Nick Cohen

May’s mistake was embracing the lie that Brexit would be easy

May's mistake was embracing the lie that Brexit would be easy
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Brexit is getting a far easier ride than it deserves. I accept that its promoters live in a world of paranoid irresponsibility. They lament their unjust suffering, and blame everyone but themselves for its many failings. But consider how Britain has bent over backwards to enable their project. We don’t have an opposition willing to oppose Brexit. A Tony Blair or indeed an Ed Miliband would be hammering home the government’s failures. They would by now have ensured that voters, who barely thought about politics from one month to the next, knew that they had been sold a false prospectus. Instead of robust opposition, however, we have the gloriously hypocritical spectacle of the far left triangulating with the Tory right.

Take a moment to savour it. For decades, the far left has accused its opponents of selling out to become red Tories, Tory-lite, Blarites, neo-liberals, centrist dads and so on. Yet on the great issue of the day they stagger towards the Tories like the living dead towards a fresh corpse. Maybe Labour’s position on the customs union and single market is more 'nuanced', maybe if there were a Labour government it would keep Britain in either. Or both. Or maybe not. No one wants to say. Indeed the leader of the opposition and the shadow chancellor have decided that the brave course for red revolutionaries is to talk about Brexit as little as possible.

The media is as accommodating. Imagine a Labour prime minister presiding as incompetently over a fourth-rate administration as Theresa May is presiding over hers. The press would be making her life hell. As it is, right-wing media are not willing to hold this government to account because fulfilling the duties of a free press would mean journalists, who sincerely believed themselves to be patriots, admitting that they had let their readers and their country down. Without an opposition willing to oppose, it takes voices on the fringes to state the obvious. This morning, David Allen Green of the Financial Times tweeted the type of ‘but the emperor has no clothes’ observation that Jeremy Corbyn, the newspapers, and the BBC should be making daily. We must leave the customs union, the government says. The extra burdens on business and the risk of tensions along the borders between Gibraltar and Spain and Northern Ireland and the Republic will be worth it because we will then be free to negotiate new trade deals.

The fact that the trade deals will be negotiated by Liam Fox doesn’t fill me with confidence. But there is a more practical objection. As Green says, we can now see how Brexit Britain handles international negotiations, and it is a pathetic sight.

At the start of the week, the government said that everything was ready to complete the preliminary stage of the exit talks. The EU was lined up. The DUP was squared, and the smooth Whitehall machine would purr on to the next round. As you know, the DUP blew the deal apart. Britain was left looking like a clueless amateur in a world of ruthless professionals, who will be licking their lips in anticipation of taking on a weak and confused country, when and if, the time comes to fleece us.

Yesterday, David Davis admitted to Parliament that neither he nor the civil service had carried out impact assessments of the effect of Brexit on 58 sectors of the economy. You can decide for yourselves whether he was telling the truth to the Commons when he suggested the work had been done. But the question whether a politician is a liar or a fool is a secondary matter. Regardless of what Davis is, the result is the same: Britain is entering international negotiations without knowing or caring about the consequences. (Assuming, that is, Britain can ever close a deal, which feels a utopian assumption to postulate at the moment).

All this butter-fingered fumbling, all this shoe-lace tripping and scenery crashing, all these crossed wires and walking face first into locked doors, is before Britain has got to the difficult part of actually negotiating a trade deal. It’s fair to assume the trade deal will be as much of a fiasco for a reason that is not emphasised enough.

This government’s fatal mistake was to embrace the big lie of the referendum campaign that Brexit would be easy. May, as much as Vote Leave, worked on the premise that we could leave the EU and retain the benefits of remaining in the EU; that we could, in Boris Johnson unforgivably frivolous words, 'have our cake and eat it'. Even now, May has yet to present the Cabinet, let alone the country, with the hard choices ahead.

In as far as anyone can understand Britain's negotiating position, it seems we will be asking for favours. We want ‘Canada-plus,’ in the jargon: a normal trade deal but with all kinds of special privileges. What are the chances? Britain has already folded on the money, the power of the European Court of Justice and EU citizens rights because the EU would not accommodate us. In the trade negotiations, the EU will say that Canada-plus is a fantasy. You can’t have your maple syrup and eat it. The single market is a system of rules and laws. If a country wants to benefit from unrestricted access, then it must accept the rules and pay the membership fees. In other words, there would be no point in leaving the EU in the first place. Indeed, we would be in a worse position than if we had stayed, as we would have to accept laws we had no say in drafting.

If the May government does that, then 17.4 million leave voters will be able to say they were stabbed in the back, and be ready to support the next bunch of demagogic charlatans eager to exploit their grievances. Alternatively we can walk away without a deal. Our living standards and influence would fall, and quite a few of us would be out of work. Neither option is attractive. Perhaps we would do better to ask the people whether they are sure that these are the only futures they want to be offered.

Written byNick Cohen

Nick Cohen is a columnist for the Observer and author of What's Left and You Can't Read This Book.

Topics in this articlePoliticsbrexituk politics