BF, the very short answer is that very few people or groups come out of this well, but the blame? I have left out most of the quotes/references backing up my conclusions simply to keep this to a reasonable length. Apart from quite wide reading in the UK media, including Matthew d’Ancona, with his insights as a Tory into May and her party, I have drawn on some French and US papers. The Washington Post, for example, has a useful column by Carl Bildt, the former centre-right Swedish PM, who understands the EU and the complex issues. REFERENDUM CAMPAIGN
The post-referendum events cannot be understood without examining the campaign and the result, because they created a fundamental political irreconcilability. The post-ref. mantra has been that “nobody voted to be worse off”. The problem is they did. The Leave vote was almost entirely a call for the restoration of a supposed lost sovereignty, particularly on immigration and laws. Voters were told leaving the EU would get the UK out from under, in principle and in practice.
They were also told there would be no damage to the economy, apart perhaps from a bit of short-term dislocation, because the EU would cave in and allow the UK to keep its beneficial full access to the single market without having to accept freedom of movement. The “They need us more than we need them” claim, which was in effect a lie. Actually the lie of the campaign, vastly more serious than the NHS pledge. But a lie only works if it is believed.
The basic idea that any organisation would allow a non-member to have for free the benefits members had to pay for should have given voters pause for thought. And anyone with half an hour or so to spare and access to a computer to learn specifically about the EU would have discovered this particular promise was at best highly questionable and probably downright false.
But it was believed. Several posters here – I suspect a roughly reasonable cross-section of southern English public opinion, albeit with a male bias - not only believed it but propagated it. The likelihood is that many millions believed it. Creating a post-ref. problem, since politically you can blame the liars but not the lied to. You cannot tell voters they were too dumb to realise they were being conned. Hence the disingenuous “Nobody voted…” mantra. And it placed sensible UK politicians – those that understood and wanted to limit the potential economic damage - in a dilemma that has shaped events since. Respect the ref. result, even though it was based on a lie, and cause serious damage. Or safeguard the economy by ignoring the ref. result, at the risk of alienating millions of voters.
The big mistakes came early on. Such as triggering Article 50 and so setting the clock running towards March 29 2019 when she and her government seemed nowhere near prepared, either in terms of having an end result in mind or having top-notch negotiators.
That photo showing Barnier and his team with files at the ready while Davis et al had an empty table in front of them did speak to the gulf in competence and preparedness. Supposedly the arcane question of pets crossing the Channel post-Brexit came up, and someone on the UK side wondered out loud how many did that per week. Barnier knew the answer, off the top of his head.
And there were May’s bright red lines – out of the single market and out of any customs’ union – which immediately reduced her room for manoeuvre when she also limited the time to do a deal.
Why so hamfisted? There are various reasons. I suspect she didn’t really ‘get’ the EU. Her main contact as home secretary had been on technical matters to do with immigration and deportation etc. She had never been confronted with the broader geo-political rationale, to do with uniting a previously war-torn continent, and the sense of unity that crucially requires. In that she is probably no different to many UK voters who regard the EU as only a gigantic version of dad Thatcher’s Grantham corner-shop and don’t understand , let alone want to be part of, its wider purpose. But the PM of a G7 country ought at least to know more.
And this insular lack of understanding, allied to what seems like a complete absence of diplomatic nous, hardly helped her on those many sudden flights across the Channel to try to get this concession or that from EU leaders. I had assumed that in private she negotiated properly with these serious people. But evidently not. She still insulted them with mindless soundbites as if they were a bunch of geriatric Tories in Ashby-de-la-Zouch. As recently as this month she actually lectured them that “Brexit means Brexit”.
This would not have mattered so much if she hadn’t so limited her room for manoeuvre in terms of time and options. No doubt about the reason. Despite being deliberately as unenthusiastic as possible a Remain voter (astutely positioning herself for either ref. outcome) and having been chosen because as home secretary she had always tried to champion sovereignty, she still felt she had to prove to Brexiters she was a complete convert to their cause.
And given the sovereignty motivation behind the vast majority of the Leave vote then she had to rule out staying in the single market de jure - even if she believed the “they need us…” cave-in scenario and banked on de facto membership sans FoM. As Sir Ivan Rogers, sacked for knowing what he was talking about, said this month, she certainly did believe in cakeism over a customs’ union:
"The bizarre – and total non-starter – Schroedinger’s Customs Union FCA proposal of the PM whereby we got all the benefits of staying in a CU whilst leaving it to have a fully sovereign trade policy.”
But, in order to keep economic damage down, she could have argued, perfectly plausibly, that the UK was getting back quite enough sovereignty by leaving the EU and the single market, and that there was nothing in the ref. result that said the UK could not be – properly - in a customs’ union. The ref. had not insisted, she could have said, that the UK needed to be free to do trade deals. But she didn’t. She either believed the buccaneering merchant-venturer fantasy of the UK striking out on its own to do such deals across the world, or knew it was nonsense but still thought she had to convince the hardline Brexiters she was with then all the way.
Equally, again to reduce economic damage, she could have argued that the services sector, as about 80 per cent of the economy, needed to be prioritised over trade in goods. But she didn’t.
