Brexit will only work for Britain if the EU breaks apart - and that would be a disaster for all
Kevin Rafferty says it’s time for anti-Brexit heavyweights to convince the British population that the impending break with the EU is a disaster that must be avoided
Scorned as Britain’s worst leader since Neville Chamberlain misread power in Europe, Theresa May clings to the illusion of authority represented by her occupancy of Number 10 Downing Street and the trappings that go with it.
Sadly, May, her colleagues and their powerful newspaper backers are suffering from delusions that are likely to see Britain crashing out of the European Union while left with a moth-eaten industry, a devastated financial system and a government deeply in hock.
The prime minister survives with the help of subterfuge, but only to fight another vicious day. Hard-core issues are still awaiting resolution, including Britain’s trade and customs relationships with the EU after Brexit, and vexed questions about the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, which stays in the EU.
May faces contradictory problems that would challenge even an astute politician. Her cabinet is deeply divided between hardline Brexiters and those who originally voted against leaving and seek a soft exit and a good trading relationship outside the EU club.
Last week marked the second anniversary of the referendum under which the people of the UK voted narrowly against the EU on a simple question of whether to stay or to leave, 52 per cent to 48 per cent.
Voters were promised a land flowing with milk and honey if the UK left the EU, including £350 million (US$461 million) a week to the beloved and beleaguered National Health Service, freedom to control immigration and movement of labour, escape from the diktats of Brussels and rescue of British sovereignty from dreadful Johnny Foreigner.
Brexit comes with a heavy price. The divorce settlement is estimated at £39 billion and the UK may have to continue to pay alimony to the EU into the far distant future. The continuing bill for being outside the EU will range from £260 million a week if a deal allows being in the European Economic Area to £1.25 billion a week if Britain has to deal with the EU on World Trade Organisation terms.
The economic writing already on the wall is not pretty. Over the past 40 years, complicated supply chains have been built between British and European companies. If, after Brexit, parts are waiting in customs queues, manufacturers will have to rethink their supply chains.
Airbus has threatened to leave the UK, along with 14,000 jobs. BMW and Siemens have also joined in a chorus of warnings. Jaguar Land Rover, Britain’s biggest carmaker, owned by the Indian conglomerate Tata, has said it will move production of its iconic Land Rover Discovery from Solihull to Slovakia.
The choice May faces is between a Brexit that is economically ruinous and one that would mean continuing to pay the EU’s membership dues, including accepting free movement of labour, without any of the perks, such as having a seat at the table or making decisions.
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Hardline Brexiters, such as Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, continue to demand a clean break with Brussels, whatever the cost. Johnson praised Donald Trump’s negotiating style, chortling that if Trump were involved in Brexit, he’d bring “all sorts of chaos”. Days later, after hearing that big business companies were preparing to desert the UK, Johnson replied pithily, “F**k business.”
That response, just nine months before the Brexit deadline, symbolises the crisis. May’s cabinet can’t present a united front to Brussels. Its members will face another crunch when – or if – they can agree on whatever bespoke scheme they imagine for Brexit: Michel Barnier, the EU’s lead negotiator, is likely to reject it.
May has shown abysmal leadership, not least by pandering to hardliners. A good chief executive knows when to fire insubordinates, and her only excuse is that she fears the greater damage that Johnson and his cronies might do to her outside the cabinet. But she is taking Britain to the cliff edge.
The cruel but unspoken truth is that Brexit will only work for Britain if the rest of the EU falls apart and breaks into its separate nations. That’s evidently what US President Donald Trump wants, but that would be bad for the world and disastrous for Europe, politically and economically.
May last year delivered a stirring message of Brexit Britain open for business to the world. It was an imperial statement that was almost a century too late because Brexit Britain lacks economic strength to make it attractive – and cannot afford the gunboats to enforce her vision.
If Britain is to get real, it needs its heavyweight European politicians of all parties – “Big Beast” Ken Clarke, Chris Patten, Gordon Brown, Ed Balls, Vince Cable – to come out of the shadows of Westminster or retirement, and take the case to the people, as the nearly 70-year-old William Gladstone campaigned 140 years ago.
Present the dismal facts to the deprived people of West Wales, Cornwall, Durham and Teesside, East and South Yorkshire, Lincolnshire, Stafford, Northern Ireland, among the poorest regions of northern Europe. Ask on the way whether quasi-aristocratic Brexiter toffs like Michael Gove, Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg have a clue about running a country or an economy. Rees-Mogg is calling for tax cuts as the magic bullet that will save the UK; tell that to my East Riding family who are hardpressed to earn enough to pay taxes.
Their message to the people and then from the people to the hallucinating May and the pusillanimous opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn is that the economic case is clear, and the political one is stronger: Britain needs the EU, and the EU needs a strong Britain. Let’s get working on it, before it is too late.
Kevin Rafferty is a political commentator