I do not share the adulation our Prime Minister is currently receiving from the Brexit wing of the English press. She has yet to face any real test of her somewhat chaotic execution of the referendum result and her lack of leadership is demonstrated by her promotion and prostration to three, Brexit zealots; namely, Johnson, Davis and Fox. These zealots – along with the leading leave campaigners – cynically wrap themselves in last June’s ‘democratic vote’ but their actions reveal their autocratic tendencies. It was a big mistake for Theresa May not to slap-down those in her party who attacked the Judiciary for upholding the lawful right of Parliament to be involved in triggering Article 50. She then compounded the mistake by sulkily producing a very short – 137 word – bill, placing a limit of just five days for Parliament to debate, and publishing (admittedly a rather pathetic) White Paper the day after the vote. And just to confirm her government’s contempt for Parliament she remained silent when Oliver Letwin – the Government’s former Brexit chief – crassly threatened to abolish the House of Lords if it attempted to carry out its constitutional role and suggest amendments to the bill.
A strong leader would have welcomed parliament’s involvement and most importantly made clear the enormous risks and difficulties raised by the soon-to-be triggered exit negotiations. Instead, she has chosen to emphasise the opportunities while remaining silent on the risks thereby raising expectations beyond any reasonable likelihood of delivery. Indeed, she has implied that her government will negotiate a miracle agreement that will give UK industries unfettered access to the single market. It fell to John Major – a Tory leader who bears the scars of Brexiter zealots (or in his words bastards) – to warn Theresa May that the picture she paints of the UK’s future outside the EU is ‘unreal and over-optimistic.’ In his recent Chatham House speech he urged Theresa May to face down ‘Tory Eurosceptics’ warning that they are fickle friends who want a damaging ‘total divorce’ from the EU. John Major’s warning followed closely another former Prime Minister’s castigation of Theresa May for her handling of Britain’s departure from the EU. Both Major and Blair are right to fear the consequences when the expectations she has kindled are dashed.
My fear, despite Theresa’s confident demeanour, is that she is presiding over a fiasco. Laura Kuenssberg, the BBC’s political editor reports one senior government figure as claiming that behind closed doors the Brexit preparations are a shambles. The zealots may not care – any price is worth paying to leave the EU - but for reasonable people – like John Major – the consequences of a ‘hard Brexit’ are a matter of real concern. One can only conclude that in their Panglossian approach to Brexit, Theresa May and her ministers would appear to have only a tenuous understanding of the full implications of a hard Brexit. Probably never before, certainly in the post war period, has the country suffered from the lack of an effective opposition capable of holding the government to account.
Theresa May’s elevation of the control of immigration to the top of the Brexit agenda would, if taken literally, rule out a transitional European Economic Area (EEA) agreement which is the only feasible transitional agreement that might be in place by 2020. If she sticks to this position then a hard Brexit seems the most likely outcome. But what then are we to make of David Davis recent remarks on immigrants? On a visit to Latvia he said that the UK is not about to ‘suddenly shut the door’ on low-skilled EU migrants? Moreover, he went on to say migrants had helped make the UK a successful economy. Funny, I do not recall Mr Davis or any of the Leave campaigners making such observations in the run-up to the referendum. Our Secretary of State for Exiting the EU’s statement has only added grit to my belief that the government’s preparations for Brexit negotiations amount to an omnishambles. At the very least Mr Davis’ remarks seem to directly contradict Theresa May’s insistence that taking back control of immigration would be a key change after Brexit.
As yet there has been no material cost to households since the referendum – though the country is poorer thanks to sterling’s depreciation. However, ‘walking off a cliff’ into WTO membership in 2019 will coincide with two more years of austerity and lower real incomes. In two years’ time, when the effects of sterling’s 18 per cent depreciation will have fed through to inflation, the negative inflation/debt fuelled consumer spending boom of the last eight months will have petered out. Recent ONS data shows that the performance of the UK economy over the past year has depended almost exclusively on consumer orientated industries. The vulnerability of the economy to a consumer slowdown is reinforced by the same data that shows a third of UK industries, many export orientated such as motor vehicles and oil extraction, are contracting. Thus, despite a slowing in the growth of consumer spending, the trade deficit will remain large and the lack of business investment will have further reduced the UK’s sorry rate of productivity growth. The PM may be basking in the Labour party’s meltdown as an effective opposition but once she triggers Article 50 she will face the more professional and hardened opposition of the Commission, the Council and ultimately the remaining 27 member states. Mrs May has bet her reputation on a successful negotiation even though the looming Dutch, French and German elections will effectively halve the formal time to negotiate. I suspect that by 2019 Mrs May will rue not involving parliament more heavily in the process. Indeed, by 2019 she may have much in common with Mr Major and his experience of the Eurosceptic wing ie, the bastards, of the Tory Party.
27th February 2017