Brexit: Britain’s nervous breakdown, and Theresa May’s Waterloo

February 2, 2018

Opinion Brexit

Brexit:  Britain’s nervous breakdown, and Theresa May’s Waterloo

The country is upending the policies that have set its national course for 50 years

by Philip

Familiarity is a distorting prism. All too easily the extraordinary becomes the unremarkable, the aberrant the commonplace. This is what has happened in Britain following the referendum  decision to leave the EU. The attempt to wrench the nation out of its own continent has triggered a national nervous breakdown. Only the British cannot see it.

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Open plotting against an enfeebled Prime Minister, civil war in the cabinet, a ruling Conservative party riven by faction, a Labour opposition led by a life-long admirer of Fidel Castro, parliament imprisoned by the referendum result, paralysis at the heart of government — all have become the stuff of everyday politics. Britain was once a sturdy, stable democracy. Anger and acrimony are the new normal, as likely to elicit a weary shrug as incredulity.

Historians will scratch their heads in wonder. These are truly extraordinary times. Britain is upending the economic and foreign policies that have set its national course for half a century. Nothing in modern peacetime matches the upheaval. The impact on the nation’s prosperity, security and role in international affairs will be felt for a generation and beyond. Unwrapping decades of integration is a task of huge complexity.

And yet Theresa May, the Prime Minister, dare not set out her preferred course for a post-Brexit settlement lest she be toppled by her own Tory MPs. Instead she pleads with Germany’s Angela Merkel to tell her what Berlin might offer in terms of a future relationship. The humiliation is excruciating.

With each step back from the melee, the picture becomes all the more incredible. Most MPs in the House of Commons consider Brexit an act of folly. They will vote against their judgment because the referendum, with its narrow majority for leave, has been invested with an absurd, almost mystical status. Let no one dare question “the will of the people”. With the odd, honourable exception, Tory and Labour pro-Europeans seem inclined to let Britain sink rather than make common cause across party lines. A nation that calls itself the mother of parliaments has somehow mislaid the meaning of representative democracy.

Brexit is an act of protectionism promulgated by English nationalists who inexplicably style themselves free-marketeers. Every study produced in Whitehall suggests departure from the single market will leave Britain poorer and less able to promote its interests overseas. Throwing up barriers across the Channel will weaken its voice across the Atlantic.

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Michael Gove
“Baffled historians will search in vain to find a single official in the high echelons of Whitehall — from the cabinet stary down — who thinks Brexit is anything less than a catastrophe…[T]he vision amounted to no more than rhetorical flatulence on the part of Boris Johnson…The foreign secretary has no project or purpose in mind. He wants to be prime minister because, well, he wants to be prime minister. Parallels with US president Donald Trump are not far-fetched”.–Philip Stephens


Only this week Mrs May sought unsuccessfully to suppress an official analysis showing the alternatives to EU membership will reduce growth and cut living standards. Tory Brexiters are unmoved. The cabinet Brexiter Michael Gove sets the intellectual tone when he pours scorn on the insights of experts.

Baffled historians But what of “global Britain”, the bold Elizabethan future imagined by the Brexiters? Alas, the historians will discover, the vision amounted to no more than rhetorical flatulence on the part of Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary…Mr Johnson, whose calculated mendacity is matched only by inflated self-regard, is determined Mrs May should be ousted.

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Boris Johnson–What he wouldn’t to be British Prime Minister

Where all this leads, it is impossible to say. Mr Johnson, whose calculated mendacity is matched only by inflated self-regard, is determined Mrs May should be ousted. Personal ambition burns more brightly here than any convictions. The foreign secretary has no project or purpose in mind. He wants to be prime minister because, well, he wants to be prime minister. Parallels with US president Donald Trump are not far-fetched.

Mrs May could survive. But to what end? Without the confidence of her cabinet and deprived of a majority in the House of Commons by an ill-judged general election, Mrs May has neither the wit nor the authority to reach a sensible agreement with the EU27. Most MPs would back a “soft” Brexit, leaving Britain’s economy closely connected to Europe. Mrs May feels threatened by the English nationalists. Her strategy, if you could call it that, is to leave all the serious decisions until after Britain’s departure from the EU in March 2019.

