By heritage and upbringing, I am a natural Labour voter: I’m a trade union member, my dad was a trade union member, his dad was a trade union member, and so on back to my great-grandfather: further than that family legend can’t tell me.
Further, since the Tories imposed the poll tax on Scotland, if not before, I’ve always been clear that I would not only never vote Tory, in FPTP elections I’d always vote for the even-slightly-leftier candidate with the best chance of beating the Tory.
So hold my hand: this is a big jump.
Pretend I’m David Cameron, 2013-2015.
Let’s suppose, first of all, that I’m David Cameron and it’s January 2013. The Scots have got a Section 30 order and are holding an independence referendum in 2014. UKIP are getting pushy, attracting the right-wing Eurosceptic vote that’s always gone Tory. I decide to offer a referendum on leaving the EU as part of the Tory 2015 manifesto: I will push the idea that only the Tories can offer this because UKIP won’t be in government, no matter how well they do in 2015.
But, I’m fairly sure that the Tories won’t win an overall majority and will have to summon either our favourite sidekicks the DUP or our useful idiots the LibDems to be in a coalition with us: either party will likely make dropping the EU referendum part of their coalition deal. So I can talk this up as much as I like: I probably won’t ever have to follow through.
But, because I’m not a complete fool, I realise there are two contingencies that must be planned for: the chance that in November 2014 the Scots will vote yes to independence, and the possibility that the Tories win an overall majority in 2015 and so I’ll need to have this EU referendum. As part of my campaigning face, I don’t want to admit that Scottish independence might really happen, and while I have to keep pushing the idea that we really will hold a EU referendum, I don’t want to admit that I’m even contemplating the possibility that those crackpots and fools on the anti-EU side could win.
I appoint two researchers to form a small and highly confidential taskforce, well-hidden within the civil service in Whitehall. One researcher is to outline the areas affected if the UK leaves the EU: the other, to do the same for the possibility of Scotland leaving the UK. If anyone makes just the right Freedom of Information request this tiny taskforce might be discovered, but I hope that no one does.
Better Together wins in November 2014, and both researchers then focus on the question of “What if the UK leaves the EU”. One of the big issues that had come up for the EU researcher was Ireland: the Scottish researcher brings to the table issues with the constitutional settlement for Scotland if Scotland votes Remain.
The Scottish researcher notes that a big part of the Better Together campaign was to keep pointing out that iScotland would be leaving the EU when it left the UK, and would have to reapply to join the EU. Scots who voted No to independence are likely to feel cheated if they end up leaving the EU anyway.
Thanks in part to the Scottish independence referendum results, Labour loses by a landslide in their Scottish heartlands: thanks to their five years of coalition with us, the LibDems lose by a landslide nearly everywhere: I find myself with a majority government and committed to holding a referendum on exiting the EU sometime before the next general election.
In consequence of their report, I decide that the legislation for the EU referendum will specify that the UK government need only consider leaving the EU if all four nations confirm their wish to Leave by majority vote, and there must be a supermajority in the UK overall or the referendum will not be legally binding. For good measure I add the trick that worked in 1979: not only must Leave win a supermajority of the vote, they must win 40% of the whole electorate.
But as we know from recent history, David Cameron didn’t do the research.
Pretend I’m David Cameron, 2015-2016.
As I have committed myself to holding the EU referendum, the sooner it happens the better. I increase the size of the research department whose job it is to plan for the contingency if the campaign for leaving the EU wins a majority.
I’ve forgotten or dismissed all of that good advice about requiring supermajorities and percentages of the electorate and considering the constitutional settlements of Scotland and Northern Ireland. The referendum happens. Leave gets a majority. I realise i’m going to have to resign.
This isn’t too bad: I’d already decided the 2015 election was going to be my last.
Rather than waste my resignation by stepping down immediately, I admit the existence of that tiny subgroup of researchers, award it more funding and staff, and give it a month to produce a White Paper on the UK leaving the EU. On Wednesday 27th July 2016, I present the White Paper to the House of Commons and make a speech.
