ON Tuesday, the political class reached a new low: both main parties U-turned on their manifesto commitments. Theresa May announced that she would allow for postponement of Britain’s leave date from the EU, due on 29 March. Jeremy Corbyn announced that he would support a second referendum, whose advocates mostly want to overturn the first referendum. May added hypocrisy to betrayal, when she wrote for her preferred newspaper, the Daily Mail, on Wednesday: ‘By committing Labour to holding a second referendum, despite promising to implement Brexit, Jeremy Corbyn has shown once again that he cannot be trusted to keep his promises. His cynical political games would take us back to square one.’
Think of the damage to the political parties. Who would caucus with leaders who can’t be trusted and hypocritically accuse each other of doing what both are doing?
Think of the damage to democracy. What is the point of referenda or manifestos if representatives U-turn?
Think of the damage to the economy. Untrustworthiness, U-turns and hypocrisies create uncertainty. Uncertainty contributes to risks. We’re nearly three years from the first referendum, still uncertain when we will leave the EU, or even if we will leave.
Most infuriating, all of this was avoidable, but Remainers are using their unreadiness to justify their further frustration of Brexit.
Also on Tuesday (no coincidence), the Department for Exiting the EU (which is more pro-Remain than ever since the resignations of 2018) released warnings that fewer than a fifth of exporters to the EU have registered as such – but why should they? They have been reassured that we won’t leave without a deal. The government can’t complain that businesses are unprepared when government itself promised that it would deliver a free trade agreement or keep Britain in the customs union.
Officials complain that the public haven’t renewed their passports or applied for international driving permits, despite the government’s advertising, but where is the advertising? It’s drowned out by the same government’s contradictory promises.
Meanwhile, the government admitted (again, on the same day, Tuesday – again, no coincidence) that one-third of its most critical plans for a no-deal Brexit are behind schedule. It has secured trade deals with only seven of the 69 countries which currently fall under EU free trade agreements. On the same Tuesday, it warned that we face shortages of foods and medicines, and that economic growth would be curbed for 15 years, in the event of no-deal, so we should get behind May’s deal.
This is perverse. We have a world of trade to choose from: shortages are inexcusable. We can find more trade outside the EU than in it, given time to substitute. If we are unprepared, the highest fault is the government’s, and it should go, not retrench.
Unpreparedness is inherent to the Remainers. Their foot-dragging is in defiance of democracy. Most politicians are Remainers, most voters are not. Most voters chose in June 2016 to leave the EU. Most voters in June 2017 chose parties that were committed to leaving the EU. More survey respondents want to get on with it. Yet most politicians want to delay.
Politicians, not voters, are sabotaging Brexit. The House of Commons voted in January to rule out leaving without a deal. Last week, three Cabinet ministers said publicly they would resign if their own government did not rule out leaving without a deal. Yet ruling out leaving without a deal also rules out leaving with a good deal, because the EU can impose a bad deal, knowing that Britain cannot walk away.
The Brexiteer minority in Cabinet are creditably pushing against the self-sabotage. Reportedly, on Tuesday Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson told Cabinet that the EU is less likely to concede anything given a commitment not to leave without a deal. The Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Liz Truss, characterised the saboteurs as ‘kamikaze’. (For the record, the three saboteurs are Business Secretary Greg Clarke, Justice Secretary David Gauke and Work and Pensions Secretary Amber Rudd.)
Theresa May is the saboteur in chief. She keeps offering her disgraced and rejected deal (her proposed Withdrawal Agreement) as a false choice between her deal and no leave, without an option to leave without a deal. As she wrote for Wednesday’s Daily Mail: ‘Parliament should do its duty so that our country can move forward.’ The previous day, Stephen Glover wrote for the same newspaper that her deal is ‘our last chance to leave’.
No, her deal is not the last chance to leave, but her government’s mendacity gets worse than overt lies. On Monday, the Cabinet’s committee for no-deal preparedness agreed to use an executive order to commit Britain to paying most of the EU’s £39billion divorce bill, with or without a deal. This is contrary to May’s promises that Britain would not pay anything without a deal. Why would she U-turn on this too? Because she is removing the uncontested advantage of leaving without a deal: we wouldn’t owe the EU anything after 29 March.
Even if we leave on 29 March, the government is setting up Britain for an unnecessarily costly, chaotic Brexit into indefinite purgatory, with no published policy on what comes afterwards, and no trustworthiness to follow any policy anyway.
If Parliament votes for one postponement, it can vote for another. By incrementalism, we would never leave. Extension makes a deal unlikely, because it removes the urgency of making a deal. As MEP Steven Woolfe has written, extension is just part of the incrementalism by which the EU keeps Britain a member until Britain suffers enough pain and machination to be persuaded to give up leaving.
The solution remains the same as when I offered it in December 2017: May’s administration should make way for a Brexiteer administration that repudiates her administration of Brexit, leaves without a deal, then negotiates a free trade agreement from a position of strength.