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A leaked memo confirms what we all thought: the Tories have no plan for Brexit

The government has no plan for a hard Brexit - and little hope of getting a soft one.

leaked government memo has confirmed our worst suspicions about Downing Street’s plan for Brexit: ie, there’s absolutely nothing there.

Highlights: “the government’s priority remains its political survival, not the economy”, with business concerns largely seen as “a PR issue” there is “no clear economic Brexit strategy”, there won’t be one “any time soon”, and that Theresa May’s style of “drawing in decisions and details to settle matters herself” is unsustainable in the longterm. The lack of direction from the centre, meanwhile, has Whitehall’s different departments drawing up plans that are both contradictory and overlapping – and the Civil Service doesn’t have the staff to manage Brexit or to get to grips with it in the six months before May has pledged to trigger Article 50.

Though the report has, I’m told, been written without the government’s say-so, by Deloitte, the consultancy firm that has been brought into to advise, the note merely commits to paper what is being said privately by civil servants throughout Whitehall, and by businesses, who leave meetings with ministers frustrated and confused.

And, of course, it’s not so different to Nicola Sturgeon’s frustrated press conference outside Downing Street about the government’s lack of a plan a few weeks back, which was widely dismissed by critics of the SNP as grandstanding at the time.

But there is something to note for those people hoping for a softer landing than dreamed of by the Brexiteers. Here’s the crucial aside, on the public spats between Philip Hammond, Greg Clark and the three Brexiteers “Overall, it appears best to judge who is winning the debate by assuming the noisiest individuals have lost the intra-government debate and are stirring the external supporters”. 

You don’t need me to tell you that the loudest noises have been coming from the Brexiteers in general and allies of Liam Fox in particular.

That suggests that the government is aiming for a softer Brexit than its public pronouncements suggest – but will they get one?

As I’ve written before, a great deal of attention at a senior level is being paid to the Norway grants, where that country pays money not just to the European Union directly but to the constituent nations of the Union as well. Brexit leaves a large hole in the EU’s budget, too, which gives Britain considerable wriggle room.

Added to that is the fact that the City of London remains the trading centre for the Euro, and there is room for a Brexit deal that doesn’t flatten the economy.

However, money only gets you so far, and it has to be accompanied by goodwill and careful negotiation. The latter has been absent, and that is contributing to an erosion of any remaining goodwill towards the United Kingdom.

Donald Trump’s election presented the United Kingdom with an option to secure credit in the bank by offering security to the EU’s periphery, particularly the Baltic states. Instead, the government is behaving in a startlingly uncritical way towards the Trump administration, even as the President-Elect appoints a white supremacist to a senior position and makes eyes at Vladimir Putin and Bashar Al-Assad.

Added to that is the general distaste at remarks like the “citizens of nowhere” remarks May made in her conference speech and Amber Rudd’s now-abandoned proposal to force firms to list their foreign workers.

So while the government’s strategy, such as it is, may be heading towards a softer Brexit, the groundwork to get there is not being done – and the plan for what happens if Britain doesn’t get one is non-existent.


Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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Charlottesville: a town haunted by the far right

Locals fear a bitter far right will return.

On 12 August, a car ploughed down pedestrians in the street where I used to buy my pecan pies. I had recently returned to London from Charlottesville, Virginia – the scene of what appears to have been an act of white supremacist terrorism – having worked and taught at the university there for four years. While I unpacked boxes of books, the streets I knew so well were full of hate and fire.

The horror began on the evening of Friday 11 August, when thugs with torches marched across the “Lawn”. Running through the heart of the university, this is where, each Halloween, children don ghoulish costumes and trick-or-treat delighted and generous fourth-year undergraduates.

But there were true monsters there that night. They took their stand on the steps of the neoclassical Rotunda – the site of graduation – to face down a congregation about to spill out of St Paul’s Episcopal opposite.

Then, on Saturday morning, a teeming mass of different groups gathered in Emancipation Park (formerly Lee Park), where my toddler ran through splash pads in the summer.

