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How the Brexiteers lost control

The greatest enemy of Brexit is Brexit itself: it could never be delivered in the terms it was promised. 

After a major military triumph in ancient Rome, slaves were said to whisper in the ears of victorious generals: “Remember you are mortal.” The Brexiteers paid no such heed following the EU referendum.

On 11 July 2016, David Davis, the 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”.

The collision with reality has been painful. In order even to begin trade talks with the EU, Britain was forced to concede on multiple fronts: promising to pay a £39bn “divorce bill” and accepting a 21-month transition period (during which it would abide by all EU laws, including on trade and free movement). As a Tory Leaver conceded to me: “We won the battle – the referendum – and have lost nearly everything else since.”

Yet the Brexiteers believed victory had merely been deferred: the UK would still leave the single market (to end free movement) and the customs union (to permit Britain to sign its own trade deals). Brexit, as Theresa May put it, would be “clean”. But this defining ambition is now threatened. Rather than “Brexit Britain” taking back control, it is parliament and the EU which are doing exactly that. Remainers are confident that MPs will vote for the UK membership of a customs union when the Trade Bill returns to the House of Commons in July.

The EU has consistently rejected Britain’s proposals, presenting Theresa May with two choices she regards as mutually unacceptable: remaining in a customs union or accepting a hard Irish border. In these circumstances, Conservatives are turning on each other. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has suggested that Donald Trump would have been a better negotiator than the Prime Minister. David Davis, not for the first time, has let it be known that he almost resigned. Dominic Cummings, Vote Leave’s campaign director, has described Brexit as a “train wreck”, declaring that May’s government “has no credible policy and the whole world knows it”.

The Brexiteers ever more resemble Marxist critics of the Soviet Union: the problem is merely the practice, not the theory. The possibility that EU withdrawal may be intrinsically flawed is not countenanced. Two years after the referendum, and just nine months before the UK’s scheduled departure from the EU (29 March 2019), both the cabinet and parliament appear irrevocably divided. Out of chaos, can order be found?

Though this is now hard to recall, a “hard Brexit” was once thought to be inevitable. Soon after becoming Prime Minister, May embraced the project of leaving the single market and the customs union. She believed this was mandated by the Brexit vote – and knew that her restive backbenchers would accept nothing less.

For a time, the Prime Minister appeared unassailable. In February 2017, MPs voted to trigger Article 50 by 494 to 122. Just one Conservative MP – Ken Clarke – opposed the government. A divided Labour Party, meanwhile, seemed determined to follow Napoleon’s advice: “Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake.”

May, nevertheless, called a snap general election to “strengthen her hand” in the Brexit negotiations. She lost the Tories’ majority after a desperately poor campaign, creating an opportunity for a soft Brexit. “The hard Brexiteers can rattle their sabres all they like,” Sarah Wollaston, a Tory Remainer and the chair of the health select committee, told me. “Even if they were to withdraw their support for the Prime Minister and force a leadership challenge, they’d still be up against the same parliamentary arithmetic – and that arithmetic opposes hard Brexit.”

Much else has changed in the two years since the referendum: Trump has been elected US president and launched a trade war; a revanchist Russia has brazenly targeted the UK; and Britain has become the slowest-growing major economy in the world.

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Since the 2017 general election, Labour’s position on Brexit has softened progressively. The party has backed membership of a customs union with the EU and a single market-style agreement. Jeremy Corbyn and his team recognise that their best hope of securing an early general election is to defeat the government over Brexit. “That is what leads the Eurosceptic Corbyn to drink from the anti-hard-Brexit trough,” one Labour MP said.

A further motive is party unity. Most 2017 Labour voters backed Remain (51 per cent compared to 32 per cent for Leave) and party members strongly favour single market membership (87 per cent) and a second referendum (78 per cent). Were a new anti-Brexit party launched, Corbyn allies fear that it could thwart their electoral chances.

At a recent meeting of the pro-Remain Grassroots Co-ordinating Group, Labour MP Chuka Umunna is said to have suggested the creation of a new party named “Back Together”. “He came storming in, huffing and puffing, saying that he’d had enough [of Labour],” one of those present told me. “He said that Chris Leslie [another Labour MP] was writing him some strategy memos, that they have the working title of a new party – Back Together – and that Brexit is a moment when traditional politics gets blown up, a bit like [with] the SDP.”