In my speech, I explain that it looks as if it is going to be impossible for the UK to leave the EU without becoming economically worse-off: I note the constitutional problems for the UK if a majority vote in England were to drag Scotland and Northern Ireland out of the EU when they have voted against it: I affirm that it is a top priority as Prime Minister to keep the Good Friday Agreement intact and Northern Ireland part of the United Kingdom and that in order to do this the UK would, on leaving the EU, have to become part of the European Economic Area like Norway: I point out that several UK cities are applying to become a European Capital of Culture in 2023 and deserve not to have their hopes disrupted: and I even spare a word for little Gibraltar, which voted overwhelmingly to Remain in the EU and which would suffer huge difficulties at the Gib-Spanish border if the UK left.
Even if David Cameron had done this, the incoming Tory – especially if that was Theresa May – could still have decided to invoke Article 50 and Leave.
Pretend I’m Theresa May, 2016-2017.
I have a small majority in the House of Commons: I don’t need to hold a general election til 2020: I have a Labour leader in Opposition being roundly mocked by the tabloids: my one weakness is the several dozen Conservative MPs who are determined they want the UK to leave the EU and they don’t care what problems this might cause for everyone.
I quite want to leave the EU too, and I have no interest in the UK becoming part of the European Economic Area, because I don’t like foreigners, I want England to stay English, and I can’t stand those European courts that think they can overrule my decisions as Home Secretary.
The UK’s share of the EU budget is committed until 31st December 2020. There is no point leaving the EU before then, I realise; the UK would only have to end up paying our share of the budget anyway. The UK’s financial year in 2021 begins Monday 5th April. Once I invoke Article 50, the UK leaves the EU in two years. I decide, without telling anyone except a small coterie of trusted Cabinet Ministers who have to be made aware of my plans, that I will invoke Article 50 on Friday 5th April 2019.
We have to have a general election in May 2020, but by that time our plans and agreements with the EU need to be all but set – effectively the May 2020 general election will be a vote on the UK’s deal with the EU.
I have a private conversation with Nicola Sturgeon. As I expect, she wants to have a second Scottish independence referendum. I point out that polling says most Scots don’t want to have yet another independence referendum now, and make a half-promise that if I’m still Prime Minister after May 2021, if the SNP has a majority in Holyrood and has a second independence referendum in their manifesto, I will take seriously a request for a Section 30 then. I note that there is EU legislation about devolved issues that will have to be repatriated to Holyrood.
I split up the work of the Foreign Office into three parts. I appoint three serious and experienced MPs to the roles of Foreign Secretary, International Trade Secretary, and Minister in charge of exiting the EU. (Johnson, Davies, and Fox are all clamouring for position, but I leave them all on the backbenches.)
The Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs in particular needs a serious and intelligent diplomat: the UK is about to radically rework its position not only with the EU, but with many other countries in the world with which the UK has only dealt with via the EU since 1974. The International Trade Secretary has to recruit people who are experienced in negotiating trade deals and it is impossible to overestimate how difficult this is going to be, since no individual trade deal with any EU nation can begin til the UK actually leaves. The Minister in charge of Exiting the EU has to do impact assessments on the effect on the UK’s economy of leaving the EU: has to plan the re-creation of the regulatory infrastructure of the EU – the thirty-plus EU agencies which the UK needs to function after 5th April 2021: that’s less than five years away, there’s barely time. The ports around the UK need to be rebuilt to allow for the delays due to customs checks. There is a diabolical amount of work to be done and five years is none-too-little time to do it.
Interesting investigative work is being done in the UK and in the US about some of the links between the corrupt election of Donald Trump and the way our EU referendum was run. I invite British law enforcement to assist with the investigation: while I still plan to Brexit, this is the kind of background detail that could give me excellent leverage over the hard-Brexiter MPs in the Conservative Party who keep saying “just walk away!”
I am relieved that at least it’s my choice when to invoke Article 50 and that the Fixed Term Parliament Act means no general election til May 2020…
But, underestimating how well a Corbyn-led Labour Party could do in a general election, and seriously underestimating how much time and planning was needed for leaving the EU, May invoked Article 50 in March 2017 and held a general election in June 2017, losing her time for planning and her Tory majority in the Commons almost simultaneously.
Pretend I’m Theresa May, June 2017 to June 2018…
I start negotiations with the LibDems, aware they’re almost certain to say “no”, or “only if you cancel Brexit”. But I want to make it look like I have another alternative while I’m talking to the DUP.
