Leader: The humbling of the United Kingdom

Brexit was always destined to be an exercise in damage limitation, but fate and ineptitude have resulted in the humiliation of the country.


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The sole remaining purpose of Theresa May’s unhappy premiership has been to deliver Brexit; her inability to do so is a humiliating failure. In normal circumstances, she would have resigned as prime minister long ago. Almost three years after the UK voted to leave the EU, and a mere fortnight before its original departure date (29 March), Britain’s fate remains farcically uncertain. So much for the rhetoric of global Britain.

Mrs May bears much of the blame for this outcome. She invoked Article 50 recklessly early in March 2017, before even agreeing a negotiating stance with her cabinet, and gifted the EU an immediate advantage. She then further weakened her position by squandering her parliamentary majority in an unnecessary and calamitous general election. After the loss of the Conservative majority in 2017, the Prime Minister lacked any democratic mandate for her Brexit plan.

But rather than adapting to this new reality and seeking to forge a cross-party consensus, Mrs May remained unrelentingly stubborn. She continued to indulge Conservative Europhobes and the reactionary Democratic Unionist Party by insisting that “no deal is better than a bad deal” – a hollow declaration that the EU never regarded as credible. When, in desperation, Mrs May finally offered a £1.6bn bribe to Labour MPs’ constituencies (just a tenth of the cuts made to local authorities since 2010) she was rewarded with the support of just three of Mr Corbyn’s backbenchers.

It is delusional, however, to believe that the Brexit project has failed because of Mrs May’s inadequacies. It has failed because it is Brexit. The problem is not that Mrs 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.

As numerous Brexiteers have conceded, Mrs May’s deal is far inferior to the UK’s existing EU membership (which included opt-outs from the euro and the Schengen zone, and a £4.9bn budget rebate). In order to prevent a hard Irish border, the UK would sacrifice national sovereignty by agreeing to a “backstop” – de facto customs union membership – from which it has no unilateral right to withdraw. But the mistake is to suggest that this outcome was not inevitable. Britain was always destined to face an unpalatable choice between prioritising prosperity and national unity, and prioritising sovereignty.

For these reasons, it was reckless for David Cameron to stage an EU referendum in the complacent belief that Remain would triumph. A question as momentous as this should never have been settled by an unqualified public vote.

There are now no good options for the UK. A no-deal Brexit – the UK’s fate in the absence of an agreed deal with the EU – would be one of the greatest acts of economic self-harm in postwar history. A Norway-style “soft” Brexit deal would render the UK a rule-taker rather than a rule-maker (a greater erosion of sovereignty than EU membership) and force the maintenance of free movement. A second referendum would risk another Leave victory and further undermine parliamentary sovereignty. But if the deadlock is to be broken, the UK will eventually have to choose.

Brexit has absorbed the energy and resources that should have been devoted to the economic and social renewal that Mrs May once promised. Life expectancy is now falling, income inequality is rising and violent crime is surging. Beyond Britain, the international order is under assault from nationalists and demagogues: Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro and India’s Narendra Modi.

There never was an ideal moment to leave the EU – Brexit was always destined to be an exercise in damage limitation. But fate and ineptitude have resulted in the humbling and indeed the humiliation of the United Kingdom.

This article appears in the 15 March 2019 issue of the New Statesman, She’s lost control