After two years of dithering, Theresa May has at last sought to define the main elements of what she hopes will be the UK’s future relationship with the European Union. However, the Chequers Plan, though endorsed by her cabinet, quickly came under attack from both wings of her own party as well as from opposition parties. To signal their objections, several Brexit-supporting ministers, most notably Johnson and Davis, resigned and opinion polls detected very little public support for her proposed strategy. Although her statement of intent was received politely by the other 27 EU members, many doubts were expressed by them about its compatibility with the EU’s policies.
We seem to be stuck in a state of limbo. If negotiations do go ahead, however, they will become increasingly acrimonious and end up either with a deal that is unfavourable for Britain or in no deal. Raab, the new Brexit minister, has already done his best to create a hostile environment for further discussions by threatening that Britain would not pay the amount it has already agreed that it would owe the EU upon withdrawal – a move that can only damage the possibilities of securing a benign agreement on future relationships. As the government makes additional concessions in order to reach an agreement, the pressures from Brexiteers will grow and eventually force the prime minister to withdraw from the negotiating process, blaming EU intransigence for the breakdown. There is broad agreement on both sides that the resultant “crash-out” would be hugely damaging to Britain as well as to several other EU members.
The plain truth is that, contrary to the claims of the “leave” campaign, any move to exit the European Union is bound to leave us worse off than we are now. David Davis promised us that we would enjoy “exactly the same economic benefits outside the EU as inside.” But it seems obvious that there is simply no way in which Europe will agree to a former member country continuing to attain the full benefits of single market and customs union membership unless it also subscribes to the related “freedoms”, especially to the principle of “freedom of movement” for EU citizens. It is natural that the EU would not wish to set a generous precedent that could encourage other member nations to follow the UK’s example.
From what we have seen over the past few weeks, neither the Conservative nor Labour party – if it came to power through an early election – would be able to reach a “good” Brexit deal and have it eventually endorsed by the majority of its members. In both major parties, the negotiating process would deepen existing within-party splits, with extreme Brexiteers determined to scuttle any deal that they consider too “pro-European”.
Perhaps the only honest way out of this dilemma would be for the leaders of the two main parties to be brave enough to consult with each other and jointly admit to us that, even with the best will in the world, neither of them – nor their possible successors – will be able to negotiate a long-term agreement on our country’s future relationship with the EU that offers the benefits promised by “leave” campaigners. The government’s own forecasts show that all Brexit scenarios, “hard” or “soft”, will have severe negative economic consequences for the UK and so limit any government’s capacity to fund badly needed investments in health and care, education, transport and housing. The two leaders would have to make it clear that neither wishes to lead our country forward into what they now know is clearly a self-harming future and therefore would call on their MPs to quickly revoke Article 50 rather than continue to pursue unattainable goals with a high probability of an eventual “crash out”.
This may, at first, seem an improbable scenario, but, as a friend has pointed out “I always think the politicians who are capable of breaking the routines in times of crisis and have the courage to rise above the partisan fray become the biggest heroes when history is written.” The opportunity exists for May and Corbyn to emerge as statesmen and be assigned their due place in British history.
Parliament approved the invocation of Article 50 and so is presumably entitled to approve government action to revoke it. However, if MP’s consider that it is necessary to test the nation’s pulse, they could approve arrangements for a “People’s Vote” on whether to back a predictably “bad” Brexit or to stay put in the EU.
While both May and Corbyn would naturally be hesitant to come together to break the truth to voters that the leave campaign’s promises amount to “pie in the sky”, it is becoming increasingly likely that, as more evidence of electoral malpractice and Russian meddling comes to light, the EU referendum will be declared null and void by the UK judiciary. Such a verdict would provide them both with the ideal opportunity to turn their backs on the divisive Brexit saga and to concentrate their efforts on making Britain truly great again.