Regular readers of this blog know my own views about Brexit – seen from the UK side I have found the whole thing foolish from the start. But over the past few weeks I have been asking myself a different question: why is the Brexit process going quite so badly? And how can we trace the roots of the present dysfunction?
Many of the current problems stem from before the referendum itself on 23rd June 2016. In stark contrast to the 2014 referendum on an independent Scotland, there was no White Paper or other sort of government plan as to how to actually do Brexit were it to be voted for. That may have been handy to win the referendum for Leave, but it is not especially useful now. It also meant that the government did not know what sort of Brexit (hard or soft, or somewhere in between) to aim for, and nor did it have an agreed way to get there. The sort of Brexit to go for – even now – remains an open question. Philip Hammond’s comments about the UK needing to stay in the Customs Union are at odds with David Davis’s for example. Brexit means Brexit, a red, white and blue Brexit, or a successful Brexit are clearly inadequate as aims.
Two understandable things happened the day after the referendum – David Cameron resigned, and he opted to not trigger Article 50 to set the 2 year clock ticking on Britain’s exit process. Neither of these things was wrong in itself, but delaying Article 50 prompted a debate on when to trigger, rather than put the focus on what the consequences would be of doing so, or how the UK could best use the time it gained by not triggering to its advantage. Much of the autumn of 2016 was filled with legal wrangles thanks to the Gina Miller case about if a parliamentary vote was needed to trigger Article 50, a process that set the government against Parliament to some extent, rather than to bind Parliament into the process. May’s government also tried to keep as much of their approach secret as possible, likening it to not revealing their poker hand. This however increased suspicion and lessened the ability to scrutinise the government, and better scrutiny might have improved the later outcomes. The EU side by contrast used this early post-referendum period to its advantage – getting its principles clear, and its negotiation team prepared and resourced.
After May’s coronation as Conservative Party leader she set about reassuring the party’s MPs that she was now committed to Brexit, having herself backed Remain. In her speech at Conservative Party Conference on 2nd October 2016 she set a deadline for the Article 50 notification – that it would be sent by the end of March 2017. The timing of Brexit thus became the primary concern. This timetable was exactly what the EU side wanted, while it tied to the UK to a timetable that it will find hard (or even impossible) to respect. Labour’s Keir Starmer has more recently said the Brexit process ought to be postponed for 2 years, but trying to do this now Article 50 has been triggered could make things even worse – that would now prolong the UK’s economic uncertainty.
As a further effort to reassure her restless party about Brexit, May made Johnson the Foreign Secretary, gave Fox a new Trade portfolio and – most significant of all – made David Davis the Brexit Minister. His department has been beset with staffing issues from the start, and its top team has little experience of the EU. Meanwhile relations between Ministers and the Civil Service on Brexit matters are thought to be sour and problematic. Even the Auditor General has felt the need to speak out due to the problems. Faced with an issue as complex as Brexit, the UK government machine would need to be performing to the very best of its abilities – meanwhile it is actually precisely the opposite.
After finally realising that Parliament would indeed get to vote on the Article 50 notification, the government then set about ramming its view through as forcefully as possible – not a single amendment to the notification bill was passed. The Labour Party sought to avoid taking the UK out of Euratom – an issue that has come back to bite the government this week as MPs woke up to the consequences of abandoning European nuclear collaboration. We also now know that the government did no impact assessment on the consequences of leaving Euratom – actually using the months since the referendum to try to work out how to make Brexit work had not been considered a priority. How many other aspects of Brexit have likewise not been subjected to impact assessments?
The Euroatom fuss is a sign of what is to come – significant though nuclear safety and isotopes for cancer treatment are, they are nevertheless not central to the UK’s economy. The £700 billion a year of trade that crosses the UK’s borders is, and how that will even work if the UK leaves the Customs Union is likely a major headache (it may well block up Dover for example). How planes will fly to-from the UK post-Brexit is unknown. Britain is going to have to renegotiate 759 international treaties. No one knows what will happen to the European Health Insurance Card and the 27 million Brits that have one. I could go on. But the UK now has to face all of these issues with the Article 50 clock already ticking; the threat of a deadline does not help politicians keep a clear head.
It is impossible to know how Brexit would now be proceeding had Theresa May decided to not call an early election. Not only did this election lose her 2 months of the precious 24 months foreseen in Article 50, it also deprived her of a parliamentary majority, and left her so weakened she could not remove either Davis or Johnson as Ministers, and left her needing support from the DUP in Parliament (that makes solving the Northern Ireland border issue even harder than we thought it would be).
So those then are the roots of the present predicament as I see them: the lack of a plan before the referendum that still has not been rectified, an obsession with the timetable for Article 50 rather than the consequences of it, a poor ministerial team with bad relations with the civil service, and everything further complicated by May’s election debacle.
And of course – perhaps most alarming of all – the genie cannot be put back in the bottle, the whole Brexit process cannot be restarted. The government does not have the time, the ability, or the inclination to solve any of the many outstanding issues while the Article 50 clock is ticking. The question is not if this whole thing goes spectacularly wrong; the question is when.