This week in the FT (€), Philip Stevens recalled the EU negotiation advice of Douglas Hurd, the UK’s Foreign Secretary under John Major. There is more to be gained from conciliation than from shouting argued Hurd, a sentiment I echo after years observing EU business.

Yet this week something akin to shouting is what the UK government has been doing, with Boris Johnson urging Theresa May to reject any Brexit bill, following on from offending plenty of people in Munich by talking of liberation from the EU, and evoking World War II rhetoric about François Hollande. Jean Quatremer argues that Johnson is unifying the EU against the UK, and he is quite right.

Meanwhile in the Houses of Parliament, the government is doing its best to resist a House of Lords amendment to the Brexit notification bill that would give both the Commons and the Lords a meaningful vote at the end of the Brexit negotiations – to force May back to the negotiation table if the deal the UK had struck was inadequate. FT has the background here (€). The government is trying to fight off this amendment, arguing that Parliament will get to choose between whatever deal May has brokered and no deal at all (essentially crashing out of the EU). Is it just May’s control-freakery causing her to oppose this Lords amendment, or something else?

Meanwhile others in the UK have been upping the ante as well. David Davis warned last week that the UK ought to prepare for an exit from the EU with no trade deal in place. Nigel Lawson underlined the point in a debate in the Lords. And these words were in Theresa May’s speech in January (full text here, quote is from close to the end):

But I must be clear. Britain wants to remain a good friend and neighbour to Europe.  Yet I know there are some voices calling for a punitive deal that punishes Britain and discourages other countries from taking the same path.

That would be an act of calamitous self-harm for the countries of Europe. And it would not be the act of a friend.

Britain would not – indeed we could not – accept such an approach. And while I am confident that this scenario need never arise – while I am sure a positive agreement can be reached – I am equally clear that no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain.

Just a couple of days before May’s speech, Chancellor Hammond essentially threatened to position the UK as a tax haven if it did not get what it wanted in the Brexit negotiations, an approach that was not greeted optimistically on the other side of the Channel.

But what could all of this actually mean?

Throughout the Brexit process since the referendum I have been struck by the UK government’s chronic lack of attention to practicalities, to details. The government’s Brexit White Paper (PDF) published 17th February leaves major issues such as the Northern Ireland border (for more on the problems there, this is excellent from Peter Foster), devolution and Scotland, and passporting for banks largely untouched. From the impact on the airline industry, to parts of car engines, through to the complexity for ports of reintroducing customs checks, the UK government does not even seem to know what questions to pose, let alone to actually solve these very real everyday issues. That is not to say these problems could not be resolved – they are all, with enough goodwill and some (possibly considerable) costs, solvable – but the government, committed to Brexit to a tight timetable, lacks the ability to deal with the scale of the issues.

I had essentially – and now I fear perhaps wrongly – attributed these problems to a lack of competence and a lack of resources, and that, once confronted by the scale of the task after Article 50 is triggered and negotiations in Brussels actually begin, the UK government would then start to seriously engage. That scenario assumes that both sides negotiate in good faith, and both sides actually want an amicable exit agreement to be reached.

Now I am not so sure.

What happens if the UK government essentially comes to the point of view that any negotiated agreement cannot be presented as being in its interests, and instead wants to walk away? As Jolyon Maugham points out, this is not without its complexities from a legal point of view – but stopping it requires Parliament to intervene, not a foregone conclusion after the capitulation of the Commons on the Brexit notification bill. There is also the ideological motivation behind this option – it offers a symbolic freedom that appeals to the right of the Tory party, regardless of the chronic economic consequences.

The most important point is that communicating the walk-away option is actually quite easy for the UK government – they can blame an intransigent EU for failing to meet their demands, and the tabloids will back them. With Labour in disarray they govern without opposition within the UK, and could probably get away with it. The UK population currently opposes an exit without a deal but we are only at the start of even thinking about this as an option.

Now I am aware that this sort of approach is far from being the unified position of the UK government, a point Alexander Clarkson correctly makes. May, in her press conference at the European Council yesterday sounded more practical and conciliatory, while Hammond has more edge now (while back in the autumn he sounded as if he was more focused on the practicalities). I cannot tell what Johnson actually thinks ought to happen, but his approach is most definitely not helpful to build bridges to the rest of the EU, and indeed he is more adept at burning them. Meanwhile Fox is romantic who seems to think a dose of global free trade can solve anything. Davis has always been a bit of a maverick – which way would he jump here? Michael Gove, although not in government currently, would likely be a proponent of this – Cameron alleged he is in favour of “creative destruction”.

When I wrote in January that I feared there would be some sort of Brexit crunch, I was still at the stage of assuming both sides would see a negotiation failure as a catastrophe, and the practicalities would be what would make things tough. Now I am not so sure. Is the UK government side beginning to actively want things to fail and to then walk away? The very prospect is horrid, but from now on the EU side (and indeed the UK’s Brexit opponents, and proponents of a reasonable Brexit) have to keep it in mind.

12 Comments

  1. Sheila Sirotkin

    What will happen in France for example with expat State pensioners who have carte vitales? Will the British government refuse to fund them ,yet still accept tax on their private pensions?Would the British government be prepared for a mass return of British pensioners ,needing healthcare?

  2. Anonymous

    If Parliament passes a Brexit Negotiations Act 2017, then why is it necessary to state all of the conditions in this act? Can’t Parliament pass, say, a Brexit Negotiations (Amendment) Act 2018 where additional conditions are stated? Also, if May gives Parliament two options in 2019 (May’s negotiated deal or no deal), then why can’t Parliament modify this by adding a third option (retain the current deal, i.e. EU membership)?

    I’ve been wondering if May perhaps is attempting to present Brexit as something horrible. If public opinion changes drastically, it may be viable for May to propose holding a third referendum on EU membership in a year or two.

  3. Chris Lee

    If the government is indeed actively planning for a cliff-edge Brexit, as you speculate, then there is a very big puzzle: why are they doing nothing to try and forestall the chaos that would follow from such an outcome? What could explain such apparent recklessness? The only possibility I can think of under your scenario is that the chaos would be part of the plan: the government would use the chaos as a pretext for assuming (semi-)dictatorial powers (via a state of emergency?) and pushing through a radical hard-right agenda of dismantling the social welfare system (amongst other things) that under normal circumstances would be impossible to push through. Is this plausible? I can imagine Gove signing up for such a plan, but I’m not convinced the same is true of May and her most senior ministers (though maybe Johnson wouldn’t have any strong objections). The most obvious alternative hypothesis then is the one that you and others suggest: namely that May and her ministers are simply deluded and think that their position is much stronger than it really is.

    But in the end it may not very useful to rely on one’s everyday judgements in trying to account for the government’s actions. Although it is convenient to think of governments (and indeed any collective) as essentially like individuals in their behaviour, it is well known from research in social psychology that groups tend to develop more extreme attitudes and take riskier decision than individuals (in a process called “group polarisation” – see e.g. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Group_polarization). Given the fact that the government operates as tight cabal with no dissenting voices allowed, the propensity of ministers to develop extreme attitudes and delusional beliefs and to take risky decisions may therefore be much greater than commonly allowed for.

  4. Anke De Masi

    Jon, as more I think about it- I agree with you. Creative destruction: than one doesn’t need a banking agreement-less deal-less banking regulations- there will be lots of empty letter boxes after whatever Brexit.

  5. Maria Hoskins

    This has been my view for a few weeks now. Our government is woefully under prepared to conduct negotiation, and I don’t think it is their intention to do so, why should they when they know that the outcome any such negotiation will be much worse than what we already have and that the citizenry will comment on this? What they are planning to do is to prevaricate and provoke the European Union so they can walk out of the negotiation And lay the blame on the EU, also blaming the EU for the subsequent catastrophe… Needless to say they should not be allowed to get away with this. It is unconscionable, it is unethical and its bad politics and economics. But in our current political setup I do not know how we can prevent it…

  6. Inez Blaflajsner

    Or/also, that they know that they do not have the skills and manpower to negotiate this, and certainly not in a manner that will sell well at home without compromising a hard Tory line. However, walking away would set them up nicely to win the next election, consequences to the country be dammed. Ie agree with comment on arrogance wholeheartedly.

  7. Nils Woerner

    On June 24, the day after the Brexit vote, I happened to visit my German father who has a very good history education. At the breakfast table he absolutely convinced that Brexit would ultimately mean the return of “Bismarckian times” with complex systems of adverse alliances and competing power blocks in Europe. First UK would get a hard seperation from Europe and as soon as this would be achieved they would start to try breaking other EU member states out of the block to form a competing alliance. He named Poland and Hungary as the most obvious candidates. The only way to start a competing power block and to offer other European countries a better deal is to first completely separate with the existing union.

    Looking at the quite convincing arguments of my father, a simple citizen, I am amazed how most of the media and most of Europe’s politicians look at the Brexit negotiations with a blind eye. They keep on asking: “Why are the Britts not seeing that breaking away is a bad deal?” The answer is easy: Because it is a bad deal for the moment. But if you can subsequently convince other European states to join your team – as they are tired of the German EU domination, then you can build a new alliance where the British ploliticians are the central power. Any other deal with the EU on the other side means accepting EU ruling without having a say. If you were a British politician, would scenario 2 even be an option?

  8. Peter Thomson

    If we start to talk in terms of no deal being a solution that the UK could live with then ANY deal will then begin to look like a triumph.

  9. Speculation on the issue seems to be in order, since what we see of the UK government in public appears to be directed more at the tabloid reading crowds than at building bridges to the EU 27.

    However, the lack of a deal, and especially ‘sudden death’, would cause such an upheaval and an outcry from the British businesses dealing with the Continent that even a Tory party with practically dictatorial powers might want to evade the situation, given distances of something like 10,000 to 12,000 miles to preferred markets for “Global Britain, such as Australia and New Zealand.

  10. Good analysis, and summary, but I still feel I’m not seeing the full picture. I can’t see how the cliff edge scenario is in May’s interest in any sense, not even as a short term political move. I can understand how brinkmanship could get us to that point, but I can’t understand why she and her government seem to be actively courting it. If it’s a negotiating tactic, it’s a terrible one, so I can’t believe it is. Is this still all about keeping the headbangers in line? Surely surely not?

    • Very fair comment, and I think you can tell from the last couple of paragraphs that I have a nagging feeling this does not all hang together. But could it be, ultimately, that May thinks she has more control of all of this than she actually does have? And is simply overestimating her ability to keep everything under control?

    • I agree, Chris, that the cliff can’t be in May’s interest, so might she and some others be realising it’ll be a dreadful disaster and the only option is to work towards staying​ in?

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