When Theresa May delivered her Florence Speech a fortnight ago, my first reaction was “Is that it?” The speech had to outline something on citizens rights, the financial settlement to leave the EU, and on the Northern Ireland border, yet – especially on the last of these – it offered very little. October’s European Council is to decide whether sufficient progress has been made on these three issues to then allow the Brexit negotiations to move on to the UK’s future trade relationship with the EU. With the European Parliament having already made the call that sufficient progress has not been made, I cannot see the summit in October deciding differently.

Speaking to people these past couple of days in Brussels, I sense the EU side is getting a bit edgy now – why can the UK side not see how little time is available, and get itself together? One quarter of the time allocated for the Article 50 process is behind us, and there is scant progress, they fret.

The answer, I think, is that the UK side is simply incapable of getting its act together.

Take what James Brokenshire, Northern Ireland Minister, said at Tory Conference (reported in The New Statesman):

Brokenshire made clear that there would be no special status for Northern Ireland: it would leave the European customs union with the rest of the UK in March 2019. He also insisted the common travel area between the UK and the Republic of Ireland would be maintained, that there would be no new barriers to crossing the Irish Sea, and no physical border in Ireland

These things, simultaneously, are impossible.

Or on industry sectors post-Brexit (reported in The Times):

Michael Gove, the environment secretary, is pushing to take control of some industries in 2019, regardless of the transition period, but Amber Rudd, the home secretary, believes that this can be done only if the EU consents.

Some ministers believe that different industries can take different approaches, with the financial services sector securing a bespoke deal that would mean it continuing to enforce EU rules and lobbying Brussels to ensure that they remained favourable to the UK.

Delusional is how John Springford describes this, and I concur.

The problem is that no-one within government actually wants to solve any of these issues, because to decide means someone is going to lose, some downside of Brexit has to be made clear. To take a decision as to what the UK wants, and to then seek to achieve it in the negotiations, is beyond this government. Even DExEU’s Brexit papers take this approach, talking of menus of options, without any clarity as to which is desired. This is also why the government is refusing to release its Brexit impact assessments – it cannot dare be honest or clear about what is happening.

So what happens instead?

We are treated to rounds of briefing and counter briefing, and rumours of coups and resignations. The rest of The Times piece looks at speculation that ministers such as Andrea Leadsom might resign from May’s government, and that a leadership election pitting Johnson against Davis might then happen.

Ultimately all of this is a waste of time, because there is no consensus position on Brexit that actually commands a majority on the Tory+DUP benches, and there is no way that Johnson or Davis or anyone else could conjure one up. Ascribing the current problems to May’s weak leadership misses the point: there is no-one who could actually do any better.

If May (or whoever might follow her) tacks to the eurosceptic right, the pragmatists like Hammond and Rudd scream (and they have some backing from business), and the EU looks on incredulously. Seek a position more towards soft Brexit, or a long transition period, and the hardliners in the European Research Group hold the government to ransom.

So instead everyone in the government tries to prevaricate, to buy time, to hope that eventually some solution emerges from somewhere, or to dream that some new leader might be a way out of the conundrum. Although if you actually look at the options available all of that is just wishful thinking. A no-deal, crash-out Brexit then looms simply because the government cannot decide in favour of anything else in the scant little time available.


  1. Agree with Mike. I’m old enough to remember pre-1975 when UK traded heavily with commonwealth countries. We abandoned that for Europe and they, quite rightly, developed other markets. Why would they rush to trade again with the UK? (Even if, as Mike says, UK had anything to export)

  2. The hope is that the UK sign lots of lovely trade deals with countries outside the EU once it is free of the shackles forged by Brussels. Well, just let’s go along with this and look forward to entering into negotiations with China, the US, Japan, the White Commonwealth – CANZUK” and all those other places desperate to enter into mercantile relations with the now gloriously free land that gave the world Adam Smith, Ricardo, Malthus and Keynes. They will be wanting to sell us their beef abd wine and pharmaceuticals and cars etc. What are we going to be selling? Manufacturing now amounts to some 20% of our exports now – Britain is not the workshop of the world and has precious few manufactures to sell other than cars and pharmaceuticals and IT. So shall we be selling cars – selling Nissan and Toyota vehicles made in Derby or Sunderland to Tokyo????? Pharmaceuticals – to the US? IT? Most of our foreign earnings are obtained from goods and services. So is this the plan – to see Marks and Spencers outlets in every Chinese city, and HSBC dominating the US banking sector, and Tesco selling sushi in Osaka? Somehow, it seems a tad improbable. Am I missing something?

  3. Cloudy Star

    I agree totally with your piece. If the Tories want to do Brexit, and drag the UK into self-imposed economic carnage, they need a bold, straight-talking, charismatic leader that speaks the truth loudly and clearly.
    But Brexit is such utter madness that to tell the truth would entail reeling off a long list of why it’s an absolutely terrible idea for the UK.

