Every failed project needs a scapegoat. In Theresa May, the Brexiteers have found theirs. Jacob Rees-Mogg – who has previously maintained a Tony Benn-like distinction between personalities and issues – has warned that “the policy and the individual” have become “intimately connected”. Boris Johnson has denounced the Prime Minister’s “total surrender” to Brussels. Even Nick Timothy, May’s former chief of staff and fiercely loyal ally, has accused her of a “capitulation” and of never believing Brexit could “be a success”. Et tu, Brute?
All of this merely distracts from where the blame truly lies: with the Brexiteers themselves. The problem is not that May has failed to deliver on the Leave campaign’s promises – the problem is that no prime minister could have done so. In 2016, the Brexiteers vowed to end free movement, retain the economics benefits of EU membership, withdraw the UK from the customs union and avoid a hard Irish border – aims that were inherently irreconcilable.
Theresa May has played a bad hand badly – she squandered her parliamentary majority in an unnecessary election and carelessly alienated EU leaders – but a bad hand it always was. From the moment that she reaffirmed Leave’s pledge to avoid a hard Irish border, a softer Brexit became inevitable. None of the alleged “technological” solutions offered by Leavers have ever been credible. The only certain way to prevent a hard border is for the UK to indefinitely remain in a customs union.
The Brexiteers’ true quarrel is not with May but with reality. On 11 July 2016, David Davis, the former Brexit secretary, wrote that within two years the UK could “negotiate a free trade area massively larger than the EU”. As recently as 20 July 2017, Liam Fox, the International Trade Secretary, predicted that a new British trade deal with the EU would be “one of the easiest in human history”.
Such hopes were always delusional. The UK never held “the best cards” in the negotiations. The threat of “no deal” – a supposed masterstroke – was never credible. As the EU well knows, it is Britain that has the most to lose from this outcome (an estimated loss of 8 per cent of GDP compared to the EU’s 1.5 per cent). Again, the Brexiteers chide May for failing to adequately “prepare” for no deal. But the notion that the UK could ever successfully manage the upheaval that would result – punitive tariffs, medical shortages, grounded flights, chaos at ports and on roads – is fantastical.
Others pointed to Britain’s large trade deficit with the EU. But as Carlo Calenda, the former Italian minister for economic development, replied to Boris Johnson when warned “you don’t want to lose Prosecco exports”: “I’ll sell less Prosecco to one country and you’ll sell less to 27 countries.”
For this reason, among others, it is the UK that has been forced to capitulate: agreeing to pay a “divorce bill” of €40bn to €45bn before a new trade deal has been reached, and pledging to abide by all EU laws and regulations until at least December 2020 as part of a transition period.
Article 50 was triggered recklessly early in March 2017, before the cabinet had even reached agreement on the UK’s negotiating aims (nearly two years later, it still hasn’t). Ever since, the EU has been able to exploit internecine warfare on the British side as the clock runs down. But the problem has never merely been one of time but of substance. Undeliverable promises were always undeliverable.
Johnson and other Brexiteers now lament that May’s proposed deal is worse even than EU membership – but the delusion was to believe that it could ever be superior. A soft Brexit would sacrifice political sovereignty – with the UK becoming a rule-taker, rather than a rule-maker – while a hard Brexit would sacrifice economic prosperity.
Faced with this choice, the UK has been routinely accused of wishing to “have its cake and eat it”. The irony is that it was already doing so. Britain enjoyed formal opt-outs from the euro (the only member state other than Denmark to do so) and the borderless Schengen Zone, and a £4.9bn budget rebate.
Brexiteers are left to assert what my colleague Jonn Elledge has called “the Tinkerbell theory”: the insistence that only a lack of belief, a lack of faith, has held the UK back. “The moment you doubt whether you can fly,” J M Barrie wrote, “You cease for ever to be able to do it.”
In 2016, the Brexiteers had the chance to prove that they could fly. But faced with the prospect of power – and responsibility – Boris Johnson and Michael Gove self-imploded. On the morning after the EU referendum, they resembled men who – having boasted that they could fly – disastrously failed to sprout wings. Power, though, would merely have taught them the lesson paralysing the May government: that the greatest enemy of Brexit is Brexit.