Brexit could be far worse than Suez

The Observer - - News - Andrew Rawns­ley


the state­ment that ac­com­pa­nied his res­ig­na­tion as trans­port min­is­ter, Jo John­son ac­cused his own govern­ment of a “fail­ure of Bri­tish state­craft on a scale un­seen since the Suez cri­sis”. He is wrong. Brexit is many mul­ti­ples more se­ri­ous than the Suez de­ba­cle of 1956 and the con­se­quences of a bad Brexit will be felt for far longer than was Sir Anthony Eden’s mis­ad­ven­ture in the Mid­dle East. That cost him the pre­mier­ship, but the hum­bling retreat from the desert taught his coun­try and his suc­ces­sors at Num­ber 10 a valu­able and nec­es­sar­ily bru­tal les­son about the lim­its of Bri­tain’s post-im­pe­rial power. Suez did no last­ing dam­age to Bri­tain; ar­guably, that fi­asco did this coun­try a favour by burn­ing away il­lu­sions about its place in the world. Nor was there en­dur­ing harm to the Con­ser­va­tive party. The Tories quickly ditched Eden and went on, un­der Harold Macmil­lan, to win a land­slide elec­tion vic­tory less than three years later.

Suez swiftly faded from con­tro­versy and slipped into the his­tory books; Bri­tain and its Tories will be liv­ing with the con­se­quences of a bad Brexit for years – prob­a­bly wis­est to make that decades – to come. If the eco­nomic blow­back is nasty, the Tory party will not be able to re­peat its post-Suez trick. It will not in­duce for­give­ness and for­get­ful­ness about a ter­ri­ble Brexit sim­ply by in­stalling a new face at Num­ber 10.

Pol­i­tics is of­ten a case not of how you play the game, but how you place the blame. No one does this more as­sid­u­ously and men­da­ciously than the Brex­iters. Their game is ap­proach­ing its cli­max and we can smell their fear that it is go­ing to end very badly. This is why their fiercest en­er­gies are now di­rected to di­vert­ing cul­pa­bil­ity on to any­one’s shoul­ders but their own.

The per­son they have al­lot­ted to play the prin­ci­pal scape­goat is Theresa May. The prime min­is­ter will not be alone on their bo­gus charge list. They will fin­ger oth­ers who sup­pos­edly sab­o­taged a beau­ti­ful idea, a cast that will in­clude quis­ling civil ser­vants, the treach­er­ous Trea­sury, re­cal­ci­trant Re­moan­ers, med­dling judges and bul­lies in Brus­sels. They will all have roles in the self-ex­cul­pat­ing blame game the Brex­iters plan to play, but it is the prime min­is­ter who is be­ing as­signed the part of chief vil­lain. Once, when she was fool­ishly fol­low­ing their script by paint­ing her­self into their “red lines”, they adored her. Now she will be Theresa the be­trayer.

She has to be, for other­wise the be­tray­ers of Bri­tain would be the Brex­iters them­selves. Hu­man be­ings are, by and large, re­luc­tant to ad­mit er­ror and politi­cians struggle more than most of us. Confession of fault comes even more grudg­ingly when the mis­take is as epic as Brexit. If you have founded a world view on a folly, if you have staked an en­tire ca­reer on the idea that quit­ting the Euro­pean Union is a bright idea, then you would have to be ex­cep­tion­ally hon­est with your­self to con­fess that it has been a cat­a­strophic mis­take. The Brex­iters are not ca­pa­ble of be­ing hon­est with them­selves – or any­one else. Since their self-con­ceit will not al­low them to con­cede that the fault is in Brexit it­self and the peo­ple who pro­moted it, blame must there­fore be as­signed else­where. There was a dream Brexit to be had – this will be their cry – if only it had not been chucked away in the cham­bers of Brus­sels. Had Mrs May been a smarter, tougher ne­go­tia­tor, Bri­tain would now be look­ing at a sun-dap­pled fu­ture, rather than be­ing asked to ac­cept a dire deal that leaves vir­tu­ally no one sat­is­fied and nearly ev­ery­one un­happy.

In this, the Brex­iters re­mind me of the Marx­ists dur­ing the days of the Soviet Union and the ex­cuses they would trot out to ex­plain why the USSR had not turned out to be the work­ers’ par­adise promised by old Karl’s the­o­ries. When forced to ac­knowl­edge that all the regimes that have gov­erned in the name of Marx­ism had been a dis­as­ter, they would in­sist that this did not prove that com­mu­nism was a fa­tally flawed idea, just that it had never been given a proper try. Just so with the Brex­iters. They will protest to the end of days that there was noth­ing in­her­ently wrong with their con­cept – it was the ex­e­cu­tion that was to blame.

