It is now more than a year since the EU referendum. It is more than three months since Theresa May triggered the UK’s withdrawal negotiations, which in principle should be completed next year and signed off by March 2019. From the start, the EU side has been extremely clear about its approach to the Brexit process and its goals. The British government, by contrast, has been vague about both. This reflects uncertainties and disagreements among ministers as well as perhaps a belief that it will somehow all come right on the night. But the vagueness – others would put it more rudely – has continued too long. The insouciance, which is partly what got us into this mess in the first place, is simply irresponsible. Britain needs to show it understands the seriousness of the situation we now face. Parliament and the government need to start making real choices.
No one should deny that some of these choices are very difficult. No one should fail to recognise the dilemmas that they present for the weakened Theresa May government, as well as for Labour. But as the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier said in a speech this week: “Time flies.” March 2019 is only 20 months away. Tough though the policy choices are, and bruised though Mrs May may be, it is time that the government got real. In many respects, the real Brexit debate has barely started. Mrs May needs to listen more carefully, think more imaginatively and conduct the argument about Brexit more truthfully. So do we all.
That debate should start from a national recognition that the priority in the talks is to safeguard the UK economy and the jobs and standard of living of the public. Brexit is about more than the economy, but the economy is at the heart of Brexit. A month on from the general election, ministers need to show more decisively than they have yet done in public that they fully understand how much is at stake if the national economic interest is jeopardised. All of this may involve compromises on other goals. It will therefore need political guts. But the alternative is more of the current drift and uncertainty.
A decision on the length and nature of the transitional arrangements that cover the future EU-UK relationship is not the first thing on the EU’s agenda; that place goes, jointly, to citizens’ rights, money and Ireland. But transitional arrangements ought to be the top priority for the cabinet right now. A deal is better than no deal. No deal would mean a reversion to WTO rules on trade between the EU and the UK. Among other things, it would mean, as Mr Barnier points out, that there would be customs duties of almost 10% on vehicle imports, of 19% on drinks, and an average of 12% on meat and fish. These would be hugely disruptive shocks with major economic and social repercussions. Those repercussions would likely be worse for Britain than the EU. Mrs May would be crazy to take the economic and political risks. But that is where she is still heading.
That is why Friday’s meeting between UK business leaders and the Brexit secretary David Davis may – and should – mark the start of a watershed in the way this country deals with Brexit. The business leaders are worried that Britain is shambling towards the cliff-edge of March 2019. They want ministers to be realistic and accept that there must be a comprehensive transition phase during which current EU rules will apply and Britain remains within the single market and the customs union. Understandably, the chancellor Philip Hammond agrees. This approach points the way towards solutions on issues like citizens, money and Ireland too. But this argument now needs to be aired and debated much more widely too. Both government and business – along with the trade unions – should spell out their reasoning and their practical concerns, without the Brexit campaign hyperbole, about the impact of any other course on jobs, exports and inward investment.
It has to be recognised that this will not be easy. Public opinion is inherently sceptical of elites. Parts of the media are fanatical in their hatred of Europe. There will be claims – false – that this approach disrespects the June 2016 vote. The main political parties are divided about many of the issues. But if Brexit is not to hurt the people least able to defend thmselves against the economic consequences, and if Mrs May’s “deep and special” relationship with the EU after Brexit is to mean anything, as it should, these realities must be articulated and faced. Hard? Yes. But as Mr Hammond said on Friday, it would be “madness” to do otherwise when every alternative course of action is worse.