Brexit means Brexit. But what does that mean?

Published by the i paper (5th September, 2016)

Theresa May is a fortunate politician in so many ways. Her own party seems united behind her, the public has warmed to her slightly aloof style, and the opposition is in disarray under a bumbling hardliner. She is confident enough to rule out an early election, despite polls running strongly in favour and huge chunks of political capital in the bank. Even her near-pensionable age and enigmatic character count contribute to her popularity, contrasting with flashier and more youthful predecessors. S

he is potentially a fascinating prime minister, her genuine concern for social justice fused with survivalist instincts and a suburban conservatism that suits many voters. She is an impressive performer, as seen again on her BBC interview with Andrew Marr. So what a shame May’s time in Downing Street will be dominated by one issue: the need to match political dictates from a disgruntled electorate that has demanded withdrawal from the European Union to inflexible political and economic realities.

Already the honeymoon is fizzling out. A reluctant Remainer, May repeats a meaningless mantra that ‘Brexit means Brexit’ and insists she will deliver on the referendum result. Yet as she well knows, Brexit means very different things to different people, which became clear during the campaign when those pushing for it deceitfully dodged questions on what precisely they were campaigning for beyond glib talk of “taking back control”. It is too simple to talk even of hard Brexit and soft Brexit. The country is confronted by a complex smorgasbord of competing Brexits.

Little wonder, then, that major allies and trading partners are concerned, as May discovered at her first G20 summit. The United States’ president implied once again that Britain would go to the back of the queue for discussing trade deals with the world’s biggest economy, understandably saying we must first resolve our relationship with Europe. Such realism undermined the airy claims of all those Brexiteers who arrogantly argued our country was so important that other nations would rush to do deals on our terms.

Then Japan abandoned usual diplomatic caution to issue an unprecedented and detailed warning over the possibly harmful effects of Brexit. Ever since Margaret Thatcher backed the single market with such fervour, Britain has been an attractive place for Japanese firms, winning about half the country’s total EU investment from car, finance and technology companies creating thousands of jobs. Now Tokyo has spelled out clearly that if EU laws are no longer applicable in Britain, such firms will shift at least head office functions to continental Europe.

So much for the dawn of a new era of British exceptionalism. Such stark warnings echo those derided experts accused of promoting Project Fear. Just like renewed rumblings of Scottish independence, the reining in of business investment amid uncertainty and falling number of new jobs advertised. Since anger over foreigners allegedly driving down wages was one of the key motors of Brexit, there is cruel irony in seeing another impact of the misguided vote is a rise in uncertain and lower-paid temporary hirings by firms reluctant to commit to full-time posts.

May said she was going to the Chinese summit to ‘scope out’ the shape of trade deals, yet much depends on whether Brussels will bend on British demands to close EU borders for people while keeping them open for goods and services. Given the poor portents, no wonder May also said we must be prepared for ‘difficult times ahead’ as difficulties of withdrawal from such an all-encompassing alliance become ever more apparent. The word now is of securing some kind of ‘bespoke’ arrangement with Brussels. But with party conference season looming, ministers must soon start to spell out in far more detail their alarmingly-vague vision.

The only certainty so far is that Brexit is going to cost billions to implement and will, says Downing Street, lead to fresh curbs on incomers from the EU. Needless to say, it has not been clarified what this means for the millions of Britons who live and work abroad, since migration is only ever seen here as one-way traffic. The referendum has rapidly been rebranded as a vote against immigration. But even on this core issue there is no unity among those who pushed this cause, since some key advocates – optimists who shackled themselves to Little England misanthropes – saw no reason why it should prevent free movement or slash immigration.

David Davis will make a statement to parliament this week. Previously he promised that within two years Britain can sort bilateral trade deals with markets bigger than the European Union, which accounts for almost one in six global exports. He also insists Brussels will quickly fall in line with British demands. Yet it took Greenland – a nation of 56,000 people and one main industry – nearly three years to pull out from Brussels in far more harmonious circumstances. The fuss with France over Calais migrants shows the mood of some nations with whom we must negotiate.

Davis is one of three cabinet ministers tasked with a project that will shape British destiny for decades. Another is foreign secretary Boris Johnson, whose colossal vanity played the key role in leading us down this damaging path by manipulating the anger of voters against Westminster. He has been strangely silent since taking on his new job, although famously likes to say he is ‘pro having my cake and pro eating it’, Unfortunately, as the woman who thwarted his ambitions is discovering, in the real world you are more likely to be told to get stuffed.

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