So it is im­por­tant for the rest of us to be clear why we have wound up in a po­si­tion where Mrs May is at­tacked by both the John­son broth­ers, the Re­main­sup­port­ing younger one who has quit the govern­ment to cam­paign for an­other ref­er­en­dum, and the Brex­iter older one who flounced from her cabi­net in the sum­mer. Mrs May has not ar­rived in this place of peril – for both her pre­mier­ship and her coun­try – be­cause she is an es­pe­cially dread­ful ne­go­tia­tor. It is not true to say that there was a bril­liant deal avail­able if only she had tried a bit harder.

Mrs May is in an im­pos­si­ble po­si­tion, be­cause a good Brexit never ex­isted out­side the glib fan­tasies of its pro­po­nents. There has never been a deal avail­able that would al­low the United King­dom to con­tinue to en­joy all the many ben­e­fits of its partnership with the Euro­pean Union, as the Brex­iters once promised, from the out­side. As I’ve re­marked be­fore, any deal ne­go­ti­ated by any prime min­is­ter was bound to be sub­op­ti­mal, be­cause there are no terms more favourable to Bri­tain than those that it cur­rently en­joys as a mem­ber of the EU. There never was some tremen­dous bar­gain there to be struck if only Mrs May had had the wit to spot it. From the start, she has been choos­ing be­tween va­ri­eties of the in­fe­rior. And where she has made mis­takes, they have flowed not from be­tray­ing the hard Brex­iters but from do­ing their bid­ding and seek­ing to ap­pease them.

It is now nearly 30 months since the ref­er­en­dum, with fewer than five to go be­fore Bri­tain is due to leave. If there were some smart so­lu­tion to Brexit, we are en­ti­tled to won­der why the Brex­iters have never re­vealed it to the rest of us. They have been florid in their de­nun­ci­a­tions of Mrs May’s ideas with­out once pro­duc­ing a plan of their own that passes the most ba­sic tests of vi­a­bil­ity. Michael Gove, pur­port­edly the clever­est of their num­ber, has been re­duced to ar­gu­ing that the cabi­net should swal­low what­ever terms Mrs May can cob­ble to­gether in the hope of hav­ing an­other go at some un­spec­i­fied date in the fu­ture.

If there were a blind­ingly su­pe­rior ne­go­ti­at­ing strat­egy, and the se­cret of it was known to Boris John­son or to David Davis, you might think they would have shared it with the rest of the cabi­net when one held the great of­fice of for­eign sec­re­tary and the other was in the in­flu­en­tial role of Brexit sec­re­tary. Those po­si­tions are now held by Jeremy Hunt, a self-pro­claimed con­vert to Brexit, and Do­minic Raab, a pro­tege of Mr Davis and al­ways a be­liever. They have done no bet­ter than their pre­de­ces­sors at il­lu­mi­nat­ing the path to El Do­rado.

Aclue to why they have failed was dropped in the past few days by Mr Raab. He is not a stupid man – the op­po­site, in fact. But like many of his fel­low Brex­iters, he can be as­ton­ish­ingly ig­no­rant. He told a tech in­dus­try con­fer­ence that he had only re­cently grasped how much of Bri­tain’s com­merce is de­pen­dent on free flows across the Chan­nel be­tween Dover and Calais. Bri­tain is an is­land? No shit, Sher­lock. This fol­lows the ad­mis­sion by Karen Bradley that, prior to be­com­ing North­ern Ire­land sec­re­tary, she “didn’t un­der­stand” that the ter­ri­tory had sec­tar­ian divi­sions, the most ele­men­tary fact about its pol­i­tics. This had you won­der­ing how Ms Bradley man­aged to get into her late 40s, and a chair in the cabi­net, with­out ever watch­ing a news bul­letin or read­ing a book. It was from such bog­gling po­lit­i­cal, ge­o­graph­i­cal and eco­nomic il­lit­er­acy that sprang the fa­tal fan­tasies that Brexit would be a piece of cherry-topped cake.

Mrs May could have been 10 times more skilled at ne­go­ti­at­ing and Bri­tain would very likely be in much the same place as it is now. The younger John­son char­ac­terises it as a choice “be­tween two deeply unattrac­tive out­comes – vas­salage and chaos”. At best, Mrs May will present a deal that is hu­mil­i­at­ingly worse than the terms we cur­rently en­joy as mem­bers of the EU. At worst, Bri­tain will be in­vited to take the night­mare road that leads over a cliff-edge. This wretched choice will be of­fered by Mrs May not be­cause she is the most hap­less ne­go­tia­tor ever to in­habit Num­ber 10; it is be­cause a happy end­ing to this story was never avail­able.

The prob­lem with Brexit is not Theresa May. The prob­lem with Brexit is Brexit.

Jo John­son, the lat­est of Mrs May’s min­is­ters to be driven to de­spair.

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