In her 2002 “nasty party” speech to the Conservative conference, Theresa May declared of the Tories: “Twice we went to the country unchanged, unrepentant, just plain unattractive. And twice we got slaughtered.”
Twice Theresa May went to the House of Commons with an unchanged and unattractive deal. And twice she got slaughtered.
Last night’s defeat was not as emphatic as that two months ago (when May lost by a record 230 votes) but it remained the fourth-biggest defeat in House of Commons history. Almost three years after the UK voted to leave the EU, and a mere fortnight before its current departure date (29 March), Britain’s fate remains farcically uncertain.
For the Brexiteers, May is the unambiguous culprit. 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”.
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 economic benefits of EU membership, withdraw the UK from the customs union and avoid a hard Irish border — aims that were inherently irreconcilable.
May has played a bad hand badly — she triggered Article 50 recklessly early, squandered her parliamentary majority in an unnecessary election and carelessly alienated EU leaders and Remain MPs — 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 dream of “Empire 2.0” — a buccaneering Britannia that strikes trade deals with the “Anglosphere” — has been thwarted by the legacy of Empire 1.0: the Irish border.
The Leavers’ 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”. On 20 July 2017, Liam Fox, the International Trade Secretary, declared that a new British trade deal with the EU should 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.
Article 50 was triggered in March 2017 before the cabinet had even reached agreement on the UK’s negotiating aims. 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.
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.
The UK has now swapped this privileged berth for the enfeebling purgatory of Brexitdom. Far from “taking back control”, it is transferring it to the EU. Any extension to Article 50 requires the approval of all 27 other member states, reducing the UK to the status of a vassal.
Far more than any Europhile Remainer ever did, Brexit has demonstrated the purpose of EU membership. But the Leavers, who self-imploded when they had the chance to take power in 2016, will maintain that the problem is the leader, not the project. To the outside world, however, it is ever more apparent that the country they seek to govern does not exist.