When Theresa May proclaimed ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’, she was talking primarily about the long-term UK-EU relationship, not the initial divorce. Craig Berry explains how, through a combination of opportunism and incompetence, Britain crashing out of the EU has become a very real possibility.
The postponement of the parliamentary vote on the withdrawal agreement until the middle of January has led to accusations that Theresa May is ‘running down the clock’ on Brexit. By scheduling it close to the latest possible date, MPs’ ‘meaningful vote’ is rendered rather meaningless, given the acute shortage of time to develop alternatives should the agreement to fail to pass. May hopes to compel her critics to support her agreement, if by that point it has become clear that it really is the only way to avoid ‘no deal’.
It is a high-stakes political gamble. Theresa May’s track record in such matters is hardly stellar (case in point: the snap election). So ‘no deal’ has become a very real possibility. How did we get here? The possibility of a no-deal Brexit only really entered the lexicon of mainstream politics after Theresa May’s Lancaster House speech in January 2017, in which she argued that ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’. We immediately misunderstood what she meant by this, in part because the speech was a quite deliberate attempt to confuse.
The ‘no deal’ confronting Britain now means ‘crashing out’ of the EU without a withdrawal agreement, which means no transitional period, limited reciprocal arrangements for EU citizens living in Britain and vice versa, and the immediate imposition of trade barriers. The ‘no deal’ of May’s speech, however, referred to the prospect of a future trade arrangement – not the initial divorce. Inheriting a premiership without a plan, May was keen to instigate simultaneous talks on withdrawal and free trade, in the hope of settling Brexit quickly. In threatening to turn Britain into a giant tax haven, the Lancaster House speech was a futile attempt to frighten the EU into negotiating both deals at the same time.
The suggestion was quickly consigned to irrelevance. The EU did not blink, instead pointing out that withdrawal had to be agreed before trade talks could begin. There is the legal impossibility of the UK signing a trade deal with current EU members, and the political imperative to ensure that dissenting members understand the consequences of leaving the EU before they start imagining the possible benefits of doing so.
The political bind for May was clear. The EU insisted on an orderly withdrawal before trade talks (which would then ensue during a transitional period). To avoid damaging the Irish economy and jeopardising the Northern Ireland peace process, something like the ‘backstop’ – in case a two-year transition was not long enough – was always going to be necessary.
But May knew this meant she would struggle to get a withdrawal deal through parliament unless she could also offer the sunny uplands of the post-Brexit trade relationship at the same time. Although the leading Brexiters in the Conservative Party are now seemingly content to leave the EU without a withdrawal deal, the irony of Britain’s present predicament is that the Leave campaign’s offer in the 2016 referendum was not ‘no deal’ at all, but rather a very comprehensive free trade deal as an alternative to EU membership.
May is not nearly as committed to free trade with the EU after Brexit. Her opposition to free movement of labour within Europe means the trade deal she would ultimately have signed with the EU, given the chance, would have been significantly less soft than anything most of her Brexiter critics, with few concerns about immigration, would have advocated. May is much more concerned about the short-term consequences of crashing out, and as such quite prepared to propose a modern take on beggar-thy-neighbour trade policy in order to get a withdrawal deal that stood a chance of gaining the consent of parliament.
The very soft (and somewhat fantastical) Brexit offered by the Leave campaign was, in reality, an accelerated version of the journey Britain and the EU were already on, together, with a renewed zeal for trade liberalisation, and the political integration of Eurozone countries allowing Britain a refreshed status as the leading member of the single market’s outer ring.
Boris Johnson, for instance, chose to campaign for Leave – offering the Eurosceptic perspective a veneer of centrist respectability – only because it served his career ambitions. Subsequently outmanoeuvred by May in the post-Brexit Conservative leadership election, he was caught out again after Lancaster House and David Davis’ mishandling of the initial negotiations. His instruction to the EU in July 2017, as Foreign Secretary, to ‘go whistle’ for budget contributions, was one of the low points of Britain’s recent political history (admittedly, it is a competitive field). Yet it was purely a consequence of being forced to take a hard line on the divorce deal – a process most Conservatives Brexiters had failed to register as decisive – after it had become inadvertently politicised.
From that point on, few Brexiters have had the courage to challenge the conflation of the withdrawal agreement and subsequent trade arrangements in the public consciousness, in fear of being associated with May’s doomed leadership. This is despite the fact they had consistently argued that a UK-EU free trade deal would be ‘one of the easiest in human history’, and that Britain ‘holds most of the cards’.
And now they essentially find themselves campaigning against a withdrawal deal of any nature, and by extension any free trade deal between Britain and the EU. It is a quite incredible reversal. By dangling the prospect of a quick ‘give and take’ deal with the EU, May has ensured that any outcome which looks more like ‘give’, with the ‘take’ only coming later, is seen as a betrayal of the referendum result.
The parliamentary arithmetic suggests that a no-deal Brexit remains unlikely. But we can say the same about every other outcome, including the successful passage of the existing withdrawal agreement, or a second referendum. Where we end up is genuinely unpredictable. The fact that Britain is contemplating leaving the EU without a withdrawal agreement – denying ourselves even the opportunity of a new trade deal – is a painful demonstration of how perverse our politics has become.
Craig Berry is Reader in Political Economy at Manchester Metropolitan University.