And if if she hadn’t already boxed herself in enough she then called an election in the expectation a bigger majority would give her more clout in talking to the EU and help get legislation through the Commons. And ended up being even more constrained by accidentally empowering the Tory headbangers and the DUP. The very last people to be in thrall to if you wanted a sensible deal.
ERG AND THE DUP
A parable comes to mind. A frog and a scorpion are trapped by rising flood waters, needing to cross the river to get to higher ground. So the scorpion asks the frog for a lift. “But you will sting me,” says the frog. “I won’t – that would be stupid. We would both drown.” Halfway across the scorpion stings the frog, who asks why, since they are now both going to die. “Because it’s in my nature” the scorpion says.
For some of the hardliners Brexit is the culmination of decades of work. These are not so much politicians as religious fanatics. It is not a mundane question of this EU immigration rule or that trade requirement, of having to pay Brussels €xbn as opposed to €ybn. They hate the whole demeaning idea of the UK being in the EU.
Soon after the ref. one Remain-voting cabinet minister was asked if his Brexit colleagues really understood just how much economic damage would be done to the country. Surely they had to. “Oh they know,” came the reply. “They just don’t care.”
Easy to blame the DUP, but It is in effect a one-issue party. Its raison d’être is to keep the union together. If it doesn’t do that, irrespective of the cost, what it the point of it? Blame the politician who called the election that gave this second group of fundamentalists veto power to wield when the sticking-point with the EU was going to turn out to be over the one issue it cared about.
Apart from in wartime the job of the Opposition is to oppose. But Labour under Corbyn is opposing while not opposing. For various reasons, some the same, some different, he is just as trapped as May. He too faces the irreconcilability trap, particularly fearing to alienate a large tranche of Labour voters, but then he doesn’t have a sizeable group of MPs who want the UK out no matter what the cost.
While May has been given this one duty of making Brexit happen, Corbyn’s dislike of the EU stems from an ingrained antipathy to global capitalism. To which he adds the claim – according to experts quite false – that EU membership would stop him revitalizing the economy. Apparently not one of his 2017 manifesto commitments falls foul of EU rules.
That said, in contrast to May’s Hard Brexit, Labour’s alternative Semi-Hard/Semi-Soft plan, of staying properly in a customs’ union, represents the best possible compromise between respecting the ref. while limiting economic damage.
There are three myths or truisms about the EU, two of which have been laid to rest by its performance over Brexit. Firstly, that it punishes countries that dare to step out of line. In this case It has compromised more than I thought likely, and has offered decent post-Brexit deals. Not the EU’s fault that May’s red lines ruled them out. Even so, despite that, and her general incompetence, the EU has given her probably as good a deal as she could have hoped for.
There is a decent argument that May is only still PM because the EU has helped keep her in place. Not completely altruistically, of course. The EU has learned through sharp experience, before Brexit and certainly since the ref., not to trust Blighty to play the game. But it still would trust May more than Boris Johnson.
The second “truth” is that the EU forces countries to keep on voting until it gets the result it wants. Not here. There is zero pressure from Brussels for a second ref. That is all coming from within the UK.
The third truism is that there is always a last-minute deal. Well, perhaps, but here some factors weigh against that. As far as the EU is concerned it already has its deal. And it is nowadays less able, even if it wanted felt like it, to cobble something together in a smoke-filled room. It is more of a technocratic organisation than before, with the views of 27 countries to take into account, plus the MEPs etc. And time is getting very short, as May seems to be relying on to force MPs to vote for her deal.
Most importantly, the problem is not the allocation of fish stocks, where percentages can be finagled, or traded for a consideration over dairy cattle. The Irish border is a fundamental issue crucial to the future of one of the 27. There is little or no room left for a fudged compromise.
Not least because while the UK tended to see the Withdrawal talks as in essence being about the future relationship, for the EU they were always primarily about limiting the potential damage from Brexit, to itself, to its member countries and to its citizens. The future would come later.
And this solidarity to protect Eire is what I was talking about earlier on – that sense of unity that has come from sharing a much broader vision of the EU than the UK has ever envisaged. This helps explain why all those not very subtle attempts by the UK to prise off individual countries not only failed but increased EU togetherness. And this solidarity will carry on if there are ever any trade talks.
Brexit brings to mind that yokel reply to lost townie travellers who ask how to get to such and such a place. “If I were you I wouldn’t start from here.” There never could be a perfect solution. And some other players have not helped matters. But for May there was a potential deal to be had, for which there could well have been a pre-election majority in the Commons.
Leave the EU, leave the single market, but stay – properly - in a customs’ union. Which would have put Labour on the spot, since it is essentially their policy. But May, for the reasons explained, lacked pretty much every quality necessary to face down the headbangers in her party. And her catastrophic miscalculation over the election seems to have made any deal a non-starter.
So, yes, the great majority of the blame lies with May. But it was also the abject willingness of voters to believe a big whopping lie that got not just May but all the players into a position where the only sensible answer as to how to reach their planned destination was to not start from where they were.