Take note Mrs May – no clear Brexit aim and Tory ultras will fuel bid to break up UK
Iflew this week from St Petersburg to Helsinki or, to put it another way, a quick leap from outside to inside the European Union. A planeload of Chinese tourists had landed just before us.
There was an immigration channel for EU citizens, I inserted my passport, looked at the camera and was in Finland within seconds. After Brexit, would I and – more importantly – those who come after me take our places behind 200 Chinese tourists? That question remains unanswered.
Once through immigration, my phone was delivering e-mails and I was free from fear of punitive roaming charges. Will I be able to do so after Brexit? A recent report estimated the cost of a return to roaming charges, which the mobile companies fought so hard against the EU to maintain, would be higher even than before.
For political grandees, this is the small change of diplomacy, barely worth a mention. They should be careful. It is the complete lack of regard for questions which directly affect people’s lives that is bringing government into contempt and stretching the patience of those who were perfectly prepared to give Brexit a chance.
Already, I hear the cry of “scaremongering” and it may still be that the final outcome will address such issues in a sensible and satisfactory manner. Until now, that has been my own working assumption but next week will mark the second anniversary of the EU referendum and the picture is still no clearer.
It is now bordering on scandalous that we are not one step closer to having a definitive answer to even the most basic questions because we are not one step closer to knowing the fundamentals of the deal on which the UK’S withdrawal will be based.
That scandal intensifies when you pin down the single reason for this astonishing lack of clarity. It is the existence of irreconcilable differences within the Conservative Party which the Prime Minister has felt unable to address, creating a climate of utter uncertainty which goes far beyond passports and mobile phones. This week, Paul Drechsler, president of the CBI, blamed the Brexit impasse on “a tidal wave of ideology”; warned that large sections of British industry face “extinction” without a customs union and found “zero evidence” that other trade deals would compensate for that loss.
He will be disparaged as some inconsolable Remainer with an axe to grind. But it is those who decry him who occupy a position of power without responsibility – the power to inflict the damage which Mr Drechsler warns against without responsibility for advancing a viable alternative which goes beyond Boris Johnson’s arrogant vacuities.
You might expect the vicar’s daughter to be familiar with Matthew 6, verse 24, which is the one about no man being able to serve two masters. At some point, she must take it as her text because the implications of ignoring it are so extreme.
Mrs May is dealing with a hard core of fundamentalists who simply don’t care about consequences. This was reflected in the supposedly “leaked” recording of Johnson sneering at the Irish border issue as “pure millennium bug stuff ” – an imagined inconvenience hardly worth discussing.
A man who can talk like that about a complex matter which could easily tip over into life and death is unlikely to give a toss for passports and mobile phones, or indeed jobs and businesses. That is not the world in which the Brexit ultras live and Mrs May has to confront that level of dogma or be consumed by it – as John Major was.
Even giving Parliament the power to block a bad deal remains shrouded in calculated ambiguity. Its immediate effect is to offer cover for many more months of Tory in-fighting. The far better solution would lie in a belated declaration of clear-cut objectives which respect the Brexit vote while leaving us as close as possible to the existing relationship.
That solution comes closest to a national consensus and those who, on either extreme, reject it should be left to contemplate their options. It is probably what has been going on behind the scenes all along but it cannot be done by stealth. There has to be some certainty and the anniversary of the referendum would – after two wasted years – be a suitable date on which to provide it.
What of the Scottish sub-plot? While every part of the UK has an equal right to demand answers and evidence of progress on matters of substance, we – as ever – are consumed by the fixation on process and grievance peculiar to ourselves. Whether there had been a House of Commons debate for ten minutes or ten weeks, the outcome would have been the same.
Whatever the other merits or demerits of Brexit, the certainty is that it will result in more rather than fewer powers coming to Edinburgh. There is no “power grab”; only an inevitable dialogue over mechanisms for returning powers from Brussels – powers which were transferred at a time when devolution did not exist.
Not one Scot in a hundred could tell you what points of substance are at stake in this supposed constitutional outrage. Faced with the same challenges, Welsh ministers defended Welsh interests and reached a settlement. Scottish ministers had absolutely no interest in any such outcome for the simple reason that their objective is really not about Brexit at all. So we had the ritual walk-out over the vital issue of whether a vote on an arcane procedural point should be taken at 12.20 p.m. or 1 p.m. The crib sheet for Nationalist MPS left behind even offered stage directions to express “outrage/disappointment” which one might have thought they could be relied upon to manufacture without having it written down.
Nonetheless, Theresa May should take note. Failure to promote a sensible outcome that the great majority of us could live with is creating a platform for those whose destructive target is not the EU – but the United Kingdom. Another reason to remember Matthew 6, v24.
0 PRO-EU protesters at Westminster this week – two years after the vote the picture is still no clearer