EU Referendum

Brexit: things can only get worse


Martin Kettle writes in the Guardian about the need to revise our views about Theresa May and her imminent political demise. One of the reasons he offers is her "relative successes" on Brexit. The deal with Brussels on the price of departure, he says, has now been followed by a deal on the transition. Almost all Tory MPs have accepted the compromises.

"None of this", Kettle adds, "was certain a few months ago" and, he says, "It could all come apart in the autumn". There again, he asserts, "it begins to look more possible than before that May's Brexit strategy could make it over the line". And, if it does, "she will be able to say she got it right".

This is not, of course, an informed view. The Brexit talks started with three Phase One issues: the money; the fate of the expats and the Irish border question. Of those three, only the first two have been resolved. The third, and the most intractable, hasn't even been dented.

As regards the transition, this represents a craven surrender on the part of the prime minister who, having rejected the Efta/EEA option on diverse grounds, has accepted something which is inestimably worse, with no end point in which we can have any confidence.

Either or both of these should have been enough to destroy the May premiership. But Mrs May has been fortunate on two counts. Firstly, although she has lost virtually the confidence of her party (and the entire nation), there is no sign of a credible replacement and none of the pretenders, in a terminally split party, can muster enough support to depose her.

Then, when it comes to the second count, that refers to the whole of the Brexit process. This has been sullied by the inability of the legacy media accurately (or at all) to analyse and report on Mrs May's Brexit failures. And because the media doesn't understand quite how badly she is performing and the peril of our current situation, she is getting a far easier ride than she deserves.

On Tuesday, for instance, we had Mrs May wrongly suggest that she could entertain bilateral negotiations with Denmark and come to a reciprocal agreement over fishing rights – despite the Commission's Notice to Stakeholders pointing out that the UK can only negotiate with the Commission.

Then, yesterday, we covered another May delusion. Having closed down any options we might have for influencing EU law through the mechanisms of the EEA, she is floating that canard that we can somehow compensate for that by negotiating continued membership of a number of EU agencies where the UK has major economic interests.

Despite the Commission having rapidly declared that this is a non-starter, we are joined by the CBI and then Tom Enders of Airbus, perpetrating the myth that this provides a solution to the UK's loss of influence. And the legacy media, having lost any ability to distinguish fact from fiction, laps it all up and reports the stupidity with not a hint of criticism.

Elsewhere yesterday, we had a turgid script from the BBC, as the lame Jorn Madslien, rejoicing under the title "business reporter", tried to hang a story on the premise that: "Carmakers fear rising trade barriers after Brexit".

For sure, he manages to work in the "escalating trade dispute between the US and its main trading partners, the EU and China", which Madslien says "looms large, after US President Donald Trump's recent threat to tax cars imported into the world's largest market".

But, as to the far more important problem of non-tariff barriers, all Madslien can manage is a quote from the European Automobile Manufacturers Association (ACEA), which has it that: "Any changes to the deep economic and regulatory integration between the EU and the UK will have an adverse impact on automobile manufacturers with operations in the EU and/or the UK, as well as on the European economy in general".

Yet, in November 2017 I was writing about the consequences of leaving the Single Market. "When this happens", I wrote, "the type approvals issued by the VCA, the UK Vehicle Certification Authority, will either no longer hold validity or not be able to be extended".

We are not, therefore, addressing in abstract terms, "any changes to the deep economic and regulatory integration", but the certainty of adverse effects brought about directly by Mrs May's precipitous and unthinking decision to withdraw from the single market.

When they might have been minimal, to the point of being barely noticeable, she has turned Brexit into a major crisis for carmakers. Yet, from the BBC, the prime minister gets a free pass. The real problems building for the car industry go unrecognised, with no possibility of any blame being attached to something that has not been discussed.

Thus, while some pundits are quick to invoke "project fear", the reality is that we are seeing endless examples of the media understating they case, at times working with fleckless trade associations and at other time just uncritically reporting their mindless effluvia.

But while the media have managed to hold the line so far, it isn't the first time that I've felt impelled to remark that reality is on hold. But, as I have also observed, while it can be deferred, it cannot be denied. You can only kick those cans so far down the road, before you stumble upon an immovable pile.

The point is that there is no easy (or any) way of circumventing Mrs May's decision to leave the Single Market, with or without a strategy. The Irish border impasse is a direct consequence of that decision, and many of the problems confronting industry also stem from it.

Thus, contrary to Martin Kettle's assertion, there is no possibility that her strategy "could make it over the line". But the great lacuna here is the idea that Mrs May even has a strategy. She doesn't. Through the period since her Lancaster House speech, she has been reacting to – but not solving – the problems that she herself has created. And her main response has been to kick the cans down the road.

However, I have also pointed out that the transition period is set to make Brexit day a non-event. A form of words will be found to ensure that the UK stays within the remit of all existing external deals concluded by the EU, which means that we have a further 21 month (at the very least) of the status quo.

Since this "vassal state" scenario has been accepted by the Tories – and not challenged by the opposition parties – the focus now returns to the Irish question and, even here, we expect some form of fudge that gets us through to 29 March 2019. The debate now moves on to the inter-regnum, from then until 1 January 2021, when a free trade agreement is supposed to take effect.

It is only then that the wreckage of Mrs May's endeavours will become so obvious that even our venal legacy media will be forced to notice it. There will be no hiding the fact that a free trade agreement is very little different from a "no deal" scenario. Industry will still be crucified, even if it takes a little longer, causing economic damage that simply cannot be concealed.

With that, the Tories seem to have a problem. They can either depose Mrs May soon after Brexit day – disguised as an honourable retirement after "successfully" piloting us through Brexit – or they can suffer the consequences of her mistakes, and lose the 2022 general election.

People then won't be thinking rationally (any more than they are now). They will be in a mood to punish the Tories, not only for botching Brexit, but for attempting to conceal what they have done. In that case, Corbyn's unsuitability for office could be his greatest asset. Voters will be sending a message, the effect of which is to say that, however bad Corbyn might be, "you're worse".

The only hope the Tories have is that, after deposing Mrs May in 2019, the new leader changes tack and goes for the Efta/EEA option – and has the sense to get advice on how best to approach Efta and then to manage the EEA negotiations. From this side of Brexit, though, that looks extremely improbable. We seem locked into the antithesis of the Blair slogan, where things can only get worse.