IN an episode of The Simpsons, Homer decides to take up boxing. His extraordinarily thick skull combined with his general flaccidity mean his technique is to take a beating that tires out his opponent, then gently push them over. It’s successful, and he rises up the ranks of the Springfield Hobo Boxing Association. One day Homer finds himself up against the heavyweight champion. Deluded about his own abilities, he promptly gets the snot beaten out of him.
And so on to the UK Government’s performance in the Brexit negotiations.
First published in The National, 26 July 2017
Last week was pretty painful, even for someone who holds little goodwill for David Davis and his ilk. The EU has been pulling its punches, seemingly baffled at the disorganisation of the UK Government. Michel Barnier’s comment that identifying areas of agreement and disagreement was possible “for the issues on which there was a clear British position” was “you’re fooling no-one, buddy” couched in diplomatic politeness.
Until recently, the Tory Party had a reputation for being able to act as a united force. Now it is deeply divided on the best Brexit route.
Theresa May’s tight grip over the party is weakening by the day and her colleagues are circling, sensing her days in office are numbered. Her hard Brexit, originally vaunted as a sign of strength, has relegated her to the position of caretaker. Once Theresa May has served her purpose, we are told, she’ll be out.
In any workplace where you have big egos and pressure-cooker situations, you’re going to have robust and noisy differences of opinion. That’s just how it is. You thrash it out, you reach a compromise and you move on. But the Conservatives are unable – or unwilling – to do that. We cannot expect to do well in negotiations when the government has no unified position.
Sometimes you’re up against insurmountable disagreements with strong, valid arguments either side, but that’s not the case for a hard Brexit. There is no good reason for one unless you’re rich enough, powerful enough and selfish enough to know that the negative repercussions aren’t going to affect you. Hard Brexit won’t only hurt if you’re the kind of person who can go on holiday once a year and needs to consider customs queues. It will affect food prices, it will affect your nan’s care home staffing, and your sister’s stay in hospital because we won’t have the care assistants, the nurses and the doctors who keep our society ticking.
The hard Brexiters know this, and they’re gleefully ploughing ahead anyway, aided and abetted by a Labour hierarchy that is entirely out of touch with its membership. The reasonable ministers and spokespeople risk being monstered in the press, accused of wanting the country to fail, with the Brexiteers already getting their excuses in. If Brexit is a colossal failure, it’s because we didn’t believe in it hard enough or, worse, it was those beastly foreigners. We’ve already heard that May is willing to storm out of the talks with no deal. These are not the actions of a group in control of events. These are the actions of a group that has had its bluff called and is wildly flailing around in search of a scapegoat.
The UK is still deeply divided on Brexit. The EU referendum in June 2016 was by no means conclusive – just cast your minds back to May 2016, when Nigel Farage had already started calling for a second referendum if Remain won by a narrow margin. “In a 52-48 referendum this would be unfinished business by a long way.” Hmm.
This lack of consensus is reflected in the UK Government. If the party that is supposed to be leading us through this dark and thorny wood towards a promised land of less regulation, fewer workers’ rights and a flickering hologram that reads “take back control” can’t even agree, how can we trust them when they say we’ll be OK?
Nothing irritates an incompetent person more than being challenged by someone who knows they’re at it. Just last week we saw May has decided not to meet with First Minister Nicola Sturgeon any more, instead announcing that the First Minister can meet with Scottish Secretary David Mundell. The devolved administrations are being shut out … so the devolved administrations have decided to team up, because it’s increasingly evident that this is the only way to get a good Brexit deal for Scotland and Wales.
We can only hope that the recess will result in a refreshed, sensible UK Government, willing to stand up to the demagogues and be judged right by history.