24th Mar 2018

Column / Brexit Briefing

Brexit plans missing in action

  • The die is cast. But it is worth asking if anyone has a plan or if the UK, and the EU, is simply expected to drift for the next three months? (Photo: EUobserver)

The Prime Minister has resigned. The triple-A credit rating gone. A collapsing pound will push up the costs of Britons planning their summer holidays to continental Europe. Thousands of financial sector job cuts have already been announced. Even Nigel Farage concedes that the UK economy will plunge into recession.

A week ago, predicting this kind of economic turbulence would have been dismissed as "Project Fear" - the scaremongering of the worst kind.

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It took less than 100 hours to become reality. Months, perhaps years, of uncertainty lie ahead.

So, what happens next?

While Farage enjoyed his triumphant day in the sun after 17 years of ridicule in the European Parliament on Tuesday (28 June), those responsible for unleashing this political tsunami appear to have completely disappeared. Someone should send out a search party for Boris Johnson and Michael Gove.

Johnson’s main post-referendum contribution so far has been his highly remunerated column in the Daily Telegraph in which he denied that Leave voters had, primarily, been motivated by fears about immigration. Yeah, right.

He seems to think that Britain will be able to secure freedom of movement for its citizens in Europe, while introducing points-based controls on immigration to the UK, along with unfettered access to the single market.

It will be an uphill battle. European Council boss Donald Tusk, France’s Francois Hollande, and Manfred Weber, the leader of the largest political group in the European Parliament, have already dismissed, out of hand, the idea of giving freedom movement of labour and capital to the UK in return for immigration controls.

Downing Street

But all that tiresome diplomacy and swotting up on trade negotiations can wait. The main battle for Johnson is to beat home secretary Theresa May to 10 Downing Street.

Work and pensions minister Stephen Crabb became the first to officially throw his hat into the ring on Wednesday (29 June). May and Johnson will almost certainly follow suit, while Liam Fox, education minister Nicky Morgan and health minister Jeremy Hunt are likely to join them. The result of the Tory select process will be announced on 9 September.

Having caused an almighty headache for its European allies, you would think that Conservative politicians would immediately start a charm offensive aimed at healing bruised friendships.

Considering that Johnson and co. will be seeking to cherry-pick the best bits associated with EU membership without paying for it, it would not hurt to have a couple of friends. Instead, the lack of planning and delay tactics risk fomenting the kind of bitterness that will result in a bad deal for both the EU-27 and the UK.

The rest of Europe, unsurprisingly, has better things to do than to be held hostage by the Conservative party.

“I thought that if you wanted to leave you had a plan, you had a global picture. They don’t have it,” said European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker on Tuesday.

He added that if the next prime minister came from the Leave camp they should be obliged to trigger article 50 of the EU treaty, on EU exit talks, on the day of their appointment. The earliest that could be is 10 September, assuming, that is, that there is not a snap general election to fight.

Leadership vaccum

Aside from the impending Tory party bunfight, the leadership vacuum exists, in large part, because Leave simply didn't think they would win. Senior Leave campaigners told me they expected a 52/53 percent win for Remain in the final days of campaigning.

They were as stunned as anyone else on Friday morning.

The Leave campaign’s "victory" press conference on Friday (25 June) was a bizarrely subdued affair. Johnson and Gove looked like they were on their way to a funeral, offering eulogies to David Cameron, the prime minister they had just assassinated.

They were hoping to get a result close enough to guarantee Johnson's accession to Cameron's throne, having secured the blond bombshell’s status as the darling of the Conservative party grass roots. Johnson did not even show up for the House of Commons emergency debate on the referendum result on Monday.

In a debate at the Wembley arena two days before polling day, Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson repeatedly called on Johnson and the Leave campaign to produce a detailed blueprint for what Brexit would look like. “It’s not good enough … you are being sold a con,” she told the audience.

Almost immediately after the result, Leave campaigners also started back-tracking from the key promises they had made during the campaign.

The pledge to spend an extra £350 million on the NHS was abandoned almost immediately. Even if this money had actually existed (it never did) the idea that two right-wing conservatives would suddenly splurge public money on a nationalised healthcare system always stretched credibility.

It's a bit late - not to mention pointless - for Leave voters to have buyer's remorse.

The die is cast. But it is worth asking if anyone has a plan or if the UK, and the EU, are simply expected to drift in their broken boat for the next three months.

It is this drift and lack of forethought that risks making Brexit the ultimate victory for irresponsibility and post-factual politics.

Whether inadvertently or otherwise, Johnson and Gove have created an political and economic mess. They have shown little sign that they are prepared, or even have a plan, to clean it up.

Benjamin Fox, a former reporter for EUobserver, is a consultant with Sovereign Strategy and a freelance writer.

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