Brexit talks finally start today between the UK and EU. David Davis, the secretary of state for exiting the European Union, and Michel Barnier, the European Commission’s chief negotiator will meet in Brussels to begin discussing how the UK will leave the European Union – and what deal will exist between the two.
Unsurprisingly, this moment is being hailed as great news and a “welcome relief” after nearly a year of waiting by the pro-Brexit press. But even they fear talks might begin “embarrassingly” due to the government’s lack of planning – and it gets worse.
We now learn that Theresa May’s government has yet to send the EU our opening position. This should send alarm bells ringing everywhere. The positioning paper is a formal skeleton-like argument of what the government wants talks to achieve that can help serve as a basis for both sides agreeing a timeline for talks and issues to be addressed in agreeing a new deal between them.
What is alarming about this is very simple. Theresa May asked voters to give her a thumping landslide so she had the biggest possible mandate to push hard for “the best” deal with the EU. She didn’t get a landslide or a majority undermining how she views her own mandate for moving forward with talks (more on this later), but she gave constant reassurances that there was some firm view in mind of this best deal – and we were all to trust her “strong and stable” leadership mantra to deliver this deal.
Before turning to the issue of her public mandate, it’s now crystal clear that she in fact has no particular view of what this best deal looks like. To not know what you want from talks even as they start is worse than irresponsible, but potentially calamitous – whatever one’s views about Brexit. She’s literally leaving everyone in the dark, from her own team and the country, to her negotiating partners.
This is no way to win the requisite trust and good faith with Europe to help advocate a successful future for Britain outside the bloc. If anything, it reinforces the view that the government is incompetent, chaotic and rudderless – and my fear is what happens if they become more confident and make things very difficult for May. It’s one thing to say a “bad deal is worse than no deal” but quite another to be left with nothing and try to spin abject failure as some kind of triumph.
But it’s not just the EU that sees the wheels are coming off of the Brexit bus. Now emerging from the shadows is the chancellor, Philip Hammond, making clear his support for a softer Brexit – in clear contravention of about everything May has said about Brexit to date. This is a government as divided as much of the country they have split apart. All in the name of trying to bring the Tories together. It would be laughable if the consequences weren’t so serious and stakes so high for the rest of us.
So now let me turn to May’s mandate. The public voted to leave the European Union, but there was no one plan to follow and no manifesto of what Brexit would be. Nor did any party win a majority in the elections and so the Lords are not strictly bound by the Salisbury doctrine to do the government’s bidding. Moreover, promises of £350m per week to the NHS, an end to free movement in two year’s time and the launch of a points-based immigration system were three key planks of Vote Leave all of which have been rejected by the prime minister. We know more about what Brexit is not than what it is. Not that this is saying much. But such is the sorry state we find ourselves in under this particularly inept government.
May didn’t get the vote of support she asked for. The public won’t be getting the key pledges that Vote Leave promised. What we were told about the form of Brexit will not now happen. And we are a country sharply divided at the ballot box.
The PM will not be trusted by her party to lead them to a general election again. In her own words, she left them in “a mess” and she hopes to help them climb out of it. May should look at her time in office as finite. Every one in her position reflects on posterity – but often when it is too late. If May won’t stand down now for the sake of both her party and the country, she should consider the next best thing. Put the start of Brexit talks on hold to call for a cross-party agreement with Labour.
I hope that today the government shows humility after its poor election result falling so short of their expectations. Yes, some in the public and many in the tabloids will be unhappy with any pause in starting Brexit talks, but it makes no sense rushing to the negotiating table so unprepared – this does not respect the will of the public or the national interest in any way.
I strongly doubt May will contemplate doing this – and perhaps Labour should decline any such invitation. But my main point is carrying on like the election never happened is foolhardy and to start talks – just to have them without any view of what should be sought – will make things much worse. It would take a brave act of statesmanship to take a deep breath, pause talks, invite political opponents to sit on a shared team and then meet with the EU – and I doubt May has the skill set or good judgement to take this advice.
Our country is about to embark on the biggest political happening in the lifetimes for most of us. Neither Brexiteer or Remoaner can have confidence in a government either incapable or unwilling to act in our name at such a crucial time. We need to make our collective concerns heard loud and clear before it is genuinely too late. The clock is ticking.
Thom Brooks is dean of Durham Law School and author of Becoming British: UK Citizenship Examined (Biteback 2016).