june 12 2018, 12:01am, the times
All this Brexit farce lacks is a dodgy dossier
Ministers and MPs need to pull themselves together to avoid the kind of misjudgments that led to the invasion of Iraq
History will not look kindly on the way in which the current generation of political leaders has handled Brexit. Theresa May yesterday appealed for unity from Conservative MPs ahead of today’s crucial House of Commons votes but she cannot even hold her own cabinet together on the most important issue of the day. Jeremy Corbyn leads an equally divided party, with a fundamentally dishonest position on the single market that seeks to paper over the cracks between his own instinctive Euroscepticism and his supporters’ pro-European views. As parliament prepares for an almighty battle, chaos and confusion reign at the top.
There will no doubt one day be an independent inquiry into Brexit, similar to the Chilcot inquiry into the war in Iraq. It will be damning about the incompetence, self-indulgence and failure of political accountability during this process. A report by the Institute for Government yesterday criticised the “culture of extraordinary secrecy” in Whitehall and found that the combination of “no clear end-state, poor information flow and competing ministerial preferences” was making it “extremely difficult” for Brexit to be delivered effectively. Over £2 billion has been allocated for preparation and 10,000 extra civil service posts created, but “the greatest challenges faced by Whitehall now stem from splits within the cabinet on major policy decisions,” it concluded.
Even Dominic Cummings, the Vote Leave director, admitted recently that Brexit is destined to be a “train wreck” because the process has been “irretrievably botched” by the government. It is unbelievable that two years after the EU referendum there is still no agreed cabinet position on what its outcome should mean. None of the basic practical questions has been answered and there remain profound ideological divisions about Britain’s future place in the world. Ministers cannot even reach a consensus on customs arrangements, despite the implications for peace in Northern Ireland. To make matters worse, time is running out because of the prime minister’s foolish decision to set a deadline for departure by triggering Article 50, an unnecessary act of self-harm committed by a Tory leader trying to appease her party’s Eurosceptic right.
There are constitutional as well as political concerns. Tony Blair was criticised for operating a “sofa government” in the run-up to the war in Iraq, but Mrs May’s Brexit strategy could have been directed from an armchair. As Tim Shipman details in his book Fall Out, Britain’s red lines for the Europe talks — ruling out membership of the customs union and the single market as well as ending the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice — were drawn up virtually single-handedly by Nick Timothy, the prime minister’s unelected former chief of staff. “The cabinet certainly had no chance to debate them,” Shipman writes.
Philip Hammond only saw the Lancaster House speech setting out the government’s strategy the day before it was delivered. David Davis was shown the letter triggering Article 50 just 24 hours before it was sent to Brussels. No substantive cabinet discussion on our
post-Brexit relationship with the EU was held until 18 months after the referendum.
Experts have been sidelined. The government’s own economic impact assessments concluded that the country would be worse off under every scenario. “We can’t just dismiss this and move on,” said the minister Phillip Lee at the time, but that’s exactly what happened. Labour was criticised for “sexing up” the dossier about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction; the Conservatives have gone further and simply ignored the official advice.
Mrs May, unwilling or unable to say what she thinks, is too weak to assert herself over those around her. Having been manipulated into a hard Brexit position by Mr Timothy, she is now being massaged into a softer line by Olly Robbins, the civil servant in charge of negotiations. But she wavers with every huff and puff from the European Research Group. At a meeting in No 10 last week Ken Clarke told her, “Look, you need to see these people off”, but she lacks the conviction and the courage to do so.
In the absence of leadership, cabinet ministers are flaunting their ambition. Boris Johnson is openly contemptuous of the prime minister, David Davis repeatedly undermines his boss by threatening resignation; one ally of the Brexit secretary says he “just can’t bear the blancmange of leadership in No 10”. The opposition’s policy is equally incoherent. As Lord Macpherson, the former Treasury permanent secretary, tweeted last week: “Neither Labour nor the Tories have a credible plan for Brexit. Have the British people ever been so ill served by the two main parties?”
It’s partly that so many of those responsible for delivering Brexit, including the prime minister, the chancellor and the majority of senior civil servants, fear the revolution will make the country poorer and less safe. This is a policy for true believers being implemented by sceptics. The Brexiteers lash out at the “enemies of the people” and the “mutineers” but the truth is they have no idea how to get to the promised land. Their buccaneering bravado looks increasingly foolhardy in the light of Donald Trump’s trade war. Sir Ivan Rogers, Britain’s former ambassador to the EU, describes these free traders who have never negotiated a deal as “bluntly, delusional”.
There is an unpleasant air of intimidation both at Westminster and beyond. At least one Tory MP has told colleagues that he dare not rebel today because he fears for his safety and that of his family after death threats. A former minister describes the atmosphere in the country as a “reign of terror driven by ideology”. Meanwhile, the murky links between the Brexit donor Arron Banks and the Kremlin are becoming clearer by the day.
Power has shifted from the executive to parliament since the prime minister lost her majority last year, and with power comes responsibility. MPs can either give the government cover for its disastrous mishandling of Brexit or they can seek to temper the worst aspects of the fiasco. Most important this week is to ensure that the House of Commons has a genuinely “meaningful” vote on the final deal in the autumn, rather than allowing Mrs May to turn it back into a fatuous “my deal or no deal” choice. Brexit was, after all, supposed to be about parliamentary sovereignty and taking back control.
Then when it comes to that meaningful vote, MPs should follow their consciences and put the national interest before party loyalty. If it is already clear that future historians will condemn the present situation then it is time to change the trajectory of events.