One of the many tragedies of Theresa May’s premiership is that, having come up with a coherent policy on how to enact Brexit, she spent her prime ministerial career failing to follow it. The words she used in her speech at Lancaster House in 2017 seemed clear enough: ‘No deal is better than a bad deal.’ It made sense to repeat this in the last Tory manifesto. She was to seek a free trade deal with the EU, but if that proved impossible, then Britain would be leaving anyway. In the event, the EU has not merely failed to offer a good deal, it has refused to offer any trade deal at all — only a withdrawal agreement that might or might not lead to a trade deal in future but which in the meantime threatens to trap Britain in the customs union indefinitely.
So why is the government not taking the logical step of leaving without a deal? Indeed, why have we not already left the EU, as we were supposed to, on 29 March? No deal might be seen by many MPs as an unthinkable outcome, but that is not how the people whom they represent see it. A YouGov poll this week found that, in the event of the EU ruling out a further extension, no deal is the most favoured option, with 44 per cent support. A slightly smaller number, 42 per cent, favour revoking Article 50 and abandoning Brexit entirely.
The support for a no-deal Brexit might astonish MPs, just as they were astonished by the referendum result. But the public are not idiots, and neither are they masochists. They can see that the current course — involving a political meltdown that might well put Jeremy Corbyn into No. 10 — brings just as many dangers and would last for years. The choice is between short-term disruption and being trapped in the bind of Brexit talks for two more years, with negotiations that risk worsening relations with our European neighbours. Voters can also see that while a no-deal Brexit would be disruptive in the short term, the prophecies of doom that have been spun by MPs, civil servants, thinktanks and some businesses are hyperbole.
Take the letter from Cabinet Secretary Sir Mark Sedwill, which is said to have influenced cabinet ministers this week. The letter predicted a UK-only recession, with food prices rising by 10 per cent. It said that ministers would find themselves under huge pressure to bail out companies caught out by the removal of free trade with the EU, and said that the government would need to impose direct rule on Northern Ireland.
When examined one by one, these claims do not stand up. Why would the UK alone suffer an economic downturn when EU companies that export to Britain would similarly be affected by a change in trade rules? In any case, Italy is already in recession and Germany very nearly so. Whitehall forecasts for the economy have already been discredited, thanks to the non-appearance of the recession that the Treasury said would happen within two years of a vote for Brexit. But if we do suffer a downturn, we will not be alone. The idea of food prices shooting up by 10 per cent is demonstrable nonsense: most economic analysis suggests that a no-deal Brexit would add about one percentage point to prices for about a year, after which inflation would return to normal.
More importantly, why is a civil service instructed to prepare for a no-deal Brexit now agitating against it? There was never an inquiry into how the Treasury was able to forecast 500,000 job losses after the Brexit vote, so the mechanism of deception — which ought not to exist in an impartial civil service — is still there. Mervyn King, former Governor of the Bank of England, has lamented this slide into propaganda and is one of those who says that a no-deal Brexit is the obvious practical solution. But the problem is not practical: it is political.
Our MPs, including the Chancellor and Prime Minister herself, have ruled this out. Whether by incompetence or dishonesty, their bluff has been called by the EU and they have folded. May now says that any deal is better that no deal, which is why she has thrown herself on the mercy of Jeremy Corbyn. Michael Gove, who was so recently telling us that Corbyn was unfit to lead the Labour party, let alone be prime minister, is now telling us why he’d like to enter an alliance with him over Brexit. For those Tories who voted to ensure Brexit and keep Corbyn at bay, it’s a bewildering development.
In seeking an alliance with Labour, both Gove and May are now acting in defiance not just of their party but their fellow cabinet members. Both say that this is the least worst option, because if they don’t cut a deal with Labour then Brexit will be abandoned entirely. That things have got to this stage is a staggering reflection of the general incompetence of the Conservative government over the past two years. However this ends, the party’s mishandling of Brexit will not be quickly forgotten or forgiven.