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Why is the government making such a mess of Brexit?


A year and a half after the vote to leave, and the government has still not decided on what form of Brexit it wants. This is despite triggering Article 50, which means we will leave in about a year. If this isn't chaos in government, what is? But why is the UK government making such a mess of Brexit?

That is the question addressed by Tony Yates in a New Statesman article. He makes the case that all the problems we are seeing, and in particular the fact that the government have still not yet agreed what they want, come back to the referendum question. Because it did not specify how we would leave, it allowed quite conflicting visions of Brexit to unite. And it is not just a matter of working out which of those visions wins, because the losers may well decide they would rather stay than leave on those terms. Hence the inability, but also the reluctance, of May to spell out exactly what our Brexit plan is.

I think there is a lot of truth in that, but it is far from the full story. It might have been possible to have got all those advocating Leave to sign up to a single vision before the referendum. It might not have won, but it could have come close to winning. But that vision would have been based on fantasy: fantasy about the economic consequences of any particular path, and a fantasy about how the EU would respond.

Brexiters are not details people. They deal in visions, as Johnson’s recent speech showed. But worse still, they are so attached to their vision that they will not let details (like everyone being 8% poorer as a result) get in the way. A less kind way of saying this is that Brexiters are fantasists or ideologues.

Am I being unfair? Just look at what is now happening in relation to the Good Friday Agreement (GFA). The GFA is now in the way of the Brexit vision, so they are all saying the GFA has passed its usefulness. Anyone sane can see such a statement is completely mad and utterly irresponsible. However it also shows us something else. It was clear the moment the government signed up to the first stage agreement that the Irish border issue would to a considerable extent dictate the terms of any final agreement. It has taken the Brexiters this long before they realised this, and started attacking the GFA. They are not details people.

You might think that people who would allow their vision or ideology to become more important than details like a 8% GDP loss or peace in Northern Ireland shouldn’t be anywhere near the levers of power, and you would be right. One of the side effects of Brexit is that because May feels she has to have some sort of balance between Leavers and Remainers in her cabinet, we have an even more incompetent Conservative administration than usual. Yet more chaos.

Unfortunately, that incompetence is shared by May herself. The number of mistakes she has made is endless. The moment she was elected leader she should have realised that she had to exclude the fantasists from government as much as possible, but instead she gave them key government posts. She drew up red lines that were impossible to negotiate. She invoked Article 50, which instantly put the UK at a tactical disadvantage, without any agreed plan of how to undertake the negotiations. She made all these mistakes because she was afraid that the Brexiters would try and depose her and the press would turn on her the moment she started being realistic. But the point at which she was elected she had the most power (over both Brexiters and the press) she would ever have, and she didn’t use it. That is incompetence.

What this all means is everyone is right. Tony is right: the referendum was too vague and put the government in a difficult position. But no government knowingly cuts UK GDP by percentage points unless it is convinced there is some greater danger, and the EU is hardly a danger right now. So even if the referendum had been more precise it would have been a precise fantasy, either about the economic consequences or what the EU would allow. As a result, Brexit was always, and remains, an impossible project for any sane government. But even saying all this, the government has still managed to try doing the impossible in an extremely incompetent way.

These different reasons for chaos are all related, and all stem from the disastrous referendum vote. May is Prime Minister because of that vote. Fantasists are at the heart of government because of the vote. And if anyone is tempted, for other reasons, to get on a high horse to talk about press freedom right now, remember the main reason that disastrous vote went the way it did. Social conservatives and the left behind were sold snakeoil, and the main salesmen were the press barons of the right wing press. 

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