Oh Theresa, where did it all go wrong ?
No one expected Britain to wake up to a Brexit victory on June 24th 2016. The pound fell to its lowest level since 1985 and the FTSE 100 fell by eight per cent. The then prime minister, David Cameron, resigned. It was a chaotic day for many, and a victorious one for others. But those who celebrated in the glory of reversing the UK’s decision to remain in the European Economic Community in 1975 will have felt bitterly disappointed since.
This week’s events have been tumultuous for Brexit – 432 MPs voted against Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement, whilst Jeremy Corbyn placed a vote of no confidence in the Prime Minister’s government. With Parliament now scheduled to debate the Prime Minister’s ‘Plan B’ on January 29th, it remains unclear how we will leave the EU (or even if we ever will).
Opinion polls since June 24th 2016 have shown a majority now in favour of remaining in the EU. In November last year, The Independent reported on a YouGov poll in response to Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement that showed 54 per cent of respondents would vote to retain the UK’s EU membership. 59 per cent supported a second referendum. Only yesterday, Politico reported on a YouGov poll that showed 56 per cent of people would now prefer to remain in the EU, as opposed to 44 per cent who would opt to leave. These polls represent an embarrassing loss of confidence in the Government’s ability to negotiate Brexit. But could the Prime Minister have handled leaving the EU in a less stressful manner?
During July 2016, The Guardian reported that the Foreign Affairs Select Committee accused then Prime Minister David Cameron of ‘gross negligence’ by failing to instruct Whitehall to make any contingency plans in the event of a Leave vote. The Committee concluded that Cameron deepened the uncertainty surrounding leaving the EU by refusing to make these plans. This meant that, by the time May succeeded Cameron, Whitehall departments had no clear exit strategy.
But although arriving on the scene on the back foot, Theresa May was able to set out her vision for Brexit. Her Lancaster House speech made clear that she wanted to end the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, an end to the free movement of people, and enjoy free trade with European and global markets. She also claimed no deal is better than a bad deal. If May had won a majority in the badly managed 2017 General Election, she would have had a clear mandate to deliver on these objectives. Instead, she has been hamstrung by Remain rebels, who are doing the best that can to row back the vote.
Forced to compromise as the parliamentary arithmetic no longer added up, May’s Withdrawal Agreement contradicted her Lancaster House speech. It would have forced the Government to pay £39 billion in return for no trade agreement, whilst allowing the EU to have the final say over when the UK leaves. The European Court of Justice would retain de facto authority over Britain, and leave Northern Ireland trapped in the Single Market. The Government’s vision became muddled and it was clear to many we were ‘leaving in name only’, with billionaire donors like Peter Hargreaves saying the Withdrawal Agreement is worse than staying in the EU. Remainers hated the deal, too, with Labour Remainer Chuka Umunna saying the Withdrawal Agreement was against the national interest. It is no wonder the deal was so easily defeated.
The Institute for Government slammed the Government’s preparations for no deal. Their paper, ‘Brexit: six months to go’, found that IT systems are inadequately prepared for Britain crashing out the EU with no deal, and that new customs systems are unlikely to be ready by December 2020. It also found the UK’s position in the EU’s Global Satellite Navigation System remains unclear, and that the Department of Transport has failed to announce plans to ensure international drivers’ licenses are available by February 2019. This demonstrates a sheer lack of competence on the Government’s part not seen since, ironically, David Cameron failed to prepare Britain for Brexit in the first place.
It’s true, Theresa May’s handling of Brexit has been shambolic. But she faced an almost impossible task – uniting a country and an entrenched political system that is split down the middle. Her attempts to please everyone have predictably pleased no-one. So, two-and-a-half year after the public voted for Brexit, and just over 2 months before we are set to leave, we are still left will no clear way forward. Plan B will be taken back to the Commons on the 29th January. Mrs May will then be hoping to hear the sounds of victory. Unfortunately more ‘Mayday’ distress signals are likely.