BY ROBERT FOX
Theresa May’s latest attempt to pass her deal through parliament, and her talks of a second referendum, demonstrate that the early mantra of her negotiations, ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’, has been long forgotten. Had she ever really believed this mantra, May would have maintained preparations for exiting the EU without a deal. Publicly announcing plans for a low tariff, low tax economy early in the negotiations could have proven an important part of the process. If the government had published plans to use the proposed £39 billion divorce payment to instead slash taxes in order to unleash the British economy, it would have encouraged the EU to cede ground over a deal. This also would have both offered business a basis upon which to build plans, but also demonstrated to the EU that the UK was ready, willing and able to prosper outside of the protectionist, competition-stifling bloc the EU is. Instead, the news agenda surrounding a ‘no deal’ was seized by increasingly hysterical forecasts predicting almost every apocalyptic scenario imaginable, from food and medicine shortages to civil unrest and a royal evacuation.
In the coming weeks, the Tory party will face a leadership contest in which the whole Brexit process, and indeed the party’s very existence, will be at stake. The new leader must be ready to tear up May’s withdrawal agreement and leave without a deal. Managerialist and change-fearing civil servants, in addition to continuity Remainers such as Philip Hammond, maintain that to do so would be a disastrous for the United Kingdom. However, to stay shackled to the EU in a permanent customs arrangement, or to withdraw Article 50 altogether, is real dangerous threat to Britain’s prosperity and future position in the world.
In March 1982, Margaret Thatcher faced an era-defining decision. After hearing of Argentina’s invasion of the Falklands, Thatcher was being advised by (amongst others) Defence Secretary Sir John Nott about the impracticalities of retaking the islands. The sombre and defeatist mood of that meeting was broken by the unexpected arrival of First Sea Lord Henry Leach, who told Thatcher that not only could the islands be retaken, but that they must be retaken, declaring ‘because if we do not, or if we pussyfoot in our actions and do not achieve complete success, in another few months we shall be living in a different country whose word counts for little’. For a leader like Thatcher, there was only one choice to be made, and that was to be bold, daring and decisive. May’s actions have been the exact opposite.
The chief problem with May’s approach to Brexit is that she has never embraced it as an opportunity to radically reset Britain’s economy and democracy. From the very beginning of her premiership, she and her teams of advisers and bureaucrats have always viewed Brexit as an exercise in damage limitation rather than an opportunity to be seized. May’s strategic goals seem to have been influenced far more by the Treasury’s now infamous (and in almost every case comically inaccurate) forecasts than by any of the optimistic visions illustrated by the victorious Leave campaign. Her approach lacked any sort of vision or imagination, and her negotiations staggered from one disappointment to another. May has been unable to provide any such vision herself, other than a bungled half-in, half-out limbo that leaves the UK with the very worst of both worlds. The fact that she was unwilling to face any journalists for the launch of her own party’s European election campaign shows that she is a prime minister lacking in confidence, courage and conviction.
May’s risk-averse approach has condemned the UK to more than two years of stuttering uncertainty, during which time the business community and the wider public have been crying out for swift and decisive action. In fearing the great opportunities that Brexit could offer the UK – smaller, cleaner and fairer regulation, the reduction of tariffs, and the creation of new trading relationships, May has inadvertently started to run the greatest risk of all. This is not just the enormous risk of the UK remaining within the EU as it centralises power at a more alarming rate than ever. It is the even greater risk that if the Tory party does not elect a new leader willing to strike out in a clean and ambitious ‘no deal’ Brexit, the UK will, in the words of Henry Leach, be a country whose word counts for little.
Robert Fox is a Guest Writer from Ireland.