This morning I took it upon myself to read the parts of the Conservative Party Manifesto for the 2017 election that deal with Brexit. My interest in this issue was piqued yesterday when the Tory Party lines for the Paxman interviews were leaked. “…only Theresa May has a plan [my emphasis] for Brexit and the ability to deliver” the first line says.
I genuinely wanted to find out if the Tory Party actually had anything resembling a plan for Brexit, and whether there was any flesh on the bones of its soundbites about the issue. You can download the PDF of the manifesto here.
The manifesto mentions Tory plans in more than 20 places in its 84 pages, but the word ‘plan’ is conspicuously absent from the part about Brexit on pages 35 and 36. Fewer than 1000 words are actually dedicated to Brexit and how it will work.
We are of course told that “Only the Conservative Party, under Theresa May’s strong and stable leadership, can negotiate the best possible deal for our country” (p. 35), “we continue to believe that no deal is better than a bad deal for the UK” (p. 36), “Britain needs strong and stable leadership to make the most of the opportunities Brexit brings for hardworking families” (pre-foreword) and “Britain needs strong and stable leadership to make the most of the opportunities Brexit brings” (foreword).
The manifesto also refers back to May’s Lancaster House speech (17 Jan), the Brexit White Paper (PDF) (2 Feb), the Article 50 letter to Donald Tusk (29 Mar) and the Great Repeal Bill White Paper (PDF) (30 Mar). However those documents state May’s aims and principles, but do not amount to a plan either.
But that’s about it.
The brutal assessment is this: there is no plan for Brexit in the Tory Manifesto, and the manifesto does not tell us anything we did not already know.
We are no closer to knowing how customs checks would work (and who would pay for them), how airlines will be able to operate in or out of the UK, whether the European Health Insurance card will still work, or whether the City of London will somehow be protected. There is a vague statement that the Irish border should be “as frictionless as possible” but no detail on that either. There will be winners and losers from Brexit, but we are none the wiser as to who those will be. There are no economic costs or benefits quantified.
Having said all of that, if I were writing the Conservative Manifesto I would have ended up penning something similar. There is actually no way they could have produced anything more concrete, for there is no such thing as a successful Brexit – there are only painful or catastrophic Brexits on offer, and the Tory Party of course dare not acknowledge that.
When you start to look into the detail of any aspect of Brexit – be it aeroplane landing rights or customs checks – the whole thing becomes a minefield of complexity, and you wonder how the hell the multitude of headaches can be solved. David Davis today lauded the “over 100 pages” of detail about Brexit the government already has, but that is ridiculous – 100 pages of research would not even begin to scratch the surface of a single Brexit issue like the finances of the European Health Insurance Card.
Davis, and May herself as well it seems, are at something akin to the early stage of an essay crisis – where you know so little you do not know how much you still have to find, but your confidence keeps your mood up-beat. You keep telling yourself it will all be alright in the end, because to admit to yourself anything else would take you to a place altogether too scary. That vague but confident reassurance is what has gone into the manifesto, because that is all the government has got. The oft repeated line that no deal is better than a bad deal should be seen in this light – if you know so little of the detail that sounds like a solid argument. When the UK comes up against the wall of reality in the actual negotiations crashing out may then actually become the plan.
Now, just as before the EU referendum, not having a plan is dangerous. It means the Tories are inflating the expectations of what will happen after the election, and not preparing the country for the painful compromises that will come. Just as there were no proper warnings of what Brexit would mean before the referendum last year, so the problem is repeating itself now. May and Davis need to be relentlessly pushed on this – they do not know what they are doing and they have no plan, whatever the Tory spinners might say.
Sometime in the Brexit process the UK will be confronted with having to compromise on the many complex practicalities, or to let the negotiations collapse in acrimony. At the moment it looks like the Tory Party has still not admitted to itself that is the choice ahead.
Image in the text: from the Conservative Party Manifesto website