The DUP are loyal Unionists and ought to be on our side: their constituencies were by and large those that voted Leave in Northern Ireland. Naturally I don’t admit anything in public, but they’re the partners I really want.
The first thing they’re going to have to swallow is: we need to keep the Good Friday Agreement intact, which means a transparent border between the Republic and Northern Ireland. As I point out to them, either the UK joins the European Economic Area on Brexit, or rlse they accept some kind of customs and immigration border down the Irish Sea – make it as light and easy to pass through for UK citizens and UK businesses as feasible, of course, but for the sake of keeping the peace, a border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK there must be. I’m prepared to be generous, we do need them as partners, but they have to commit to supporting this part of the Brexit deal if and when we need them to.
They know I’m on a deadline. I point out I’m also talking to the LibDems, and the LibDem deal is to cancel Brexit altogether. I must have this sorted out completely ready for the EU negotiation talks; we cannot afford to have this stall on the Irish border.
The hard-Brexiter MPs aren’t too keen either. I need them on my side. I point out the reality of the situation: the Republic of Ireland would have to hold a referendum to change their constitution if the Good Friday Agreement were to be amended, and what chance do they think we have of winning an Irish referendum before March 2019? We have a chance of forming a Tory government that will last til 2022 with DUP support: do they want Jeremy Corbyn as Prime Minister or do they want a Tory-led Brexit?
Quite a few Tory MPs appear to be ridiculously intransigent about a hard Brexit, the UK leaving with no deal. I discover that all of them appear to have links with hedge funds that bet on the pound falling when the UK voted Leave. I have the Tory Whip point out to them that this kind of financial shenanigans would look extremely bad to their constituents – and look extremely suspicious if it appears to be that they’re voting to damage the UK economy in hard Brexit because they plan on making more millions by shorting the pound again.
I go into the EU negotiations aware that the UK will have to pay its share of the EU budget til December 2020, no point disputing that, and planning to ask for special concessions until that date: and with a working plan for dealing with the Irish border such that the Republic of Ireland won’t be able to protest. We’ll also need to work out special arrangements for Gibraltar. Above all, I want the agreement for our future relationship with the EU hammered out and agreed to by the end of 2017, so that we have the whole of 2018 to arrange our future trade deal…
Why did I do this blogpost?
Because never in my recollection have two successive Prime Ministers made such a series of stupid decisions, stupid, shortsighted, and damaging to the UK.
As much as I wish Jeremy Corbyn were honest about Brexit, or that Labour was in Opposition on this and not the other party of Brexit, neither Corbyn nor any other Labour MP are directly responsible for the mess we’re in. The Conservatives have been in government since 2010: this is a Tory-created mess we’re in.
The UK government has run out of time to negotiate a Brexit deal with the EU. The Cabinet are meeting at Chequers on 5th/6th July to discuss again what they want from the EU. If they haven’t yet made up their collective minds what deal they’re going to ask for, how can they ever hope to present it to the EU by October?
According to a “source close to the European Commission”, speaking to the Independent:
“Now we are looking at December as a more likely option, but there are questions about how much time that leaves for the deal to be ratified in time before March.”
If no deal will be ratified by March – if no deal has even been presented to the European Commission by December – MPs in the House of Commons have only the choice when they return to Parliament in January, of voting by majority to revoke Article 50 and asking to stay in the EU: or crashing out of the EU with no deal at the end of March 2019, with horrible consequences.
And all of these stupid and damaging decisions were avoidable, as I have tried to show here. David Cameron could have planned ahead for an outcome he didn’t want: he could have stopped Brexit in its tracks with a warning speech that would have terminated his career: Theresa May could have taken planning for Brexit seriously and used her right to invoke Article 50 carefully and with forward planning: even after the 2017 general election, there were better choices to be made – and Theresa May failed to make any of them.
None of the options ahead of us are good, and some are worse than others:
The severe scenario – not even Armageddon level – warns that “the port of Dover will collapse on day one. The supermarkets in Cornwall and Scotland will run out food within a couple of days, and hospitals will run out of medicines within two weeks.”
Additionally the RAF would have to be used to transport emergency medicine to the far corners of the UK and the country would also quickly run out of petrol.