History will not forgive May’s reckless push to the no-deal precipice
Just another Brexit day of dither, delay and dawdling. Just another humiliating defeat for Theresa May at the hands of the party within her party that she dare not confront. Clever Anna Soubry won a significant victory: the Conservative MP forced the government to agree to publish its no-deal advice – we shall now know what the cabinet knows. We shall see the full horror of the damage a no-deal Brexit would do to business and trade. Those who brought us to this pitch should remember that a day of judgment will come. Someday a judicial inquiry will expose the reckless Brexit chaos into which the Conservative party cast this country. Inquiries go on for years, but in the end a mighty Domesday tome will record what was done, by whom and why. If anyone in Labour aided and abetted Brexit, they too will be recorded in the annals.
The civil service knows: observers note the scrupulous care with which officials insist ministers personally sign every decision, delay or absurdity they are ordered to carry out. They know someday the recording angels will write down the names of everyone to blame.
For this reason, the government’s caving in to Soubry and Labour MP Chuka Umunna’s demand to see the evidence was vital – no need to wait for opening the archives in 30 years’ time. Expect yet more hair-raising documents. We already know about stockpiled body bags, the military call-up to quell food riots, and escape plans for the Queen. Can it get much worse? We need granular details of inadequate logistics and exactly which medicines and isotopes might not reach which mortally ill people, and who may need those body bags.
Reading it, we can consider how each face round that cabinet table seriously accepted all this without raising a finger to halt it yet. Presumably they are neither certifiable nor agents of Vladimir Putin, so they must know they can never let this happen – even Liam Fox. But everyone waits for someone else to pull the emergency cord first. Now the day for them to resign and speak out is set for 27 February – or will they flinch again? May aims to wait until the last days of March as the train approaches that broken bridge before she stops just in time. Her no-deal threat was always a sham.
That’s criminally reckless, and her feint comes at gigantic cost. The recording angels will write the billions lost into their account books. Fear of no deal has sent banks and companies fleeing across the Channel or to Dublin – the Dutch and French are gloating at the cash inflow. Had May honestly ruled out no deal from the start, many would have stayed. The money squandered goes far beyond the Treasury’s £4.2bn already burned for a nonevent. The Bank of England governor points to zero investment growth since the referendum, the UK “dramatically underperforming both history and peers”. Thousands of civil servants are hired, thousands more switched, denuding other departments; fridges, warehouses and staff are rented at market-busting rates. Add in the uncounted loss to business. The UK’s reputational damage is unfathomable: cracks in the union warn of a little England left alone. Even if we leave the EU with some spatchcocked deal, how was it clever to advertise to the world that this country took leave of its senses?
But in parliament the charade played on. The European Research Group (ERG) fulminated against the motion that simply noted what parliament voted for last month – fairytale “alternative arrangements” for the Irish border and Caroline Spelman and Jack Dromey’s block on no deal. As ever, in this deadlocked, logjammed debate, the government kowtowed to the ERG and the Brexit secretary, Stephen Barclay, hardened his stance, vowing no deal was still on the table. Result? The ERG still refused to back her, while Spelman denounced this as “contemptuous” of parliament. And so it was.
The ERG is unappeasable. It pretends no deal is a vital “bargaining chip”; the EU sighs at the absurdity. The shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer, made elegant mincemeat of the idea that no deal is a credible negotiating position. Dominic Grieve said it was a like a three-year-old holding its breath to get its way. But this is not about “leverage”: the ERG wants no deal. Working themselves into a froth of wrath, the likes of Mark Francois will never vote for anything less.
Delay as she might, Tory Armageddon day will come whenever the ERG demands no deal and May finally refuses. Delaying article 50 is now surely inevitable: Yvette Cooper and Oliver Letwin’s plan will almost certainly win parliament the right to demand a delay on 27 February, preventing no deal. The Brussels eavesdrop on May’s civil servant Olly Robbins, plus well-informed insight from her old adviser Nick Timothy, reveals she will offer two choices: her deal or a long delay. Surely they who know her are right: she is not the type of thrill-seeker to relish being in charge on no-deal Brexit day.
The showdown with her party-within-a party will come, so why not face them down now? She could save some credibility, after all her humiliations. Tell them the home truths she sees daily in cabinet documents we shall now read: this is no Project Fear.
In the real world, the tearing of hair among businesses trying to mitigate unknowable risks grows louder every day. Ian Wright, the head of the food and drinks federation, lets rip on behalf of his members: “Do these politicians think they’ll get away with blaming this on the EU when the day comes? When prices rise, shelves are emptying, the great British public will know who’s to blame.” He talks of companies that long ago ordered shipments of sugar and other faraway goods, with no idea if tariffs will be sky-high or zero when they arrive after 29 March. If zero, much of British food, farming and agriculture will collapse under cheap imports; if on WTO rules, they face hefty tariffs on processed food, cereals and meat.
Latest on his desk: what to do about packaging printed “Made in the EU”? No one in Whitehall can tell them how packs should be marked. Wright says most of his companies “aren’t the sort who think much about politics. But they do now.” He is incandescent. If Brexit fallout propels politicians out of politics, he warns: “If they think they can sail into jobs in business, they can think again. No company will employ them. In interviews they’ll be asked about Brexit: ‘What did you do in the great war, Daddy?’” He says one in eight of his members fear they will go to the wall in a no-deal Brexit, so he speaks with their authentic outrage.
Boris Johnson’s “fuck business” said it all. Some day, those recording angels will have the names and count the losses. Thanks to Soubry, we shall soon know what the cabinet knows.