Regular readers of this blog know my own views about Brexit – seen from the UK side I have found the whole thing foolish from the start. But over the past few weeks I have been asking myself a different question: why is the Brexit process going quite so badly? And how can we trace the roots of the present dysfunction?

Many of the current problems stem from before the referendum itself on 23rd June 2016. In stark contrast to the 2014 referendum on an independent Scotland, there was no White Paper or other sort of government plan as to how to actually do Brexit were it to be voted for. That may have been handy to win the referendum for Leave, but it is not especially useful now. It also meant that the government did not know what sort of Brexit (hard or soft, or somewhere in between) to aim for, and nor did it have an agreed way to get there. The sort of Brexit to go for – even now – remains an open question. Philip Hammond’s comments about the UK needing to stay in the Customs Union are at odds with David Davis’s for example. Brexit means Brexit, a red, white and blue Brexit, or a successful Brexit are clearly inadequate as aims.

Two understandable things happened the day after the referendum – David Cameron resigned, and he opted to not trigger Article 50 to set the 2 year clock ticking on Britain’s exit process. Neither of these things was wrong in itself, but delaying Article 50 prompted a debate on when to trigger, rather than put the focus on what the consequences would be of doing so, or how the UK could best use the time it gained by not triggering to its advantage. Much of the autumn of 2016 was filled with legal wrangles thanks to the Gina Miller case about if a parliamentary vote was needed to trigger Article 50, a process that set the government against Parliament to some extent, rather than to bind Parliament into the process. May’s government also tried to keep as much of their approach secret as possible, likening it to not revealing their poker hand. This however increased suspicion and lessened the ability to scrutinise the government, and better scrutiny might have improved the later outcomes. The EU side by contrast used this early post-referendum period to its advantage – getting its principles clear, and its negotiation team prepared and resourced.

After May’s coronation as Conservative Party leader she set about reassuring the party’s MPs that she was now committed to Brexit, having herself backed Remain. In her speech at Conservative Party Conference on 2nd October 2016 she set a deadline for the Article 50 notification – that it would be sent by the end of March 2017. The timing of Brexit thus became the primary concern. This timetable was exactly what the EU side wanted, while it tied to the UK to a timetable that it will find hard (or even impossible) to respect. Labour’s Keir Starmer has more recently said the Brexit process ought to be postponed for 2 years, but trying to do this now Article 50 has been triggered could make things even worse – that would now prolong the UK’s economic uncertainty.

As a further effort to reassure her restless party about Brexit, May made Johnson the Foreign Secretary, gave Fox a new Trade portfolio and – most significant of all – made David Davis the Brexit Minister. His department has been beset with staffing issues from the start, and its top team has little experience of the EU. Meanwhile relations between Ministers and the Civil Service on Brexit matters are thought to be sour and problematic. Even the Auditor General has felt the need to speak out due to the problems. Faced with an issue as complex as Brexit, the UK government machine would need to be performing to the very best of its abilities – meanwhile it is actually precisely the opposite.

After finally realising that Parliament would indeed get to vote on the Article 50 notification, the government then set about ramming its view through as forcefully as possible – not a single amendment to the notification bill was passed. The Labour Party sought to avoid taking the UK out of Euratom – an issue that has come back to bite the government this week as MPs woke up to the consequences of abandoning European nuclear collaboration. We also now know that the government did no impact assessment on the consequences of leaving Euratom – actually using the months since the referendum to try to work out how to make Brexit work had not been considered a priority. How many other aspects of Brexit have likewise not been subjected to impact assessments?

The Euroatom fuss is a sign of what is to come – significant though nuclear safety and isotopes for cancer treatment are, they are nevertheless not central to the UK’s economy. The £700 billion a year of trade that crosses the UK’s borders is, and how that will even work if the UK leaves the Customs Union is likely a major headache (it may well block up Dover for example). How planes will fly to-from the UK post-Brexit is unknown. Britain is going to have to renegotiate 759 international treaties. No one knows what will happen to the European Health Insurance Card and the 27 million Brits that have one. I could go on. But the UK now has to face all of these issues with the Article 50 clock already ticking; the threat of a deadline does not help politicians keep a clear head.

It is impossible to know how Brexit would now be proceeding had Theresa May decided to not call an early election. Not only did this election lose her 2 months of the precious 24 months foreseen in Article 50, it also deprived her of a parliamentary majority, and left her so weakened she could not remove either Davis or Johnson as Ministers, and left her needing support from the DUP in Parliament (that makes solving the Northern Ireland border issue even harder than we thought it would be).

