I was talking to a friend of mine from Singapore this week and the subject of Brexit came up. His basic and simple question was this: how can the mother of all parliaments have got themselves into such a mess over the Brexit question? He told me that at 20.00 in Singapore, traffic comes to a screeching halt and, if possible, everyone gathers around a TV to watch the latest instalment of the comedy show from Westminster. Remember the Martian robots on the mashed potatoes advert in the UK in the seventies? Well, it’s a bit like that. OK, I exaggerate a tad, but it is no exaggeration to say that the rest of the world looks on in amazement as British democracy tears itself into little pieces.
And it got me thinking. How does a negotiator view the process from beginning to – well, I was going to say, “end”, but it strikes me that we are nowhere near the “end” yet.
The question that we were asked was binary – in or out? No nuance. No shades of grey (and there, my friends, writ large is why referenda are such difficult things to control). The result was close: 52% – 48%. This was never a ringing endorsement and should have pointed the negotiators to more of a “soft” than “hard” Brexit. The trouble was that the extremists on the winning side started talking in triumphalist terms – “the will of the people”, “Democracy has spoken”, etc., when, in fact, the will of the people, taken as a whole was less entrenched than they were claiming. Of course, the opposite was true; the “remainers” were given succour by the closeness of the result and immediately started a campaign along the lines of, “we were ill-informed,” “the leave side lied to the British people” and, “demographics have changed and we would win now”.
Then there was Mrs May. If there was ever a Prime Minister less able to take the negotiation forward, I would like you to point him/ her out to me. When there was a crying need for inclusiveness and flexibility, we were told, “there is only one way”. She put so many “red lines” down on her objective sheet, that – well, any negotiator will tell you that while “red lines” are empowering, the more you have, the less flexible you can be.
To summarise. She wandered into the negotiation with a wholly unrealistic set of objectives; she took no account of anyone else’s views, she tried to force her view on first, the European Union (aye – right); then her cabinet (aye, right!); then the House of Commons where she lost the vote first time around by the highest ever majority against a government, then the second time around by the fourth-highest ever.
When the referendum took place, both sides of the argument did an appalling job of telling the voters what the real issues were and how difficult the process was going to be. Brexiteers talked about “project fear” when the remain side raised these issues, but they still manifestly failed to get their case across. When you look now at tapes of Liam Fox telling us all it was going to be easy and Boris Johnson standing in front of a bus with a big sign saying that £350,000,000 per week would be saved to be spent on the NHS – well, it’s laughable (or it would be if it weren’t so serious), but so is it risible that “Remainers” failed to get their point across.
To an extent, I have already covered this, but essentially, the negotiators on the UK side went in without consultation and initially tried to bulldoze their way to a deal in the UK’s favour. Predictably, that didn’t work. So then, they tried to negotiate, but because there were so many “red lines” the negotiating process was difficult, to say the least. As to the quality of the negotiators themselves, well, who knows? Civil servants in the main and more used perhaps to the giving and receiving of orders than the cut and thrust of a negotiation. Oh, and politicians negotiating? Have you watched the recent exchanges in the House of Commons? Jeremy Corbyn; Teresa May; Jacob Rees-Mogg; Boris Johnson? Desert lighthouses. Very bright, but not much use – well, apart from Corbyn, who isn’t even very bright. And did I mention Diane Abbott, or Bill Cash? I could go on.
In short, the only thing to say is this. It was an ill-informed accident waiting to happen and we should not be surprised that it has. Where to next – who knows? But this much I can tell you. The fat lady hasn’t even begin warming up at this point. Her tonsils remain unused; she remains quiet and she certainly ain’t singing.