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A numbed electorate between the devil and the deep blue sea


IN THIS most dismal and dispiriting general election, a numbed British electorate desperate to end the Brexit nightmare are instead being corralled with their hands tied behind their backs towards the likely continuation of that nightmare.

One of the many fundamental negotiating errors made by Theresa May in trying to settle the terms of the UK’s Brexit withdrawal deal with the EU was to rule out leaving with no deal.

At a stroke, she guaranteed that any terms agreed with the EU would not be in Britain’s interests. That’s because she took the most potent weapon in her armoury, the fact that the EU was desperate to avoid Britain leaving with no deal since that would be potentially far more disastrous for the EU than for the UK, and handed it to the EU’s negotiators for them to fire it at her instead.

She displayed her utter cluelessness as a negotiator by destroying her one effective piece of leverage.

Boris Johnson has declared that there is absolutely no chance of Britain failing to agree a trade deal with the EU once it has left. He has stated there is absolutely no chance that he will agree to any extension of the year-long post-Brexit transition period, during which the UK will remain bound by EU laws and regulations even after it has left the EU, because by the end of next year he will have agreed that trade deal (even more unlikely than that eye-watering timetable since the more pressing deadline is July 1, the date by which any request for an extension has to be lodged).

By ruling out no-deal, however, he has made exactly the same error as Theresa May by removing his one piece of leverage over the EU. He has all but guaranteed that the deal he is so confident of doing with the EU will be to the UK’s disadvantage.

How can it not be? As I have written here many times, the EU will never agree to any terms that are to the UK’s advantage unless the EU’s own back is nailed to the wall. By ruling out no-deal, Johnson has ensured it is the UK’s back that will be against that wall.

He also continues to froth about the great trade deal Britain will do with the US. But President Trump has stated that, given the terms of Johnson’s sanitised May deal mark four, with its commitment to maintaining a ‘level playing field’ with the EU which rules out competition, the US will not do any such deal with the UK.

Indeed, Johnson’s stated commitment to building ‘a new partnership with the EU as sovereign equals and discussing the ways in which were are going to help support the EU’, observing moreover: ‘We cannot walk away from Europe. We are European. This is about feeling and identity,’ merely reinforces the fear I have stated here: that his withdrawal deal will not ‘get Brexit done’ but will rather be Brexit-in-name-only, by trapping Britain into continued ties to the EU but henceforth without any power.

The electorate has been manoeuvred into choosing on this issue between the Labour/LibDem Remainer devil and the Boris faux-Brexit deep blue sea. Nigel Farage, the one person who has called the Johnson deal for the con-trick that it is, has himself been manoeuvred and neutralised by Johnson’s refusal to enter into any kind of electoral pact with him, by the collapse of sections of his own Brexit party into an ill-disciplined rabble which has drunk the Johnson Kool-Aid, and by the (entirely understandable) feeling that, in a two-party system, Jeremy Corbyn must be stopped at all costs.

And yet, and yet . . . BoJo’s ‘get Brexit done’ mantra has started to get on people’s nerves; he failed to convince in his TV debate with Corbyn, and in the three weeks still to go, as the public are forced to focus upon the uninspiring choice before them, the shine may start to come off him.

And who knows what may happen then?

This article was first published on on November 22, and is republished by kind permission.

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Melanie Phillips
Melanie Phillips
Melanie Phillips is a columnist at the Times,. She is the author of Guardian Angel: My Journey from Leftism to Sanity, and her first novel The Legacy was published in April.

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