Ever since the UK triggered its withdrawal from the EU, the Brexiteers have complained that the government is failing to prepare for “no deal”. This, they say, has irretrievably weakened Britain’s negotiating position. Unless the UK is prepared to crash out with no agreement, the EU has no incentive to offer it a beneficial one.
In the last week, the government has finally acceded to Brexiteer wishes and begun to reveal its no deal preparations. Theresa May has confirmed that food and medicines are being stockpiled but has insisted that “people should take reassurance and comfort” from this. Other reported plans include transforming the M26 into a 10-mile lorry park, suspending food safety checks and deploying the army for emergency deliveries.
The result has been a wave of derisive headlines, Tory splits and negative poll ratings: 75 per cent believe the government is negotiating Brexit badly and support for a second referendum has reached a record high.
In response, the Brexiteers have accused the government of scaremongering. A cabinet source told the Daily Telegraph: “It is designed by No 10 to do the opposite of what Brexiteers want. We could have made a strong case for no deal and said we were prepared. The way they are presenting it makes it look like Armageddon.
“It is a kamikaze approach to no deal. The truth is, it’s total chaos. They are deliberately trying to make no deal look bad.”
Yet the reason that no deal looks bad is because it is bad. There is no way for the government to positively spin what would be the greatest act of national self-harm in post-war European history. Trading under World Trade Organisation rules, as some Brexiteers propose, sounds innocuous but its consequences would not be. The UK would be left as the only state in the world trading on these terms and incur punitive tariffs (Mauritania, which previously held this status, has recently signed 20 preferential trade agreements). The more the government discusses the consequences of no deal, the less attractive it appears.
The same Brexiteers who once rebuked ministers for not talking enough about no deal are now denouncing them for talking too much. Iain Duncan Smith, who last month declared “we really have to say we are planning and will continue to plan for a no deal”, has accused the government of re-running “Project Fear”. Peter Bone, who recently told May to “make clear your belief that the UK has now to prepare urgently [for no deal]”, now complains that ministers are trying “to scare people in the hope we will either agree to a Brexit in name only, or stay in.”
Rather than spelling out the costs of no deal to the UK, they say, the government should publicise the cost to the EU. Steve Baker, the former Brexit minister, has proposed a series of billboards in those member states that would be worst affected.
But this tactic collides with an unavoidable truth: the cost of no deal would be far higher to the UK than the EU. The government’s own impact assessment estimates that the former would lose eight per cent of GDP over the next 15 years while the latter would lose just 1.5 per cent. This reflects simple economic logic: without a Brexit deal, the EU will sell less to one country but the UK will sell less to 27.
For this reason, threatening no deal has never been a viable negotiating tactic. Britain cannot meaningfully prepare for the chaos that would result in the short Article 50 negotiating period. And the EU knows that May has no intention of immolating her premiership by leaving with no deal.
Even if one accepts the Brexiteers’ complaint that the government is exaggerating the risks, it was Leavers who walked into this trap. The danger of arguing for no deal – the most extreme option – has always been that it leads to the opposite outcome: no Brexit.
Rather than devising a workable plan, Tory Leavers have indulged the fantasy that the UK can leave without an agreement at all. When the consequences of doing so are spelt out, the option of remaining in the EU appears ever more attractive. But as ever, the Brexiteers are content to blame everyone but themselves.