Now that the UK Supreme Court has reached a decision and confirmed, as many expected, that the UK parliament must be allowed a vote on triggering Article 50 to leave the European Union, we are a little bit closer to understanding how the beginning of Brexit will begin.
• Angry Leave campaigners dismayed by High Court decision now furious that Supreme Court has confirmed right of UK parliament to vote on starting exit process
• More selective sovereignty from Leavers – rights of the people referred to constantly but no understanding of role of judiciary and parliament
• Theresa May busy in US and Turkey – doubtful destinations for devotees of reasoned discussion
• Brexit believers sinking into virtual reality world in which threats win prizes
The process and decision has angered the Leavers, who actually wanted to take back control of their sovereignty, apparently, and aroused a glimmer of hope among Remainers that further delay might give people pause for thought and lead to some sort of last minute miracle reversal.
Difficult moment for democracy
It seems unlikely that Remainer members of parliament, even those still very angry about the Brexit vote, will go against the so-called “will of the people” and vote not to trigger the leave mechanism. This is despite an increasingly bitter row in the opposition Labour party, with some MPs threatening to vote against triggering Article 50. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has ordered them not to rock the boat but is still deeply unpopular with many of them and bitter rows are standard procedure in the party these days.
Even with the Scottish Nationalist party and some Labour MPs voting against, the motion is expected to pass, so that the government can proceed. Nothing is certain, however, and some surprises might still be caused by the passions this issue continue to arouse.
Shots across the bows
Prior to the court’s decision Theresa May had made what was meant to be the clarifying speech to the nation – ending the sound bites on hard Brexits, red, white and blue Brexits and Brexit meaning Brexit. Are we any the wiser? Not really. We know that hard Brexit means out, not half in, half out, or one toe in and the rest out. Of course, whatever it will eventually mean, this is all part of the pre-negotiation negotiations, a sort of weigh-in before the big fight, where both sides get to square up to each other and see if they can smell fear.
The beginning of jaw jaw has come, with the possibility of diplomatic war war still on the horizon. But when all is said and done, and warm words, threats, speeches and speculation are put to one side, it will come down to a simple power game. Of course the EU must not signal to the next nation on the threshold that a party pack of goodies awaits those brave enough to cross, but some sort of compromise on tariffs and trade will have to be thrashed out.
Ingredients in the Brexit bake
In this uncharted territory there is too much for all concerned to lose if things get really nasty, so now is perhaps the time for Mrs May to ease off a little on the low tax heaven hovering on your doorstep threats, reign in her foreign secretary bouncy Boris Johnson and start to get down to some serious thinking.
The boring and oft repeated “number of German cars sold in the UK” example (UK too big a customer to upset) is not the whole story: politics and pride are important ingredients of this brave new world we are entering. Pragmatism and the power of big business are lurking in the shadows though, and the big wheel of economics needs to keep on turning if recession is not to sink the UK and drag the fragile EU economy with it.
The sun did sink on the British Empire and is now sinking on its brief flirtation with another smaller empire, which is perhaps already in decline. So for the good of both sides a deal will have to be reached but this does not mean that the fantasists on the UK side currently talking about “red lines” should keep dreaming that they have the upper hand.
When reality bites they will realise that no lobby group, even the mighty German automotive industry, will be able to push the EU to offer the UK all it wants for no price whatsoever, apart from the pleasure of their continued custom.
Recent headlines in the pro-Brexit press are hard to understand. On planet leave “we” have the upper hand, such is the attraction of a large customer base and growing (debt-fuelled) consumer economy. What started as a leave campaign based on nostalgia, for some mythical good old days, has mutated into a cloud cuckoo land virtual reality, where the EU is a spent force, all 27 nations down on one knee and begging the UK not to close the door on them.
In this “my dad’s bigger than your dad” playground game, Leave supporters seem to forget that 27 dads are always likely to win against one. Britain “punching above its weight” is as silly and inaccurate an expression as the “special relationship with the US”, so now is the time for some realism about strength to weight ratios.
The dating game
With parliamentary hurdles to cross and then, if all goes to plan, some tough negotiations ahead, Mrs May has already started her tour of possible friendly nations, starting with many women’s least favourite potential date Donald Trump. Having, depending on your viewpoint, borderline grovelled or fabulously flirted and started something beautiful, with the Donald, she promptly jetted off to Turkey for warm words with the EU’s least favourite best friend.
There is a whiff of desperation already about this grand tour. If invited to meet the POTUS it seems wise to go, despite the planet-dividing gift of the latest incumbent, but surely now is the time to be making some detailed notes on the back of an envelope (I give you Gibraltar, you give me Spain’s vote on a trade deal, I give you some overseas territories’ tax haven status, you give me favoured trading status for industries x, y and z, etc).
Of course Turkey will be happy to strike mutually beneficial deals with the UK and perhaps irritate the EU in the process, and there could well be other countries keen to do direct business with the UK, but the focus now should probably be on the main business of this complex divorce, not playing dating games with come hither eyes before the divorce discussions have even started.
Some work to do on the slippery slope to reality
Reality will start to bite in the coming months. No amount of threats, bluster, overconfident posturing or attempts to strike up new deals before the current contract is cancelled will obscure the reality that countries like Germany already sell goods all over the world. And they do so while within the EU, and to countries such as China which, while stuttering economically, could dwarf the UK’s consumption of German cars if they continue to grow.
Britain might have some goods and a strong service sector to offer but it is already a disappointing exporter in comparison to many of its European rivals. If this new global outlook and all the potential trade deal work it entails is to become something meaningful, there is much serious work and thinking to be done. So far it seems the thinking is being overshadowed by optimism, threats, and distractions.
Mrs May has enjoyed an unsuccessful and unnecessary appeal to the Supreme Court, a prolonged period of procrastination about what Brexit might mean, a first date with the man half of his own country loves to hate and an increasing tendency to appeal to the hardline Brexit constituency for reasons still a mystery.
Prior to all this she managed to lose her ambassador to the EU, who left in despair at the lack of reality in government circles about the challenge ahead. Couple this with her first few warning shots to the EU about no deal being better than a bad deal, and you have to wonder whether this supposedly cautious vicar’s daughter might be following David Cameron as the lamb led to a Brussels slaughter.