On 29 March 2019, a mere nine months from now, the UK is due to leave the European Union. Cabinet ministers, however, have yet to reach an agreement among themselves, still less with the remaining 27 member states of the EU.
In these circumstances, businesses are understandably losing patience. Airbus, which employs 14,000 people in Britain, and BMW, which employs 8,000 people, have both warned of job losses and cancelled investment should uncertainty over the Brexit deal prevail.
The reported response of Boris Johnson, the Foreign Secretary, to an official who raised this with him, was instructive: “fuck business”. For Britain’s chief diplomat, the economy’s needs are secondary to those of his doctrinaire ideology.
The Conservative Party was once admired, even by its political opponents, for its pragmatism and flexibility. These attributes helped it govern, alone or in coalition, for 67 years during the 20th century. However, the party has now been contaminated by the virus of Brexit (as the American Republicans have been by Trumpism).
As well as leaving the EU, as mandated by the 2016 referendum, Tory Brexiteers have insisted that the UK also leaves the customs union, the single market (the creation of which was championed by Margaret Thatcher) and all European legal and regulatory jurisdiction.
The greatest obstacle to this has never been parliament, or Remain supporters, but geography. Theresa May has pledged to leave the customs union and the single market, and to avoid a hard Irish border – two aims that have proved impossible to reconcile.
Yet just as Brexiteers now dismiss the needs of business, so they disregard the Irish question. “We’re allowing the whole of our agenda to be dictated by this folly,” the Foreign Secretary recently complained. That “folly” is the desire to preserve the achievements of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. People and goods move freely across an island border that now has 275 crossings (compared with 20 during the Troubles). Even more than the Conservatives’ post-election pact with the Democratic Unionist Party, Brexit threatens this fragile settlement.
On 5 and 6 July, in an attempt to finally reach an agreement, Mrs May will gather her cabinet at Chequers. Brexiteer ministers are already briefing that they may resign, or seek to bring down the Prime Minister. But any new Conservative leader would be forced to confront the same political and economic realities. A “no-deal Brexit”, as advocated by some, would be the greatest act of national self-harm in postwar history. When right-wing Brexiteers rebuff the complaints of business leaders and lobbyists, they elide the human cost: lost jobs and the destroyed livelihoods of workers.
No more can the Conservatives grandstand as the party of “economic credibility”. They have promised a £20bn rise in NHS spending – funded by a non-existent “Brexit dividend”. And as companies have demanded certainty, they have provided a masterclass in confusion. Such is the degeneration of the “party of business” into the party of Brexit.
What is the point of a member of parliament, let alone a cabinet minister holding one of the greatest offices of state, who loses all credibility? To secure his election in Uxbridge and South Ruislip – the seat to which he carpetbagged after eight wasteful years as mayor of London – Boris Johnson promised objectors he would “lie down with you in front of those bulldozers” if a third runway were built at Heathrow.
His lying, it turns out, is of a different order. He won’t even do the honourable thing and resign the office to which he brings such continuous shame, unlike his dignified former colleague, and fellow Conservative parliamentary objector, Greg Hands. It reflects poorly on Theresa May, so afraid of this charlatan that she indulges his electoral deceit, just as she has his innumerable and outrageous breaches of collective responsibility. Indeed, Mrs May colluded with him by letting him make a pointless trip to Afghanistan and thereby miss the Heathrow vote in the Commons. Contemptibly, Mr Johnson tells constituents that nothing would be served by his resignation. Thus his vanity project to soil public life continues.
This article appears in the 27 Jun 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Germany, alone