Another defining week for our Brexit self-harm strategy

Published by The i paper (9th December, 2018)

As I walked beside Gilets Jaunes protesters in Marseille on Saturday, I asked two simple questions: why were they here and what did they want? The first led to an outpouring of grievances that boiled down to a daily struggle to survive with low pay and high taxes, fostering their fury against a ruling elite and the rich. The second led to waffle about people power, a new political system, perhaps a Sixth Republic – but not one respondent had any real idea what they wanted. Later I watched gangs loot shops, rip up streets, fight police and burn Christmas trees.

Now I am back in Britain observing similar events. An insurgency fuelled by genuine grievances twisted up in falsehoods, led by people with no idea what they really want, is sparking incendiary events – although in Westminster rather than on the streets of a divided country. France was the third European neighbour I visited over the past week and the sense of sad pity for our plight is palpable. As one analyst lamented, when will the Britain so admired for its common sense return? Instead we have a former cabinet minister urging threats to starve Ireland into submission while her former colleagues plan for stockpiling food and drugs.

Now comes the week that will shape our national destiny. We have seen that it is impossible to quit the European Union while keeping all benefits of membership – and that fraudulent ‘have your cake and eat it’ stance remains the key cause of current parliamentary contortions. There is cruel irony that misjudged British exceptionalism has led to this shambolic point. But forget self-serving talk of betrayal from the charlatans and careerists behind this mess. I do not recall seeing ‘Brexit means running out of life-saving medicines while losing billions’ paraded on side of their campaign bus.

Theresa May is offering an awful deal that deserves to be rejected, a half-in, half-out solution that fails to resolve stumbling blocks while leaving Britain bound by rules over which it has no sway. If it is defeated then a dismal but dignified Prime Minister may be forced from office. Already potential successors are swirling like sharks scenting blood in water. There are claims Boris Johnson and Amber Rudd could form a dream unification team, which only highlights the dystopian nightmare engulfing our nation. But who really thinks we should focus on a Tory leadership contest rather than resolving the chaos this party inflicted on the country?

If we ignore Labour demands for an election, designed to mask shameful failure of opposition on Brexit, there are three ways forward: no deal; a second referendum; or ‘Norway Plus’. We can, hopefully, discount leaping over a cliff edge without a parachute. This lemming option of leaving without a deal would be catastrophic for both Britain and Europe, a proposal May is rightly determined to thwart and surely even our inadequate current crop of politicians would reject. As a result there is growing support – voiced publicly by Rudd – for backing the Norwegian-style option.

Joining the European Economic Area is seen as the softest Brexit – although as the Norwegian prime minister pointed out to May, other members might balk at the idea of a major economy dropping in for just a few years. But if permitted this plan is preferable to rival departure strategies – not least since it sanctions continued free movement, which has been such a boon despite sneers from some ministers such as that bloke who became the latest Brexit secretary. Like all others – especially the looser Canadian-style deal demanded by the ultras – it would likely require backing of the contentious Irish backstop in May’s withdrawal agreement.

But even this mild Brexit – once called ‘the only realistic option’ by hardliner Owen Paterson – leaves Britain severely weakened. Norway Plus means signing up to the customs union, which would be good for businesses being buffeted by confusion. But yet again it shows the shallowness of talk of taking back control since Britain – the world’s fifth biggest economy – would have to accept rules made by others in industrial and services sectors while barred from doing its own trade deals. This is a strange definition of reclaimed sovereignty.

When I visited Norway two years ago the head of the employers’ group told me: ‘I don’t think the British realise how bound we are by Brussels.’ The country’s net contribution to the European Union is only slightly less than our own per capita, while it complies with five fresh regulations passed for every day its parliament sits. One MP said it was ‘a stupid arrangement’ while a former minister for Europe told me he flew to UN meetings in New York ‘purely so I could speak to my colleagues from Europe.’ Norway also lost many jobs in sectors excluded from EU arrangements.

The more the arguments shift, the crazier Brexit seems as Britain chucks away the best deal in Europe with its hefty rebate and euro exclusion. Clearly the least bad solution is a second ballot. David Gauke, the justice secretary, said this was ‘more likely to entrench division and lead to at least a further year of damaging uncertainty.’ He is right. Another referendum is a hideous thought. Yet any attempt to press on with Brexit, whether half-baked or overheated, will widen divisions by making the country poorer while discussions drag on for years, derailing politicians from more vital concerns.

It is tolerable to hear nihilism from angry marchers in yellow vests. But we deserve better from our leaders than empty soundbites and yellow bellies. The Brexit saga has been destructive and divisive from the start. Behind this week’s political frenzy lies one simple question: do we wish to carry on self-harming or start to struggle out of the swamp?

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