A new Prime Minister will not change reality
London4Europe Committee member and former senior civil servant Michael Romberg writes that the Conservative candidates for party leader are fooling themselves about life after Brexit. He writes an honest speech for a non-existent candidate.
The problem the Conservative Party faces is not Theresa May. It is the mismatch of the dream of Brexit with the reality.
There seem to be three approaches amongst the candidates. There should also – but will not – be a fourth.
“Let’s change the withdrawal agreement”
A widespread belief amongst Conservatives is that with a bit more willpower, it would be possible to strike a better deal.
Everything could always have been done better. But no-one could negotiate have-your-cake-and-eat-it. The reality of Michel Barnier’s slide is still there.
Nor will the EU abandon Ireland. It’s a club of small states. No way could it give in to a large state that was about to become an ex-member.
“Let’s Leave with No-Deal”
A new Prime Minister is not able to change the facts. But s/he might change how the Government responds to facts or which facts to believe.
“Global Britain” is a delusion. It ignores the basic facts of international trade: distance matters; the big change over the course of the C20th has been away from global trade in basic commodities and finished goods to regional trade in components through integrated supply chains. (LSE blog; FT article link, pdf if link does not work)
Nor would No-deal lead to happy relations with third countries. “We’ve just turned our backs on our neighbours and bilked on our bills” is not the best opening for a partnership or trade negotiation.
But the Government is free to ignore reality and seek to take us out of the EU under No-Deal. There is no majority for that in Parliament. Whether Parliament - whether Jeremy Corbyn - is actually willing to prevent No-Deal is another question.
“Let’s back the Deal and move on”
A widespread delusion, including amongst the candidates in the first two categories, is that once Brexit is done the country, the party can move on. Wrong. Once Brexit is done, Brexit will be just beginning.
We have wasted three years of negotiations and interminable debate about Brexit in not deciding what Brexit is for. What is the problem that Brexit is there to solve? What is the vision of post-Brexit Britain? The slogans do not help.
One can retrofit objectives onto Theresa May’s plan: cut EU immigration at the lowest economic cost. Is that what most Leavers want?
It is by doing – and reflecting on that doing - that we really learn what our strategy is. Brexit is the biggest project since WWII. It will be all-consuming. Government and Parliament will be fully engaged in defining Brexit, making the technical and practical changes needed (new regulatory bodies &c), dealing with the fall-out and keeping the show on the road.
Sure, it provides an opportunity to rethink just what we want from agricultural policy, fishing policy, environmental protection and a whole host of repatriated policies. But rethinking a few of those would be a big task for Government in calmer times. In the middle of a Brexit thunderstorm? Government will be stuck with some version of replicating what there was and coming back to think about it later.
The electorate’s view
But someone is going to move on: the electorate. The same electorate that is blissfully unaware of the problems, that cannot understand why Brexit has not been done (“surely 2016 was clear enough: just Leave”), that electorate will move on.
So, they will ask a day, a month, a year after Brexit Day: not just where are the sunlit uplands? but also: where is action on all the things that had been put on hold for three or four years, from railways to social care, from the problems of retail on the high street to knife crime. They should be solved. Now. Right now. No longer does the Government have Brexit as an excuse for inaction.
Whoever steps in as a “get it done and we can move on” candidate is setting themselves up for a mismatch of expectations that will make the view of Theresa May’s competence seem like a high spot in the party’s history.
An honest candidate?
Theresa May had clearly learned from the negotiating process and the Government and independent briefings she had read. She has not told the electorate openly about that.
So what should a candidate in the Conservative party hustings say?
I am for Brexit. I will campaign for it, just as the party wishes.
But I also stand for practical Conservative values. We are not a party of thoughtless idealism. We keep our feet on the ground. About any policy we ask: how does it work? What will it achieve? What will it cost? We need to ask those questions about Brexit.
We have all learned so much in these three years about the EU, about Britain’s place in the world, about Brexit.
We have learned that none of the promises made in 2016 is going to come true. We cannot have our cake and eat it. We will not be richer by leaving the EU. We will not be able to replace EU trade by trade elsewhere – and anyway nothing stops us trading now with the fast-growing countries in Asia.
Immigrants are not to blame for our problem. If we turn our back on the friendship of our neighbours – who are culturally far closer to us than are other countries, including the USA and the former Dominions – we will be less secure and will offer fewer life-chances to our children.
The world is becoming a darker place with the USA and China promoting nationalism. Russia is fighting wars in Europe. For our safety we need to stick with our friends.
Nor will we increase our status by going it alone. Being in the EU has amplified our foreign policy power; our voice will be smaller outside it.
Nor have we been able to produce a worthwhile list of laws we would pass or repeal once outside the EU. We have not been able to identify what use we would make of our formal sovereignty. But we can see many areas where our effective sovereignty – the ability to get what we want – will be diminished when we no longer work with our EU partners.
Moreover, if Brexit happens, you can forget any non-Brexit agenda that you have. Government for the next ten years will be focussed entirely on keeping the show on the road. Implementing Brexit will be all we can do. Nor will the necessary changes provide an opportunity to do things better – there will not be the bandwidth to think policies through. The next two governments will disappoint anyone who has a vision that goes beyond survival.
So yes, we can do Brexit. And if the electorate want it then we will do it. But it comes with costs. If you think the costs – loss of control, less ability to get what we want, isolation, insularity, financial – are worth the benefits then say so.
We will provide each household with an explanation of the costs and benefits of each Brexit option and of staying in the EU. We will have a two stage referendum. In the first stage you the voters get to choose the best available Brexit; in the second we decide whether to run with that Brexit or Remain in the EU. We can make those referenda legally binding on the Government.
So yes you can have Brexit. But only a real world Brexit. And you need to believe that it will be worth the cost.
None of them is going to say any of that.
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