Britain’s Incompetent Conservatives Can’t Handle Brexit

The world recently commemorated the centennial of the Russian Revolution, which resulted from the flagrant incompetence of that country’s ruling class in confronting a moment of overwhelming national crisis. The barricades are not yet out in the streets of modern-day London, but a certain sense of déjà vu is appropriate. At the least, we are likely witnessing the slow-motion suicide of the Conservative Party, and, conceivably, of British conservatism more broadly defined.

In the British case, the crisis involves the nation’s referendum vote in June 2016 to withdraw from the European Union. Opinions may differ about the virtues of Brexit as an idea—I opposed it—but once it was decided, most everyone agreed that the process of extraction had to be implemented with great care and single-minded dedication. The actual response of the Conservative government has been deplorable to the point of unforgivable—inept, slipshod, insouciant, and ignorant of even the basic realities of law and process.

Admittedly, the process of withdrawal would be extraordinarily difficult even for a generation of godlike political sages. Withdrawal proceeds under the so-called Article 50, which provides a strict two-year timetable for negotiation and ratification. The British government implemented the article in March 2017. By March 29, 2019, then, Britain will no longer be a member of the EU. Before that point, the two sides must reach agreement on a series of thorny primary issues, including the so-called divorce bill, the sum that Britain must pay to settle outstanding liabilities. Estimates for this bill range from $60 billion to $100 billion. Scarcely less sensitive is the question of Ireland and the virtually inevitable border that must be created between the EU Republic of Ireland and the British province of Northern Ireland.

Only after those preliminaries have been agreed to can negotiation can then move to determining the future trade relationship between Britain and the EU, an extremely complex and time-consuming dance of interests. When the EU and Canada recently discussed a similar deal, negotiations took seven years, and almost collapsed due to last-minute politicking. The Canadian agreement, incidentally, did not include financial services, which are a fundamental part of the British economy. So all that has to be accomplished before March 2019, but actually, the timetable is even tighter than that. As any deal must be ratified by the legislatures of all EU member states, a solid draft must realistically be presented by around October 2018.

If a deal of some kind is not reached, Britain would theoretically crash out of the EU in a way that would devastate its trading links and networks. The elaborate cross-border supply chains on which British manufacturing depends would collapse overnight. According to many observers, the resulting abandonment of existing treaties and agreements might leave British airlines unable to fly beyond UK borders, and the lack of nuclear fuels would cripple the nation’s power industry.

So how has the Conservative leadership responded to these grave challenges? After the referendum, Theresa May emerged as prime minister with a firm commitment to the principle “Brexit means Brexit.” Accordingly, she chose leading Brexit campaigners for key positions, including Boris Johnson as foreign secretary and David Davis as head of the new department in charge of exiting the European Union (DExEU) and chief negotiator of withdrawal. Liam Fox carries responsibility for international trade, which includes negotiating new agreements outside the old EU framework.

Painfully early, it became apparent that none of this Gang of Four had a clue of what they talking about in relation to Europe, nor did they understand the basic principles by which the EU worked. It is not so much that they approached the key issues wrongly—they did not even perceive them as issues. Throughout the referendum campaign, Brexiteers had trivialized the question of future relationships with the EU, suggesting that these would easily be decided in high-level summits within weeks rather than years. There was therefore not the slightest need to prepare detailed negotiating principles. As Johnson explicitly stated, the new British relationship with Europe would be exactly what it was at present, although omitting some of the features he found unpalatable, such as unrestricted EU immigration.

When Britain invoked Article 50, no government figure grasped the implications. Until quite recently, Johnson and Davis mocked the notion that Britain might have to pay a penny for the divorce bill. (The British government is now admitting a liability of some tens of billions, a sum that will definitely increase.) When the reborn Irish Question finally surfaced in their minds, Davis presented a vision of an invisible border made possible by as-yet undeveloped high technology, a prospect that has been commonly derided as magical thinking. Oh, and remember those vast new trading empires outside Europe, with all those lucrative deals being signed almost immediately? There’s no sign of any movement in that direction.

Originally, EU negotiators hoped that the preliminary questions (such as the divorce bill) would be largely settled by October 2017, permitting the start of trade negotiations. So utterly unprepared were the British even to formulate positions on key questions, never mind to discuss them seriously, that the trade stage will likely be put off until March 2018. It is inconceivable that the two sides will complete a comprehensive trade treaty by the following October.

So what happens then? A no-deal scenario—crashing out of the EU—is a strong and growing likelihood, but the government has made no effort to prepare for such an eventuality, for instance by hiring thousands of new customs officers or rebuilding port facilities.

One obvious temporary solution to the emerging crisis is to extend negotiations with the EU, with a transitional phase that would de facto prolong British EU membership by some years. That would inevitably mean continued British compliance with three essential requirements demanded by the Europeans: continued multi-billion-dollar annual payments, accepting the free movement of migrants, and observing the decisions of the European Court of Justice. The May government has expressed an openness to some kind of transitional arrangement—but has explicitly rejected the possibility of any of those three conditions extending beyond March 2019. If there is a single criticism of British actions that is most damning, it is the total failure to appreciate the fundamental significance of those EU prerequisites for any continued British involvement in the Union, even on a temporary basis.

The reality gap is yawning, and is apparently growing: Britain’s Conservative leaders honestly don’t know what they are doing. By 2019, Britain either faces economic cataclysm or else a series of humiliating climb-downs that will leave it in virtual dependency on the EU, bearing all the burdens of that association but lacking any say in decision-making. And yes, that does mean continued mass immigration. One way or another, there will be a political reckoning.

Until recently, Conservatives took comfort in the lack of any effective alternative to their rule, as the Labour Party headed since 2015 by Jeremy Corbyn had devolved into a radical sect. Its leaders form a gallery of unreconstructed far-left militants, Trotskyists, and overt IRA sympathizers, whose global ideal seemed to be revolutionary Venezuela. Corbyn’s Labour favors massive nationalization of industries and utilities, and a vast expansion of labor union power and influence. Anti-Semitic rhetoric has a widespread appeal among party activists. So flagrantly unelectable did the Labour Party appear that Conservatives largely treated their adversaries as a source of hilarity.

Last June, accordingly, Theresa May called a (wholly unnecessary) general election in the hope of securing Conservative power for decades to come. Not for the first time, her decision proved catastrophic. Labour votes surged, boosting the party’s parliamentary seats from 232 to 262. Despite all his poisonous past associations, Jeremy Corbyn emerged as the undisputed political hero of most under-35s, who loved his rhetoric of fighting inequality and assailing malefactors of great wealth. Currently, Conservatives run a nose ahead of Labour in the polls, but the prospect of a Corbyn government is all too real. If divisions over the EU force a schism in the Conservative Party, an election could come far sooner than anyone presently expects.

The vision of a Corbyn government would be alarming at the best of times, but would also combine the likelihood of a post-Brexit economic crisis with the withdrawal of foreign capital and investment. Imagine such a Labour government being elected in 2019. Its first decisions would unquestionably be to raise taxes and penalize corporations, further accelerating decline and isolation, while a run on the pound would be a certainty. At that point, Britain would be facing Disaster Socialism, with all the emergency measures that the regime deemed necessary to salvage the economy: rigid economic planning, further nationalizations, and ending the convertibility of sterling. The 2020s would find a new Venezuela off the coast of Western Europe, but without the warm weather.

And the blame for such an outcome would be laid wholly at the feet of a failed Conservative Party.

Philip Jenkins teaches at Baylor University. He is the author of Crucible of Faith: The Ancient Revolution That Made Our Modern Religious World.

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