Many things about the politics of Brexit are mystifying. Some are minor puzzles: Why don’t people read the documents they say they’re angry about, for instance? And some are major enigmas: Why don’t politicians talk about the economic and social problems that drove the Leave vote instead of fixating on misunderstood abstractions like sovereignty?
Yet here we are, staggering into the 'endgame' of the most consequential negotiations in our postwar history and the debate has come down to a pair of Old Etonians talking about vassalage. I wonder how many people of Sunderland thought that’s what they were voting for in June 2016.
To my mind, Jo Johnson was a better journalist than his brother Boris, which is why he can capture his critique of Theresa May’s Brexit policy with economical elegance:
'To present the nation with a choice between two deeply unattractive outcomes, vassalage and chaos, is a failure of British statecraft on a scale unseen since the Suez crisis,' he wrote as he bowed out of government.
Jo’s argument is that any deal Mrs May strikes with the EU will leave Britain subject to rules over which it has little or no say. In that — though not in how to respond — he agrees with his brother, who has made the same point rather more floridly and expensively in half a dozen Telegraph columns and elsewhere.
In short, Mrs May’s Brexit policy faces serious criticism from both Leave and Remain-minded MPs over the fact that leaving the EU stands to put Britain in a position where lots of the rules by which our businesses (and others) will have to abide will be set by others.
And here’s the thing: those critics are right, at least in a narrow sense. More broadly though, they’re wrong. Almost hilariously, staggeringly, can’t-see-the-wood-for-the-tree-falling-on-your-head wrong. Wrong to an extent that makes me marvel, again, at the ability of clever people in politics to ignore the blindingly obvious.
This is Brexit, because Brexit means giving up control. It is common for politicians and others commenting on Brexit to say 'X is not what people voted for' in the referendum.
The only thing we can say that people voted for was leaving the EU, ending the UK’s formal membership of the European Union. The rest is up for grabs; as long as that membership ends, the mandate of the referendum is discharged.
But if there’s a way to end that membership without accepting some constraint on or sharing of sovereignty, I am yet to encounter it, because such constraint and sharing is an inevitable part of modern economic and diplomatic life.
EU membership entails pooling some part of UK sovereignty in a trading club where the UK has a say on the club’s rules.
That’s because that’s the nature of trade, folks: to exchange your stuff with other people in other countries, you need a set of rules that both parties know, understand and adhere to, rules that can be enforced. You can either be at the table when those rules are made and enforced, or you can walk away from the table; we chose to leave the table. But if you want to play the game, any other players are still going to insist on rules.
So if we were to strike the trade deals with the US, China and India (not to mention mighty New Zealand) that some Brexiteers now regard as so important, guess what? Those deals would come with rules. Rules that the UK would not dictate or even have much influence over because in trade negotiations, the bigger you are, the more say you get over the rules. In the EU, we were part of a big player that got quite a big say over the rules. Outside it, not so much.
Let’s imagine what an independent trade policy really means for sovereignty. Free trade deals aren’t free: trading partners make demands in exchange for agreements. What if Britain’s sovereign Parliament decided that American chlorine-washed chicken or Indian students in unlimited numbers should not be allowed to cross Britain’s hallowed borders? We’d be free to make that choice, of course, but we’d also be choosing not to be able to sell our goods and services freely to the US and India.
Post-Brexit relations with the EU will follow the same principle. Assuming we want to deal with the EU (and you know, I think continuing to trade with our biggest trading partners might just be quite a good idea) then we need to come to terms with the EU, which will means a set of rules over which the UK does not have full — or even significant — influence.
It will always be open for sovereign Britain to abnegate its agreements with the EU, but doing so would have costs and consequences. It is those costs and consequences – which arise from basic economic and political reality – that will bind Britain in what the Johnson boys call vassalage. And that vassal-state objection is a curious one.
I am employed. I have a job. That means I am paid money every month – but only if I do my job and uphold my contract of employment. I am perfectly free not to turn up to work, not to do the things my employer asks of me in exchange for my salary. But if I exercise that freedom, I will eventually lose my job and the salary that it brings. And because I have a mortgage and bills to pay, I can’t afford to do that, so I turn up to work even when I don’t feel like it and do things I don’t always want to do. Does that make me a vassal of my employer?
You do, I suggest, need to have a rather peculiar view of fundamental economic experience to see the inevitable necessities of trade and diplomacy embodied in the EU relationship as 'vassalage'.
When Britain voted to leave the EU, it accepted a range of choices: all of which entail accepting that decisions that affect our economic life will be made outside the UK, either partly or wholly, by people who are not directly answerable to the British electorate.
'Take back control' was brilliant political salesmanship, but essentially inaccurate as a description of modern international economics because taking back control was never an option; all we could ever hope to choose from was a range of options where that 'control' would be shared with different combinations of national and international actors.
The EU was always going to be one of those actors, because the only way to avoid that would be to embark on a trade policy that would be both near-impossible and deeply harmful to implement .
