George Osborne, the former chancellor, yesterday described the prime minister who had sacked him as a “dead woman walking”. It is hard to dissent. Theresa May called an election that she had determined was necessary to secure a mandate for her version of Brexit. She did not get it.
Yet on Friday the prime minister declared that her government would “guide the country through the crucial Brexit talks” that begin next week. The lack of humility and self-criticism evinced by Mrs May indicates how dramatically unready she is to embark on so momentous a change in Britain’s relations with Europe. The reality is that the outcome of the election requires her to rethink her Brexit strategy. A bloodied government lacking a parliamentary majority may have the constitutional right but does not have the moral and intellectual authority to conduct the negotiations on its own.
As senior Conservatives have urged, it needs to widen the pool of advice it receives. The notion of a “hard” (to be precise, a dogmatic and ideologically driven) Brexit should be promptly abandoned.
It is no defence of Mrs May’s position that she is conscientiously seeking to implement the result of the Brexit referendum a year ago. A small majority assented to the proposition that Britain should leave the European Union and that wish needs to be implemented. Yet Mrs
May’s interpretation of the will of the people was creative and to some extent arbitrary. The prime minister determined, on her own, that Britain would leave not only the political institutions of the EU but the European single market and customs union.
Such a maximalist position is consistent with Brexit but by no means the only conceivable form of it, and Mrs May had no grounds for assuming otherwise. Her approach sparked criticism and unease from business that was wholly justified. Her refrain that no deal with Britain’s EU partners would be better than a bad deal was no more meaningful than her simultaneously delphic insistence that “Brexit means Brexit”.
If Britain leaves the EU in 2019 without a deal, then it will revert to trading under World Trading Organisation rules. The WTO is a vital institution but its rounds of multilateral trade negotiations have been effectively stalled since the mid-1990s. And it has made scant progress in liberalising services, which dominate Britain’s economy.
In trade, size and distance matter. The EU27 will always be Britain’s principal trading partners because they are collectively large and are close by. As an open economy, Britain should be seeking as deep and comprehensive a free-trade agreement as possible with the EU. Insinuating that it doesn’t much matter is culpably insouciant. It becomes more important, not less, if Britain chooses to exit the single market, as British businesses thereby risk competing while under the handicap of substantial non-tariff barriers to trade.
Mrs May and her principal Brexit ministers have failed to address any of these issues. It is understandable that the government wishes to keep under wraps the details of its negotiating strategy but it should by now have declared its broad ends. The task needs to be reassessed and the strident tone ratcheted down.
Mrs May and whoever is her successor must accept that Britain’s long-term interests lie in close relations with the EU. That in turn will require compromise on budgetary contributions. It also requires openness to people as well as goods and services. An economically self-defeating target for net immigration can only be enduringly achieved by making Britain a less attractive place for foreign citizens.
A failed prime minister might minimally burnish her place in history by acknowledging the damage to Britain’s reputation and economic prospects that her rhetoric has already wreaked.
Yet on Friday the prime minister declared that her government would “guide the country through the crucial Brexit talks” that begin next week.