It is common parlance these days to describe the UK Government’s Brexit negotiations as chaotic. And that is certainly how they appear. But how would they look if they were going swimmingly?
In Tom Stoppard’s play, Jumpers, one of the characters recalls the philosopher, Wittgenstein, asking: “Why do people always say it was natural for men to assume that the sun went round the earth rather than that the earth was rotating?” On hearing the reply, “Well, obviously because it just looks as though the Sun is going round the Earth,” Wittgenstein retorted: “Well, what would it have looked like if it had looked as though the Earth was rotating?”
Last year, when the Brexit negotiations were still at a very early stage, I attended a meeting at the House of Lords at which the panel of speakers was unanimously of the view that the UK’s position was chaotic. So I asked what we should expect to see if, behind the closed doors of the negotiating room, the government were moving inexorably towards a successful outcome.
One of the speakers replied that the Government would have published its impact assessments of the effect of Brexit. That, of course, was the answer to an entirely different question (“What would it look like if the Government had evidence that Brexit was a good idea?”). I inferred from the evasive answer that the panel took my point that what we were seeing was no different from the sights and sounds that would be emerging from Brussels if the negotiations were going well.
And, sure enough, Phase 1 of the negotiations (the “withdrawal arrangements”) were successfully navigated by the Government. Soon after, there were more reports of “chaos”, followed by the completion of Phase 2 (the “transitional arrangements”).
At the time of writing this piece, the outcome of Phase 3 (“trade relations after Brexit”) is keenly awaited. This is the most crucial phase, not only because of the topic under discussion, but also because nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. Without a result in Phase 3, the outcome of the two earlier phases is null and void.
And, just as before, we are constantly being told that the government’s position – and the Prime Minister’s – is one of chaos. But what do commentators expect of a PM in the current position? Theresa May leads a minority government in Parliament. More than half of her own MPs voted for Brexit only out of political necessity, not through a belief in the policy. Those who do support the policy don’t all favour the same form of Brexit. Quite simply, there is no approach to Brexit which will attract the willing support of a majority in Parliament. The vote can only be won if sufficient MPs are persuaded that the alternative options are worse.
If all that wasn’t tough enough, the EU doesn’t want an agreement with the UK to set a precedent which other countries might find attractive to pursue. The EU has every incentive to make the negotiations extremely difficult for the UK. But there is also reason to believe that the EU doesn’t want the UK to leave without any agreement at all.
If the EU could be sure that our parliament would not, under any circumstances, vote to leave without a deal, they could push the UK government to accept an outcome that would deter any more national exits. But, without that reassurance, the EU risks the UK leaving without any deal unless it offers something that Theresa May can get through Parliament.
It can’t be much fun being Prime Minister surrounded by so much disagreement and disarray. But wouldn’t the alternative be so much worse? Wouldn’t the alternative lead to certain defeat?