Column / Brexit Briefing
What’s the price of failing to prepare?
By Benjamin Fox
Theresa May is the strongest and most vulnerable prime minister in living memory. That may seem like a contradiction in terms for a leader who, if not obviously likable, is seen as highly competent.
Despite boasting a parliamentary majority and facing a toothless opposition, May’s government is extremely fragile. A growing number of Conservative MPs are already growing nervous that the two-year Article 50 talks are likely to end in failure, and that ministers have no contingency plan.
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That was before Nicola Sturgeon’s announcement that May’s ‘intransigence’ on Brexit had left her with no choice but to call a second referendum on Scottish independence.
Wednesday (15 March) brought another wobble when finance minister Philip Hammond back-tracked on a planned tax increase for the UK’s growing army of self-employed workers - just a week after announcing it as his main tax reform in the annual budget - following a backlash in the media and from Conservative MPs.
Confident governments simply don’t do this. Nor do competent ones.
If the annual budget can only last a week before unravelling, it hardly inspires confidence that the Brexit negotiations will be anything but a slow motion car crash.
Failure to prepare
David Cameron acquired a reputation as an ‘essay crisis’ prime minister: having failed to do his homework and prepare, he would win an election campaign or secure a diplomatic success at a summit through sheer ability and force of will.
Eventually, it caught up with him. The failed negotiations to overhaul the UK’s EU membership terms led to a disastrous referendum campaign and a defeat which cost him the premiership and will define his career.
There are plenty of indications that Theresa May’s government has the same sense of recklessness, but without the talent to ever produce the goods.
A report published last Sunday by the cross-party Foreign Affairs committee warned that failing to prepare contingency plans for ‘no deal’ would be “a serious dereliction of duty”.
This comes as Brexit minister David Davis admitted to another committee of MPs that the government had made no serious assessment of the potential economic impact of Britain leaving the EU without a trade deal.
The best he could offer was that “I can’t quantify it for you in detail yet. I may well be able to do so in about a year’s time,” adding that the consequences of no deal were “not as frightening as some people think. But it’s not as simple as some people think.”
Given that the government has repeatedly said that it will walk away from a ‘bad’ final deal, logic dictates that preparing for ‘no deal’ should be all the more essential.
“Last year, the committee described the government’s failure to plan for a leave vote as an act of gross negligence,” warned the Foreign Affairs committee. "This government must not make a comparable mistake.”
“A complete breakdown in negotiations represents a very destructive outcome leading to ‘mutually assured damage’ for the EU and the UK.”
Davis remains uncompromising that the government has a mandate to pursue Brexit at any price.
This position was backed up by foreign minister Boris Johnson, who insisted that the UK economy “would be perfectly OK” if a deal cannot be reached.
This has been contradicted by Carolyn Fairbairn, head of the Confederation of British Industry, who warned that this would be “a recipe for chaos on a number of fronts”.
“There is not a single major world economy that trades with the EU on the basis of WTO,” says Pat McFadden, a former Europe minister. “The idea that we can resort to this is ideological and reckless.”
Yet for the moment, ministers can get away with this line of argument without serious challenge. Article 50 talks have not started and there is certainly no public desire to hold another referendum.
But if the UK finds itself on the brink of being cast out of the EU without a new trading arrangement, voters are unlikely to be quite so sanguine about the political leaders who created the mess.
“People voted for Brexit at no price. They were actually told that it would bring us new money,” one Labour MP told EUobserver, referring to the promises made by the Vote Leave campaign that £350 million a week of new health spending would be available post-Brexit.
“We don’t know what will happen if they are asked to support Brexit at any price”.
Benjamin Fox, a former reporter for EUobserver, is a consultant with Sovereign Strategy, a London-based PR firm, and a freelance writer.