All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science. Featured image credit: Pixabay (Public Domain).
Brexit has just gotten completely out of hand. No one seems to know what they are doing and there is a clear lack of consistency and leadership. I wrote a blog about how I would’ve handled Brexit, and would genuinely be interested for some feedback, whether you agree or disagree.
Deal or no deal is incidental. For the current UK government, the big prize is to be able to gain legislative powers and they absolutely need some form of Brexit for that. May’s deal was the new ‘soft’ Brexit that would allow them that, with No Deal being the new ‘hard’ Brexit.
Since members of Parliament signed off that in order to let them rewrite EU law into UK law post-Brexit they would enhance the government’s legislative powers the day after exit day, they signed their own ‘death sentence’, meaning that of the sovereignty and supremacy of Parliament.
For people who would like to turn the UK into a more ‘presidential’ style democracy, with the occasional referendum, and among these we might find some in the current government, hard Brexit with all its disruptions is a small price to pay.
It does strike me as odd that any casual observer of the Tory Brexit negotiations has missed the likeliest possibility that the Tories really don’t care what kind of exit out of the EU takes. The Neo-Liberal Centrists also play Trumps game by conflating Labour’s position on Europe .
The in out debate has already taken place and the in crowd lost, but remain determined to ignore that vote in favour of re-rigging another. In truth coming out of Europe would always be disruptive, but that doesn’t mean it will last for ever, whereas another vote to stay in could mean just that with all the ramifications of living under the same rules that governed Greece.
Few people even academics seem to understand that Britain is not like Europe, we have our own sovereign currency which means we are not constrained in the same way as Greece was. Leaving Europe gives us the ultimate ability to take back control of our economy and invest in people which EU regulations do not permit.
The other small point completely missed by those blinded by EU fantasists, is that the Labour leadership fully understands all the implications of leaving and have already had discussions with Europe about the things they can agree upon, making most of the issues raised by the Centrists as irrelevant.
What our country really needs is a general election now to get rid of the Tory impediment to a sensible negotiating position that will allow us to leave causing as little damage to Britain as possible as well as Europe.
Finally Britain is a net importer of other countries finished goods, due to Thatcher’s decimation of Britain’s manufacturing base. We don’t export in reality so much as import, and that goes for Europe as much as it does with the rest of the world where Britain month in month out has trade deficits. People might also be surprised to understand that we export potatoes to Germany who in turn export theirs to us, metaphorically waving to each other as they cross the channel. This is just one indication as to the madness of market philosophy, and is not an isolated case. What we need in this country is the ability to produce a sustainable economy where we can become self sufficient in all our needs, EU market regulations will not permit that, and if people doubt that just look how Europe treated Greece.
The real solution to this fiasco is to get rid of the Tories as soon as possible, renegotiate genuine terms of agreement that does neither harm to Britain or Europe, and allows us create the sort of economy that increased peoples well being that was unheard of before the post war Labour Party took control.
No one has a clue what reMAYn actually wants, she has never told anyone.
Few politicians and Remain commentators come out of this smelling of roses. The essay here, again, distorts the issues. Again, the object appears to be to influence public opinion or other commentators towards accepting Brino. We will not know for a long time, if ever, what May and her advisors are on about with Brexit, other than that which has been said and done, and been acknowledged as such. The short history of Brexit started with the rise of UKIP. I have here three books on the subject, detailing the story from several, partisan, no doubt, perspectives. Some items which are acknowledged facts are yet ignored time and again in what seems to me pointless point scoring. Maybe people are trying to convince themselves, lest they lose faith in the EU creed and/or the Remain narrative.
The issues were exhaustively dealt with before the referendum. Whatever some Brexiteers claimed during that campaign, they had no influence whatever on government manoeuvres and what May did, in fact, after the referendum. So that is beside the point as far as the current problems is concerned. What matters is what it said on the tin, what people voted on, what the government then and later said it would do in relation to the result. Any withdrawal agreement is not a deal, trade deal or anything other than a withdrawal agreement.
That no reciprocal agreement was reached with the EU negotiators, or rather, whoever decides on that side, could only be blamed on the EU, not the May government.
The current impasse, however, has been engineered by May. She has been virtually a one man band in this, and instead of negotiating has been capitulating. She seems to want to lever the WA into place against the majority in the HoC. At every turn has she given the impression of wanting to force MP to approve against their better judgement. This is exactly what she is doing vis-a-vis the country. The UK voted out, completely. Not half in, half out. All this talk about the WA or withdrawal deal is a nonsense. No deal can be agreed until after the UK has regained its independence and sovereignty.
The EU Commission, who are, presumably, deciding EU policy in the Brexit negotiations, have been uncooperative to say the least. The EU appears to stymie Brexit at every turn. That is up to whoever is responsible there. May need not have gone along with this at all. If she has been genuinely negotiating to get a withdrawal agreement to suit the UK, she has been spectacularly incompetent. Her more likely motivation has been to play along in order to achieve Brino. May’s incompetence or treason, or whatever, cannot be sheeted home to campaigning Brexiteers. She has been leading this, running it virtually on her own, keeping everyone in the dark, etc. , instead of preparing the government and the country for independence. May has fully wasted two years. No point blaming anyone but May and the few she allowed in on this utterly botched, by default or design, game of political poker.