For some, the comparison is irresistible. The England football team has reached the quarter-finals of the World Cup and defied low expectations. Could Theresa May’s enfeebled government do the same over Brexit?
Priti Patel, the former Conservative cabinet minister, has declared that the “Prime Minister and her cabinet have an opportunity to score a big win for Britain and leave Chequers as a united team”.
The comparison with Gareth Southgate’s squad does not, of course, flatter the government. May is a discredited manager presiding over a gang of truculent egos.
But even were the cabinet blessed with superlative statesmen, the UK could not “win” Brexit – the game was lost before it began. By voting to leave the EU, Britain condemned itself to choose between variants of defeat. As Brussels has repeatedly stated, it can have a “soft Brexit” – and lose sovereignty – or it can have a “hard Brexit” and lose economic access. What it cannot have is some superior hybrid of both (call it “Canway” = Canada + Norway).
The UK, in European eyes, had already won. As well as membership of the single market and the customs union, Britain enjoyed a formal opt-out from the euro (the only member state other than Denmark to do so) and the borderless Schengen Zone, a £5bn budget rebate and numerous home affairs opt-outs. The irony of Brexit is that is teaching the UK that it already had the best model: EU membership.
Once Article 50 was triggered, Brussels was transformed from a rival team into judge, jury and executioner. When the EU drew up the divorce proceedings it did so with the intention of maximising control. The withdrawal deal that Britain aims to reach must be approved by at least 72 per cent of member states, representing 65 per cent of the EU’s population. Once Article 50 has been triggered, the two-year deadline for leaving can only be extended by unanimous agreement. Even the much-maligned European Parliament has a vote.
When Geoffrey Howe resigned as deputy prime minister in 1990 over Margaret Thatcher’s Europe policy, he accused Thatcher of “sending your opening batsmen to the crease only for them to find, the moment the first balls are bowled, that their bats have been broken before the game by the team captain”. By triggering Article 50, the UK did something that no EU country has done in post-war history – it broke its own bats.