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Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn

Jeremy Corbyn is a 1970s hardline socialist who sees the EU as a capitalist conspiracy. Mr Corbyn may launch opportunistic strikes against the government but shows no enthusiasm for a close relationship with the EU27.

In other circumstances Her Majesty’s loyal opposition might offer a counterpoint of stability. Instead Labour is led by Jeremy Corbyn, a 1970s hardline socialist who sees the EU as a capitalist conspiracy. Mr Corbyn may launch opportunistic strikes against the government but shows no enthusiasm for a close relationship with the EU27.

As for the voters, some may have changed their minds. Polls suggest the 52:48 per cent tally in favour of Leave would be reversed in a second referendum. Maybe. But these numbers are well within the margin for error. Why anyway should people take a different view before they have seen the deal on offer from Britain’s erstwhile partners and, pace Mr Gove, have weighed the evidence as to the likely effect on living standards?

If there is a slim hope that Britain can emerge wounded rather than broken, it lies in the possibility that things will get still worse in the short term. Mendacity, chaos and division could end in complete paralysis — with parliament failing to agree on any form of Brexit. If Britain does remain part of the EU after all this, it will be because, in its present state, it is simply incapable of leaving.



No End in Sight to the Brexit Madness

November 22, 2017

No End in Sight to the Brexit Madness

The slow-motion self-immolation that is Brexit continues for the U.K. Speaking in Brussels on Monday, Michel Barnier, the senior European Union official in charge of negotiating the terms of Britain’s departure, confirmed that British banks were set to lose their so-called E.U. passport, which currently enables them to offer services throughout the twenty-eight nations in the bloc. “On financial services, U.K. voices suggest that Brexit does not mean Brexit,” Barnier said. “Brexit means Brexit, everywhere.”

As if to reinforce the point, a meeting of E.U. ministers on Monday confirmed that two big E.U. agencies that are currently headquartered in London, the European Banking Authority and the European Medicines Agency, would be moving to Paris and Amsterdam, respectively. “The twenty-seven will continue to deepen the work of those agencies, together,” Barnier said. “They will share the costs for running those agencies. Our businesses will benefit from their expertise. All of their work is firmly based on the E.U. treaties which the U.K. decided to leave.”

In the months after the Brexit vote, which took place almost a year and a half ago, “Leave” supporters used the fact that the U.K.’s economy continued to expand and create jobs to claim that the prophets of doom had been mistaken. But to those Britons who are willing to acknowledge reality, these latest developments were the latest confirmation that the consequences of the historic vote are now starting to be felt. “While not surprising, these moves mark the beginning of the jobs Brexodus,” Vince Cable, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, and a prominent opponent of Brexit, said. “Large private-sector organizations are also considering moving to Europe, and we can expect many to do so over the next few years.”

To be sure, the country’s economy hasn’t collapsed. The gross domestic product is rising, and the unemployment rate has fallen to 4.3 per cent, its lowest level since 1975. But the rate of G.D.P. growth has fallen this year, and consumer-price inflation has risen because a fall in the value of the pound has made imported goods more expensive. This has hit living standards. Earlier this month, the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, an independent think tank, estimated that Brexit has already cost each British household about six hundred pounds, which is roughly eight hundred dollars. “It is almost certain that the relative deterioration in the UK economy and the accompanying fall in living standards over the past year are a consequence of the vote by the British people to leave the European Union,” Garry Young, a senior economist at the institute, wrote.

If Theresa May’s government had presented a credible path to the prosperity that it claims will accompany Britain’s departure from the E.U., the economic slowdown could perhaps be written off as an inevitable and temporary transition cost. But, of course, no such credible path has been offered. Beset by internal divisions, ministerial departures, and the hangover from a disastrous general election that saw it reduced to a minority in the House of Commons, May’s government has stumbled along, making barely any progress in negotiating the terms of Brexit, which was originally pegged for March, 2019.