We knew it was coming. Some of the groups were at previous events in Charlottesville’s “summer of hate”. Ever since a permit was granted for the “Unite the Right” march, we feared that this would be a tipping point. I am unsure whether I should have been there, or whether I was wise to stay away.

The truth is that this had nothing to do with Charlottesville – and everything to do with it. From one perspective, our small, sleepy university town near the Blue Ridge Mountains was the victim of a showdown between out-of-towners. The fighting was largely not between local neo-Nazis and African Americans, or their white neighbours, for that matter. It was between neo-Nazis from far afield – James Alex Fields, Jr, accused of being the driver of the lethal Dodge Challenger, was born in Kentucky and lives in Ohio – and outside groups such as “Antifa” (anti-fascist). It was a foreign culture that was foisted upon the city.

Charlottesville is to the American east coast what Berkeley is to the west: a bastion of liberalism and political correctness, supportive of the kind of social change that the alt-right despises. Just off camera in the national newsfeeds was a banner hung from the public  library at the entrance of Emancipation Park, reading: “Proud of diversity”.

I heard more snippets of information as events unfolded. The counter-protesters began the day by drawing on the strength of the black church. A 6am prayer meeting at our local church, First Baptist on Main (the only church in Charlottesville where all races worshipped together before the Civil War), set the tone for the non-violent opposition.

The preacher told the congregation: “We can’t hate these brothers. They have a twisted ideology and they are deeply mistaken in their claim to follow Christ, but they are still our brothers.” Then he introduced the hymns. “The resistance of black people to oppression has only been kept alive through music.”

The congregation exited on to Main Street, opposite my old butcher JM Stock Provisions, and walked down to the statue of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark – the early 19th-century Bear Grylls types who explored the west. They went past Feast! – the delicacy market where we used to spend our Saturday mornings – and on to the dreamy downtown mall where my wife and I strolled on summer evenings and ate southern-fried chicken at the Whiskey Jar.

The permit for the “protest” was noon to 5pm but violence erupted earlier. Between 10.30am and 12pm, the white supremacists, protected by a paramilitary guard, attacked their opponents. As the skirmishes intensified, police were forced to encircle the clashing groups and created, in effect, a bizarre zone of “acceptable” violence. Until the governor declared a state of emergency, grown men threw bottles of piss at each other.

At noon, the crowd was dispersed and the protesters spilled out into the side streets. This was when the riot climaxed with the horrific death of the 32-year-old Heather Heyer. Throughout Saturday afternoon and evening, the far-right groups marauded the suburbs while residents locked their doors and closed their blinds.

I sat in London late into the night as information and prayer requests trickled through. “There are roughly 1,000 Nazis/KKK/alt-right/southern nationalists still around – in a city of 50,000 residents. If you’re the praying type, keep it up.”

No one in Charlottesville is in any doubt as to how this atrocity became possible. Donald Trump has brought these sects to group consciousness. They have risen above their infighting to articulate a common ground, transcending the bickering that mercifully held them back in the past.

In the immediate aftermath, there is clarity as well as fury. My colleague Charles Mathewes, a theologian and historian, remarked: “I still cannot believe we have to fight Nazis – real, actual, swastika-flag-waving, be-uniformed, gun-toting Nazis, along with armed, explicit racists, white supremacists and KKK members. I mean, was the 20th century simply forgotten?”

There is also a sense of foreboding, because the overwhelming feeling with which the enemy left was not triumph but bitterness. Their permit had been to protest from noon to 5pm. They terrorised a town with their chants of “Blood and soil!” but their free speech was apparently not heard. Their safe space, they claim, was not protected.

The next day, the organiser of the march, Jason Kessler, held a press conference to air his grievances. The fear is that the indignant white supremacists will be back in greater force to press their rights.

If that happens, there is one certainty. At one point during the dawn service at First Baptist, a black woman took the stand. “Our people have been oppressed for 400 years,” she said. “What we have learned is that the only weapon which wins the war is love.”

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear