Over-op­ti­mistic min­is­ters ma­nip­u­late the Brexit de­bate

Financial Times Middle East - - Comment - Janan Ganesh janan.ganesh@ft.com

There are med­i­cal stu­dents who glide through ev­ery stage of their train­ing bar the bed­side man­ner. They know the hu­man body and its pro­cesses but can­not man­age pa­tient ex­pec­ta­tions or break bad news.

The three men in charge of Brexit, that elec­tive op­er­a­tion on Bri­tain’s body politic, evoke the op­po­site — and the worst — type of doc­tor. What they lack in core com­pe­tence they re­dress with tongues of pure st sil­ver.

Pressed for de­tail on his work by MPs last week, David Davis, the min­is­ter for exit, left them vaguer. It hurts to inform you that diplo­mats find him well­briefed next to Liam Fox, whose trade port­fo­lio is a phan­tom thing un­til Bri­tain leaves the EU, and Boris John­son, who has not let his rise to for­eign sec­re­tary dis­rupt his work as a jester for the kind of Tories who laugh when a bird lands on centre court at Wim­ble­don.

But then look at what these min­is­ters have achieved as ma­nip­u­la­tors of pub­lic de­bate. Over the past year, the terms on which Bri­tain will leave have been talked down on such a fine gra­di­ent that even vig­i­lant ob­servers of pol­i­tics are only semi-con­scious of how far the coun­try has been led.

As an open­ing pitch, vot­ers were told that Bri­tain could re­tain sin­gle-mar­ket mem­ber­ship with­out its corol­lary bur­dens. Nor­way and Switzer­land have tried for the same Utopia but our su­pe­rior size would clinch it. When Leavers were dis­abused of this dream, they spoke of “ac­cess” to the mar­ket and zero bar­ri­ers for traded goods. Ger­man ex­porters, blessed with su­per­nat­u­ral lob­by­ing pow­ers that some­how failed to soften Euro­pean sanc­tions on Rus­sia, would per­suade the EU of the mu­tual in­ter­est in such an ar­range­ment.

When even this di­min­ished plan ran into trou­ble, when it be­came clear that Bri­tain’s de­sire for bi­lat­eral deal­mak­ing power could not be ac­com­mo­dated inside the cus­toms union, Leavers fell back on a for­mal trade re­la­tion­ship with the EU in­stead. Bri­tain would do busi­ness with Europe as Canada does, as if ge­og­ra­phy had been abol­ished and the ac­cess terms en­joyed by a na­tion 4,000km away would serve for a na­tion whose phys­i­cal and eco­nomic ori­en­ta­tion is to the con­ti­nent.

That seemed to be the last re­course. But now min­is­ters are try­ing to nor­malise the idea of to­tal exit with­out a trade pact. Mr John­son says this would not be “by any means as apoc­a­lyp­tic as some people like to pre­tend” (roll up, roll up for a fu­ture that stops short of apoc­a­lypse) and Mr Davis de­scribes it as “not harm­ful”. Econ­o­mists dis­agree with him but politi­cians are al­lowed to ques­tion their record of clair­voy­ance.

What they are not al­lowed is a par­don for a solid year’s worth of prom­is­sory slip­page: from sin­gle mar­ket mem­ber­ship to a com­modi­ous niche in the cus­toms union to a trade deal to ab­so­lute sev­er­ance. Even if they are right that Bri­tain can pros­per in its prin­ci­pal mar­ket as a World Trade Or­ga­ni­za­tion mem­ber, this was never their vi­sion.

At ev­ery stage, they over­promise. At ev­ery stage, re­al­ity finds them out. At ev­ery stage, they spin the new bot­tom­line as some­thing they half-ex­pected all along and as noth­ing to fear. If the sun melted the north­ern hemi­sphere, they would hope to fi­nesse these isles out of the gen­er­alised in­ferno with a be­spoke deal. This is the kind of con­fi­dence that arouses the op­po­site of con­fi­dence in oth­ers. It is the con­fi­dence of a lost tour guide who can­not be seen to scru­ti­nise a map in front of pay­ing hol­i­day mak­ers.

If these min­is­ters erred in dif­fer­ent ways at dif­fer­ent times, they could hope to im­prove through prac­tice. But they con­sis­tently err on the side of op­ti­mism. The prob­lem is not tech­ni­cal in­com­pe­tence so much as a mys­ti­cal be­lief that the EU will un­pick its fun­da­men­tal prin­ci­ples to ac­com­mo­date Bri­tain, that the whole world will make ex­cep­tions for the na­tion of Shake­speare and the spin­ning jenny. If these men were shocked that the EU turned out to be a tough in­ter­locu­tor with in­ter­ests of its own, imag­ine their first con­tact with the Amer­i­can in­dus­trial lobby or the In­dian state.

On March 29, the govern­ment will file Ar­ti­cle 50 and be­gin talks that have no prece­dent in sweep or com­plex­ity. If we are now inured to the prospect of the very hard­est of ex its, that is some feat by Leavers. There is an art to the grad­ual nor­mal­i­sa­tion of pre­vi­ously ex­treme ideas. In the hands of a good politi­cian, you can not tell you are be­ing let down.

It is just that you would rather be in the hands of states­men. See­ing these min­is­ters talk their way out of old prom-ises leaves you with a sense of sin­u­ous po­lit­i­cal skill but also small­ness — of a trio pulling them­selves up to their full height to look at the mon­u­men­tal work of exit straight in the an­kles.

At ev­ery stage, they spin the new bot­tom-line as some­thing half-ex­pected all along and as noth­ing to fear

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