For more than two years, the Conservative government has been negotiating with itself, rather than with the European Union. When Theresa May finally sought to unite her cabinet on Brexit, David Davis and Boris Johnson predictably revolted.
In his self-serving resignation letter, Mr Johnson lamented that “the Brexit dream is dying”. In truth, it is merely his mendacity that has been exposed. More than any other cabinet minister, the former foreign secretary peddled the myth that the UK could retain the benefits of EU membership without the costs. His true quarrel is not with Mrs May but with reality. The Prime Minister should long ago have sacked him for his truculence and disloyalty – the hallmarks of his destructive journalistic and political career.
The UK’s principled commitment to avoiding a hard Irish border has made a hard or “clean” Brexit of the kind promised by Mr Johnson impossible. To prevent trade friction, Britain must form a customs union with the EU and remain in the single market for goods, at the very least.
Mr Johnson, who left the Foreign Office in greater disrepute than any of his predecessors, privately said of the Irish question: “We’re allowing the whole of our agenda to be dictated by this folly.” That “folly” is the desire to uphold the achievements of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.
The need for the UK to abide by EU laws and regulations would, Mr Johnson complained, reduce it to “the status of a colony”. But as the Brexiteers indulged in imperial fantasies, this was precisely the outcome their opponents warned against. Outside the EU, the UK’s desire to maintain economic ties will transform it from a rule-maker into a rule-taker. Though Mr Davis and Mr Johnson bemoaned this prospect, neither offered anything resembling a coherent alternative.
From the outset, both men suggested that the UK would easily outplay the EU. Mr Davis predicted that no Brexit transition period would be required and that Britain would negotiate “a free trade area massively larger than the EU” by 2018. As he later learned, while still an EU member the UK is barred from signing new trade deals. Even were Britain to do so eventually, the government’s own analysis of a hard Brexit suggests that it would lose between 2 per cent and 8 per cent of GDP over 15 years, while new trade deals with the US and others would add no more than 0.6 per cent.
As some Leavers are now grasping, Brexit has left the UK more subservient to Brussels than ever before. When the EU drew up the divorce proceedings it did so with the intention of maximising control. No member state, it assumed, would be so reckless as to invoke Article 50 (as the UK did unforgivably early in March 2017).
Before accepting Mrs May’s proposals, the EU is likely to demand further concessions from the UK. Brussels has long insisted that, just as one cannot be half-pregnant, so Britain cannot remain in parts of the single market while leaving others. Mindful that the government’s stance would further soften, Mr Johnson and Mr Davis chose to resign.
Their unmourned departures free Mrs May, who has demonstrated impressive resilience and fortitude, to assert her authority. But should the EU insist on single market membership – and continued free movement – any Brexit deal will depend on the support of opposition MPs. Like her Tory predecessor Robert Peel, who repealed the Corn Laws, Mrs May has the chance to put country before party. The alternative now advocated openly by some Brexiteers – leaving with no deal – would be the greatest act of national self-harm in postwar European history.
Britain’s unpalatable choices are a humiliation for a country of its size, influence and history. To Europeans, the UK enjoys the benefits of the EU without the costs. As well as membership of the single market and the customs union, Britain has a formal opt-out from the euro and the borderless Schengen zone: a deal that many countries would relish. The great irony of Brexit, then, is revealing that the United Kingdom already had the best model: EU membership, with a rule-maker’s influence and control.
This article appears in the 11 Jul 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit farce