In September, May announced that Britain wanted to push Brexit back two years, until 2021, and said that it would abide by all the E.U. rules during the transition period. But, even after that concession, the negotiations with Brussels remained bogged down. At the end of last week, Donald Tusk, the E.U.’s President, said that, if Britain wanted talks to begin a new trade agreement that would preserve its access to the huge European market, it would have to make concessions in a number of areas, including the settlement of Britain’s financial obligations to the E.U.; the legal protections that would be afforded E.U. citizens living in the United Kingdom; and the future of the border between Northern Ireland, which is leaving in the E.U., and the Republican of Ireland, which isn’t.

In his speech on Monday, Barnier, a former Foreign Minister of France, appeared to broaden the E.U.’s demands, strongly hinting that, if Britain wanted a favorable trade deal, it would have to abide by European regulations in many areas, even though it would no longer be a member of the Union. “The U.K. has chosen to leave the E.U.,” Barnier said. “Does it want to stay close to the European model or does it want to gradually move away from it? The U.K.’s reply to this question will be important and even decisive, because it will shape the discussion on our future partnership and shape also the conditions for ratification of that partnership in many national parliaments and obviously in the European parliament.”

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Boris Johnson and Michael Gove are backing the embattled Prime Minister Theresa May

Although Barnier’s language was polite, his meaning was clear: the E.U. will not countenance Britain trying to set itself up as a haven from regulation and taxes for international companies that want to do business in Europe but don’t like being subject to oversight from Brussels. And, indeed, that is precisely the scenario that some of May’s colleagues—including Boris Johnson, the Foreign Secretary, and Michael Gove, the Environment Secretary—have in mind. In their vision, post-Brexit Britain would turn into a European version of Singapore or Hong Kong during the days of British colonial rule. “We may choose to remain identical to the EU or we may embrace a vision more aligned with pro-competitive regulation,” Johnson and Gove wrote, last week, in a letter to May. “Other countries must know this choice is in our hands, and they must know it on day one.”

To give them a bit of credit, May and Philip Hammond, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, seem to grasp that Johnson and Gove are pursuing a fantasy. They understand that the E.U. won’t allow Britain to both have its cake (access to the giant E.U. market) and eat it (freedom from E.U.-style regulation). They also recognize that if companies such as Honda and Nissan no longer have free access to and from Europe for the outputs and inputs of their British factories, they will have little choice but to relocate at least some of their facilities to the Continental mainland. The same goes for big international financial institutions, such as Deutsche Bank, JPMorgan Chase, and Goldman Sachs.

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 Bye, Bye, London Post-Brexit?

So May and Hammond are still trying to pursue a so-called soft Brexit, which would preserve as much market access as possible. But, at every turn, they and their allies are being undermined and vilified by the Little Englanders and the conservative Fleet Street newspapers. Last week, the Daily Telegraph published photographs on its front page of fifteen Conservative M.P.s who have had the temerity to suggest that the parliament should have the right to sign off on the final Brexit deal. The paper labelled them “The Brexit mutineers.” Some of these M.P.s subsequently received threats.

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With opinion polls suggesting that most Britons, if given a chance, would now vote to remain in the E.U., a second referendum seems like a good idea.

“How can this be happening in a country known for its pragmatism?” the Oxford economist Simon Wren-Lewis asked in a blog post. How indeed? With opinion polls suggesting that most Britons, if given a chance, would now vote to remain in the E.U., a second referendum seems like a good idea. But the opposition Labour Party, for reasons of its own, has already committed to accepting the first Brexit vote. About the only people calling for a do-over are the Liberal Democrats, who have just twelve seats in the Commons, and a few figures who are even less popular, such as Tony Blair and Lloyd Blankfein, the chief executive of Goldman. (In a tweet last week, Blankfein said, “So much at stake, why not make sure consensus still there?”) The country is still in the grip of Brexit madness, and, sadly, there is no relief in sight.