Forget the spin, the Government’s Brexit quagmire persists

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Forget the spin, the Government’s Brexit quagmire persists

Beneath the thin veneer of victory, and despite its claims, the Government remains rudderless and disunited on Brexit, says Bruce Newsome.

Theresa May went on a tour of Britain this week to sell her latest agreement with the EU, spinning the ridiculous lie that Brexit will be fulfilled on 29 March 2019. As she put it in her pre-tour statement, in March 2019 “we will reach the end of a process that began in the summer of 2016”. No, we won’t: she has always committed to a transition period, during which all Britain’s responsibilities remain the same, until 2021; some responsibilities (such as privileged immigration of EU citizens) will continue thereafter.  In the same statement, she blithely ignores the term “transition” but refers to an “implementation period” without admitting the contradiction with her claim that Britain would have left already. Instead, she describes the latest agreement with the EU as “an arrangement that delivers for the UK” – an “enormous effort [that] is already paying off.” Delivers what? Paying what? As ever, she spins platitudes and ignores specifics.

May is championing as a victory yet another deal that defers more than it clarifies. Most issues are not specified in the deal at all. Some are mentioned, only to be deferred: the final trade relationship between Britain and the EU; the amount to be paid by Britain for the privilege of leaving (the “divorce bill”); the border between Britain and Ireland; fisheries; the list would be tedious to go on.

It’s the same list of uncertainties as it’s always been, except Britain will have the right at the end of March 2019 to sign trade deals with other countries – a right it should never have given up and is already effectively exercising in the form of negotiation: that’s why May had appointed a Secretary of State for International Trade (Liam Fox) back in July 2016. The only thing that Britain will gain from March 2019 is the right to conclude trade deals – but the government has given no evidence that it will be ready: no countries or schedules have been specified. Instead, we get warnings that the implementation period may need to be extended because Britain may still be working out its trade relationships.

These are not merely uncertainties for us ordinary members of the public, perhaps unaware of the government’s secretly agreed direction. In reality, the uncertainties within May’s own Cabinet are indicated by her Trade Secretary’s (Liam Fox’s) warning that he would quit if the transition period continues beyond 2020. The Foreign Secretary (Boris Johnson) followed with a statement nominally in support of May’s victory lap, but adding: “Like an unstoppable express, we are heading for Brexit and frankly my friends, we can’t arrive soon enough…[T]here will be a short and strictly time-limited ‘implementation period’ lasting until December 2020.”

The Brexit Secretary (David Davis) told an interviewer that “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed” – a deliberate reminder of the language May herself used in selling to Parliamentarians the “deal” signed with the EU in December 2017. This language means the deals that May keeps trumpeting as victories are not deals at all.

On specifics, Davis is as fishy as May. At the same time as May nominally launched her tour, he promised that Britain would regain control of its fisheries in 2021, but also said that “We will negotiate with our neighbouring states so we have access to their waters and they to ours.” Later in the week, he suggested that EU citizens should have visa-free travel, having previously promised an end to free movement.

The only thing that all these people agree on is that we all should “put aside our differences and all pull in the same direction,” as May put it, or “all come together in support of our departure from the EU” as Johnson put it. May repeats her self-characterization as the deliverer of this unified direction: “The people of this country voted to leave the EU and, as prime minister, it’s my job to make that happen.”

However, we can’t pull together without an unambiguous plan to pull. Under ambiguity, the barmy Brexit bashers get to use uncertainty as an excuse to take Brexit in all sorts of direction, even to reverse Brexit.

Tony Blair came out of the woodwork – jumped out with alacrity, in fact, came to speak at Speaker’s House in Parliament, no less – to urge Parliamentarians to vote down a Brexit deal in order to give the people a second referendum to reverse the first. Blair doesn’t speak often, but he always manages to prove himself the barmiest Brexit basher of the week – nobody has won that title more often, with a talent for illogical and evidence-free spin that puts May to shame (in so many ways – he’s better at it; and it reminds us why we wanted his successors to give it up). Yet he ends up sounding like the voice of clarity next to May.

Blair says that “The negotiation is complex. The future relationship around trade is technically fraught. There are many different versions of what Brexit will mean in practice, ranging from staying in the Single Market and Customs Union to going out without an agreement and trading on WTO terms. One other thing has emerged: there are different views about what is an acceptable Brexit outcome in parliament, in the opposition party and not only in the governing party but in government itself and even the cabinet.”

Everything he says in that quote is true. That’s how bad the situation is when Blair sounds truthful. Then he sounds like a guru of clarity when he criticizes the government for a “fudge” on the “dilemma” between staying in or out of EU rules, and for spinning this “fudge” as a “victory.” That’s how bad the situation is, when the master for spin criticizes the government for spin.

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    Bruce Newsome
    Bruce Newsome, Ph.D. is a lecturer in International Relations at the University of California Berkeley
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