In the House of Commons tea room, Conservative MP and ardent Remainer Anna Soubry told colleagues that “Chuka and I are looking at what the future brings”. Other Tory MPs subsequently informed the party whips of Soubry’s remarks.

When I contacted Umunna about his alleged plans for a new party, he said: “This claim is complete garbage… The forces of reaction that are either pro-Brexit or who promote a Brexit-lite agenda cannot bear the cross-party working in and out of parliament that has successfully campaigned against a hard Brexit these last few months – that’s what concocted nonsense like this is all about.”

However, Peter Mandelson, a former Labour cabinet minister and EU commissioner, told me that “Brexit is capable of sparking an internal combustion in British politics”, which could lead to a new party. “That’s why Labour has to be so careful, because those of us who are committed to Labour, and are lifelong members of the party, want to see the party coping with this crisis so much better than they are. I want Labour to be the saviours – I don’t want them to go down in the ensuing deluge.”

The Brexiteers are fond of blaming opponents for their woes but they face a still greater nemesis: geography. For months, the aptly named government “war cabinet” has been quarrelling over two alleged answers to the Irish border question: a “customs partnership” (under which Britain would collect tariffs on the EU’s behalf) and “maximum facilitation” (which would use technology to create a “frictionless border”). Neither, however, would prevent a hard Irish border, or at least not in the timeframe the Tories require (by the 2022 general election). To avoid any border, Britain would also have to remain in the single market for agricultural and industrial goods.

Yet to the EU, this represents intolerable “cherry-picking”. Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, has insisted that only Northern Ireland should enjoy this “special status”. May, who depends on the Democratic Unionist Party for her slender majority, cannot accept the de facto partition of the United Kingdom. Hence the only workable solution: for the whole of the UK to remain in a customs union.

The Brexiteers maintain that the government’s failure to prepare for “no deal” has irretrievably undermined its negotiating position. 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 the roads leading to them – is fantastical. For this reason, even before the 2017 general election, the EU never regarded “no deal” as a credible threat.

Yanis Varoufakis, the former Greek finance minister, told me that the UK should simply have requested five-year membership of the European Economic Area (“the Norway model”). “If I were Theresa May, I would have said the next parliament has plenty of time to discuss what kind of long-term relationship we want with the EU. The argument in favour of returning sovereignty to the House of Commons would have had substance. Once May got trapped into the EU’s own process, it was game over.”  Should the government eventually agree a deal, insiders expect May to stage a Commons vote in November 2018 (a date liable to further delay). This would avoid a clash with the Conservative party conference in October and, in the Tories’ view, force MPs to look over the precipice – and back the Prime Minister.

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Would Britain crash out with no deal if the Commons defeated May? One who thinks not is Nick Clegg. The former deputy prime minister, who has been touring EU capitals as a freelance diplomat, told me: “I wouldn’t discount the idea that President Macron in particular, but maybe with the more cautious support of Angela Merkel, Mark Rutte in Holland, Pedro Sánchez – a very pro-European politician looking to make his mark in Spain – actually saying, ‘Right, the adults have got to try and rescue something from this.’ At the moment they’re just letting Barnier and his technocrats run it.”

Clegg suggested that the election of a populist government in Italy and the rise of anti-immigration parties across the EU has created the conditions for the reform of free movement. “That could serve as the passerelle, the bridge, where Britain could start taking steps towards a rapprochement with the EU.” The former Lib Dem leader conceded, however, that MPs could yet meekly approve any deal May achieves. “It is impossible to exaggerate what a humiliating position the UK would be in at that point. A very senior member of Macron’s entourage shrugged his shoulders in Gallic disbelief at me: ‘Do they not know how weak they would be?’ It would mean Britain negotiating its future relationship from the uniquely difficult position of having thrown away its leverage as an EU member. I don’t think any self-respecting French politician would put France in such an abject position.”

Perhaps the greatest irony of Brexit is that its advocates are now in revolt against British institutions: parliament, the judiciary, the BBC and the civil service. Rather than their loyalty to the UK’s unwritten constitution, these bodies are now judged according to their loyalty to “the people’s will” – a concept long beloved of autocrats and demagogues.

But the greater blame lies with the Brexiteers. When Michael Gove and Boris Johnson had the chance to take control in the heady summer of 2016, they self-combusted. However, power would merely have taught them the lesson paralysing the May government: that the greatest enemy of Brexit is Brexit.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Who sunk Brexit?