So those then are the roots of the present predicament as I see them: the lack of a plan before the referendum that still has not been rectified, an obsession with the timetable for Article 50 rather than the consequences of it, a poor ministerial team with bad relations with the civil service, and everything further complicated by May’s election debacle.

And of course – perhaps most alarming of all – the genie cannot be put back in the bottle, the whole Brexit process cannot be restarted. The government does not have the time, the ability, or the inclination to solve any of the many outstanding issues while the Article 50 clock is ticking. The question is not if this whole thing goes spectacularly wrong; the question is when.


  1. rapscallion

    I know your position Jon, and I cannot agree with it. Let me just post what Brendan O’Neill who writes for various magazines and newspapers, He wrote that “if you’re using your clout or influence or money to ensure that Brexit doesn’t happen, then you aren’t engaging in democratic debate — you’re seeking to overturn a free and fair democratic decision. You’re saying you know better than the masses. You are thwarting the democratic process.
    We have to get real. If Brexit doesn’t happen, democracy will be gravely wounded for a generation. The people will receive loud and clear the message that they don’t really matter. Sure, we’ll still have General Elections and pick our MPs. But the Brexit betrayal would rankle for decades, a sore on the body politic, a niggling reminder that when democracy returned a result that the political class didn’t like, Britain flinched, and turned its back on democracy. Brexit must happen. It simply must. Because 17.4 million people want it, and democracy needs it.

    I would say to Brendan Donnelly, that many of us knew exactly what we were voting for. I have studied the EU for nigh on 2 decades now, and the more I learnt, the less I liked it. All those who voted against Brexit MUST accept the result. If you don’t then you simply do not believe in democracy.

    • Judith Martin

      Is this the Brendan O’Neill whose opinions in The Big Issue were so repellent and illiberal I very nearly stopped buying this socially valuable paper?

      And can you please explain the difference, in this instance at least, between democracy and mob rule? The whole ghastly business was promoted by a party that couldn’t get its leader elected, or any other MPs. The only two MPs UKIP has had were defectors who rapidly either gave up or were defeated. Every time a UKIP councillor gets elected they end up dismissed for fiddling expenses or for thumping someone. Yet Cameron allowed them to call all the UKIP referendum shots, with the support of the most objectionable tabloid editors and owners.

      Rapscallion may have known what he was voting for but I don’t believe many people did, from hill farmers in Wales dependent on EU subsidy to workers in areas of old heavy industry callously discarded by rightwing politicians, where most of the regeneration funds have come from the EU. The referendum was flawed and inadequate. I doubt 1% of voters gave a thought to Euratom – I know I didn’t, and I thought I was pretty well informed. Now we discover it will be more complicated to get radioactive material for cancer treatment, to say nothing of the fact that it is the French who will be building our new nuclear power stations. The whole thing is a hideous cock-up, and the only reason for not calling for a second referendum is that I can’t imagine why the EU might ever want us back.

    • John Blackmore

      OK, so we go ahead. You really think that it can be achieved in the time available? I would have said that even with expert people on both sides and good will it could not be achieved in the time available.

    • It was not a democratic decision. It ignored three key demographic groups who will be directly affected. They are having their futures dictated to them. That is not democracy.

      And what about this paradox. Those abroad for more than 15 years were not allowed to vote because they’ve not been here enough recently, but those EU migrants who have lived in the U.K. for longer than 15 years have not been here long enough to be allowed a vote?! Er……. How can that be explained then?

  2. Brendan Donnelly

    I think the fundamental problem is that Brexit was flawed from the start, reflecting different and contradictory agendas, both personal and political. Brexit was sold to the British electorate as something that would improve the UK’s economic and political position in the world, not something that would diminish it. I can understand the psychological difficulty for someone like David Davis of choosing only among more or less disagreeable options for Brexit, when he had told others and himself that leaving the European Union would open brave new vistas for the country that the Union had closed down. There are no such new vistas and it must be disorientating for pro-Brexit ministers to be daily confronted with this reality.

  3. Duncan Richardson

    “Many of the current problems stem from before the referendum itself on 23rd June 2016” ?

    Our current problems date from this day in 1972 when the European Communities Bill received its 3rd reading. Michael Foot summed up the issue thus; “The Prime Minister (E Heath) once said that he would ask the people for their consent. 1973 He has never done that. It is that prolonged and calculated deceit which will lie for ever on his conscience. It is that deceit which will destroy him and any of those who attempt to sustain it.

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