    So we’re stuck in this awful limbo while the tories walk around this issue, poking at it occasionally.

    The UK is just stuck in this awful paralysis.

    It sounds to me that the majority of leaver would be happy with standard EU immigration controls actually enacted, much as they are in the rest of Europe. That the UK hasn’t decided to enact these EU powers is a complete mystery. Did they not know they existed?

    The EU has helped prop up a very imbalanced UK economy, masking all its weaknesses.

    Leaving the EU will expose the UK economy’s structural faults (over-reliance on the City, no manufacturing to speak of, anything and everything already sold of to foreign owners). The scale of the unfolding disaster looms ever closer. The horizon darkens and winds are picking up…there’s stadium seating over in Europe as they watch in horror as an entire country allows it’s leaders to implode national economy. A quite extraordinary once-in-a- lifetime economic disaster.

  4. How could a country that walked away from its treaty obligations with the EU possibly be seen as a serious partner with whom to negotiate trade deals? Should the U.K. walk out it’s reputation will be tarnished for decades.

  5. Jon, this may be a naive question (or perhaps not?): many Brexiteers see a ‘No deal’ scenario as a real option, perhaps even their preferred one, but their talk then focuses entirely on trade – WTO rules short-term but then many (?) opportunities for new trade deals. But am I correct to assume that ‘No deal’ also means all other exit arrangements negotiated thus far (eg re: citizens rights) simply fall and that, using that example, UK/EU citizens revert to being 3rd country citizens? In other words, isn’t ‘No deal’ about far more than trade yet no one considers the impact on anything else?

  6. What’s becoming increasingly depressing, is reading articles like this one. I must be reading articles like this 3 or 4 times a week, and what’s depressing is that it’s always the same. We *still* don’t know what type of Brexit the government is looking for. All these months have gone by, and we’re still in the requirements gathering phase, with implementation probably a decade away.

    Just one or two weeks ago, May’s Florence speech outlined a transition, which has since been diluted with weasle words in a desperate attempt to keep everyone happy. We land back where we started every time, with still no clue on what’s wanted and how we’ll get there.

    I’m hoping they keep the CTA with the Republic of Ireland and I’m eyeing up an escape there in the event of a disasterous Brexit. It would be a huge upheaval to move family across to Ireland, but it’s something I’m seriously considering as we continue down this road of economic ruin.

  7. Wulfrunian

    Is the UK Government trying to ‘buy time’ or is it just stalling to force the EU to relax its stubborn stance on having the ‘divorce’ bill settled prior to any further negotiations taking place?
    My guess is the latter and if the UK decided that there is not going to be any relaxing of the EU’s position then a ‘no deal’ would appear to be the obvious outcome and would that be such a bad thing?
    I don’t think so!
    Being able to negotiate trade deals freely would surely see the UK produce results fairly quickly and to its advantage although there would of course be negatives but you can’t always have everything you want but what we could get may well be enough!

    • Let me entertain the idea that you are correct here, @Wulfrunian, that the stalling on the budget is tactical. There it might be, but that is not the only issue on the table here (and indeed, actually, not the most serious in my view – the NI border is).

      The problem is that a no-deal scenario comes with major downsides for everyone, and for the UK more than the EU, and someone has to cope with these downsides. Tell a Northern Ireland milk farmer who sends their milk to a dairy in the Republic that they can no longer do so as the border has become a hard border, and there is no dairy in the north with capacity. Telling them that a great trade deal with the USA or New Zealand can help them isn’t going to be much solace, is it? Yes, you might say, tough you NI farmer. But politicians are sure not saying that honestly now either.

      In short: whatever Brexit the UK ends up with there are some loosers and some winners. Who wins and who loses depends on the variant of Brexit. But at the moment the government refuses to acknowledge there even might be losers. That’s the problem.

      • Getting very tired of making these self-evident points to people who suggest the UK negotiators should “call the EU’s bluff” and leave the EU with no deal – it would likely take the UK an extended period to arrive at each of the many bilateral agreements needed. Britain, I’m afraid would not be coming to talks with the US, China, Australia, Japan and Canada, much less the EU with a strong hand to play. With blood in the water, these nations’ negotiating teams would be very exposed. Moreover, Britain has not itself been involved in such processes for a generation and lacks the skill sets it would once have had.
        Do not be mistaken, in these talks delaying is certainly not a winning strategy for Britain

    • “Is the UK Government trying to ‘buy time’ or is it just stalling to force the EU to relax its stubborn stance on having the ‘divorce’ bill settled prior to any further negotiations taking place?”

      The UK Government agreed that settling the divorce bill (and matters relating to Ireland and EU citizens) would come before any further negotiations (did it not?) Has the UK Government officially and openly asked the EU to go back and change the sequencing? I don’t see how “stalling” will get the EU to change something both sides agreed to, and get the EU to take the negotiations back to the situation in April 2017.

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