That is the reality that Mrs May has quietly accepted in her negotiations since last year’s general election, not least because she had no choice. As some people (me included) pointed out after that election, the electorate killed stone dead the Rule Britannia-Splendid Isolation nonsense of the arch-Brexiteers. Mrs May put a vision of hard Brexit on the ballot paper in June 2017, and the electorate denied her a mandate for it. This is another of those obvious things that a lot of clever people have contrived to ignore for a long time; hence the surprise that greeted the predictable (and predicted) compromises of Chequers.
Mrs May’s Brexit negotiations since the election have reflected two inescapable realities: the election result and Britain’s negotiating strength.
If there is a serious criticism of her handling of Brexit since last June, it’s that she’s been too slow to confront either voters or colleagues with the inevitable necessity of the compromises she is now poised to make. She has also not done enough to reach out to Labour MPs, to take the big-tent national interest approach that could have made it easier for more of them to work with her: my suspicion is she has more sympathy on the Labour benches over Brexit than she realises.
But those are flaws in her political management of Brexit, not the negotiation process. Overall, I think Mrs May has made the best of a very, very bad job – but has made that job worse for herself on a few occasions.
Most of them came before last year’s election: the decision in September 2016 to rule out Single Market participation or any role for the ECJ was unwise in the extreme, since it created false public expectations and shattered what might have become a robust political consensus around the sort of Norwegian compromise that could have better honoured the 52:48 per cent split of the electorate. The early invocation of Article 50 was unwise too, though the fact that almost every MP in the Commons endorsed the choice is a reminder of the enormous pressure on all politicians at that moment; by all means fault Mrs May for that choice, but remember she was far from alone.
And what of the critique that the Government has prepared badly for a No Deal Brexit, meaning that such an exit would be unduly harmful for the UK economy? Again, there may be something in that criticism; perhaps planning could have begun earlier or with greater seriousness (but only if the Civil Service had been given significantly greater resources for the task; that’s hard to reconcile with corrosive attacks on the Civil Service by some Leavers).
But again, this needs to be kept in perspective: there is no amount of planning or preparation that could ensure that the abrupt severing of the UK’s most significant economic relationships -- ties that have grown and changed and intertwined over 40 years -- would be anything other than disruptive and harmful.
Criticising Mrs May for not preparing properly for a No Deal Brexit is as about as reasonable as accusing someone of not putting on sensible shoes before jumping off a cliff.
Of course, a lot of people argue that No Deal is actually no big deal, that we have nothing to fear from leaving without an agreement. I shan’t dwell on that beyond observing that all the people I’ve heard saying that are journalists and politicians and all the people I hear saying that No Deal would be an economic disaster are business leaders, economists and civil servants. I know which group I’d rather bet my job and yours on.
Given what’s at stake, some people want to stop Brexit. They say a second referendum must be called, in the apparent hope that the electorate, now better informed than in 2016, would chose a different path. Some of those people are my friends so it pains me to say that they’re wrong too. Never mind the facts — bringing about that referendum would be damnably hard, deciding the question harder still, and then there’s agreeing terms with the EU27 — what makes the advocates so sure they’d win that vote? What would happen if they lost?
And even if they did win (which I doubt they would), the mere fact of another referendum to overturn the first — a project that could only succeed with the participation of the British and EU political 'elite' — would transform the populist anger that has coursed through politics since 2016 into something poisonous and genuinely dangerous. If leaving with no deal is an economic disaster, not leaving — or even just attempting not to — is a political disaster.
So a deal must be found that falls somewhere in between those two disastrous poles. Which brings us to Mrs May and the deal that she will still, in all probability, bring back from Brussels shortly.
Will it be a good deal? Not particularly; it certainly won’t be better than staying. Will it entail ceding significant control over rules that matter a lot to British business? Yes. Was there a way of negotiating that could have altered either of those fundamental facts? No.
Mrs May used to say that Brexit means Brexit. In fact, Brexit can mean many things for Britain, but in the immediate future, all of them are bad. All that a grown-up politician can do is choose the least bad option available. Mrs May has the godawaful job of being the grown-up in a room full of people who don’t want to face up to that awkward reality.
Rather like her, I believe in choosing the least bad option, which is why I hope Mrs May succeeds, and hope that enough MPs get behind her deal.
Brexit is complicated and sometimes complicated things are best understood through simple stories, like the ones many of us grew up with.
So imagine Mrs May as a farm worker sent by the farm owners to market, to trade a cow for the best pig available. When she returns, the landlords are angry. One is angry that she didn’t bring back a cow. The other is angry that her pig doesn’t have wings.
If you don’t like the Brexit Mrs May is offering, that’s not down to her, that’s down to Brexit. If she’s bringing back a pig from the market, it’s because we sent her to a pig sale. Pigs can be fat and they can be thin, but they they can’t give you milk and they can’t fly. The choice now approaching is to say No to the pig because it’s too thin and leave the larder empty, or accept the poor creature and try to fatten it up in the hope that one day it will produce some half-decent bacon.
I’d like steak and ice cream for dinner. Sadly they’re not on the menu so I’ll take the chance of bacon over going hungry. When the time comes, I hope MPs do too.