (properly it seems this time), Gove has been relegated to the back benches, and Daniel Hannan seems to have nothing more substantive to talk about than bringing back blue UK passports (even though there’s no EU law on passport colour – the UK could, within the EU, have blue passports if it wanted). Meanwhile Gisela Stuart is – without a hint of irony – worrying about EU citizens in the UK (while her own campaign vilified them a few short months ago) while Brexiteer Andrea Leadsom is now defending farm subsidies as Defra minister.
So, as things currently stand, the Brexiteers have no more of a clear plan now than they had before the referendum, and – as this accurate yet depressing FT comment so eloquently details – are still at the stage of sniping at the Remainers and demanding Brexit happens, rather than actually seeking ways to make it practically happen.
But what about the next couple of months? As I write it’s still summertime, Brussels is on holiday, and everyone is thinking about the Olympics and not about Brexit. When everything cranks up to speed again in the EU institutions again in September, the UK is going to be put under a lot of pressure – in a number of different ways. EU leaders were happy to give May the benefit of the doubt initially, to give her some time to work out how Brexit can work. But there is very little appetite in other national capitals for further delay – not least with French and German elections on the horizon in 2017. Also there is little tolerance for the UK delaying simply because it does not know what it wants – such self-inflicted foolishness is hard for the UK to defend vis à vis the other 27 EU Member States.
While the costs of Brexit, and the economic damage of it (and indeed the economic incoherency of the Brexiteers is astounding), will fall predominantly on the UK, as one of the EU’s major economies, a slowdown in the UK will have an impact on the rest of the EU. Political and economic uncertainty is not what the EU wants. As Jonathan Freedland rightly points out, the views of the rest of the EU now need to be taken into account – something that was largely absent from the referendum campaign prior to the vote. Connecting this to the point above about Tory backbenchers, Theresa May cannot simply afford to ignore what the rest of the EU thinks about this – even she will fear being painted as politically and economically irresponsible by leaving the Brexit issue in a state of permanent limbo.
So this autumn, sooner rather than later, we are going to have to come back to Article 50, whether May likes it or not. Its timetable is not in her hands alone. The EU line has basically been this: we will respect your referendum, UK, and happily let the UK go, but you have to respect our process – and that process is Article 50. The problem for the UK of course is embarking on this process without knowing how the negotiations might end seems very risky. As Andrew Duff explains (and The Express fears), Article 50 can be un-invoked – but that would only happen if the UK legitimately chose to not leave the European Union. Here I disagree with David Allen Green’s piece for The Evening Standard – some alternative treaty arrangement may suit the UK, but it will not gain favour within the EU that will maintain that Article 50 is its process, and the UK must respect it.
The way out of this impasse might just be – and whisper this quietly – the promise of another referendum, with the deal negotiated to leave the EU as one option, and remaining in the EU as the other option. This is the line that Labour leadership contender Owen Smith is pushing. Essentially the original Leave campaign was an impossible combination of utopias – some voted Leave to restrict migration, some did so thinking there would be no economic cost to leaving (and even that so-called Norway option now seems questionable), and others thought leaving would save the NHS, but as this infographic outlines, a trade-off between these different Brexit options is necessary. Robert Peston’s Facebook note explains this further. I’m pretty sure that no negotiable Brexit option would be adequately appealing enough to make it more appealing that remaining in the European Union. And that is before taking into account all of the rest of the EU Member States’ demands towards the UK.
Now it pains me somewhat to come to this conclusion. I am no fan of referendums, and having another one about the EU fills me with dread. But I think the alternatives are worse – and even a pro-Brexit person ought to see it this way. An ongoing, grinding impasse is not in the UK’s nor in the EU’s interests – and the EU has an exit procedure (Article 50) that both EU politicians and UK Brexiteers acknowledge is the way for a country to leave the EU. Likewise Parliament (or the House of Lords) delaying Brexit (as Patience Wheatcroft argues) would rightly be labelled illegitimate, as no parliament or government has attracted the scale of public support that the Brexit vote attracted. But while Britain voted for Brexit, we do not know what Brexit it voted for. So a further referendum is a sad necessity, and I cannot see how any single, clearly defined, vision of Brexit would ever possibly defeat Remain. Such a second referendum might actually end up with a clearer, narrower, more realistic debate. It will be a painful and economically damaging path to get to such a second referendum, but it has to be the least worst option.