Brexit isn’t Suez..it’s even worse

PUBLISHED: 10:00 27 October 2018

Prime Minister Theresa May. Photo:  Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

Prime Minister Theresa May. Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

On the anniversary of Britain’s last great international own goal, BARNABY TOWNS finds that the damage this time around is more severe.

Some 62 years ago this month, the foreign policy disaster with which Brexit is most often compared ended in ignominious failure. Suez and the current crisis can both be said to be humbling experiences in terms of national pride and prestige, but the 1956 collision of hubris and reality hinged on only one misjudgement, rather than the many that led to today’s debacle.

Back then, an Anglo-French invasion of the Suez Canal to safeguard strategic and financial interests following Egypt’s nationalisation of the waterway was brought to an abrupt end by Washington. The US obtained a United Nations resolution demanding a ceasefire; insisted that the IMF discontinue loans to Britain unless the invasion was called off; and prepared to sell US government-owned bonds that were propping up the pound. Humiliated, Britain ceased military operations nine days after they began.

By contrast, the UK’s transition from globally-respected, essential European power to a situation where its prime minister has 20 minutes to plead for a deal with the EU over dinner, has seemingly no end in sight. So little has changed since the 2016 referendum that Sir Ivan Rogers, formerly the UK’s permanent representative to the EU, predicted recently that in two years’ time “we shall still be having the exact same debate over sovereignty/control versus market access”.

Yet the UK’s approach to negotiations to date is merely the latest mis-step in a series. Recently, Danny Alexander, chief secretary to the Treasury in the Coalition years, claimed that he, the deputy prime minister and the chancellor attempted to dissuade David Cameron from promising a referendum on EU membership. Cameron dismissed their concerns, Alexander reports, arguing that since the next general election would result in another hung parliament, the Lib Dems could simply veto the pledge as the price of a deal.

Such a cavalier approach to Britain’s near half-century strategic relationship with Europe did return sufficient numbers of Ukip voters to the Tory fold which, combined with a collapse in Lib Dem support, produced a slim overall Tory majority – saddling the new government with this high stakes commitment.

Many other less risky paths were not taken. Cameron embarked upon a ‘renegotiation’ of terms with the EU resulting in minor changes, subsequently implausibly spun as significant during the referendum. Yet actual government powers to exercise qualifications to free movement went unused.

The referendum’s rules increased the risk factor. The 1979 Scottish and Welsh Parliament plebiscites included a threshold of 40% of the entire electorate to activate their provisions; the 2014 Scottish independence referendum allowed 16 and 17-year olds to vote; and in 2016 the government simultaneously supported legislation to enfranchise ex-pats resident outside the UK for more than 15 years. But in a rush to legislate and hold the referendum, no such provisions were included.

Beyond these technicalities, the government failed to communicate the basics of the UK’s constitution. MPs were reminded in an accompanying House of Commons briefing paper that the Referendum Bill “does not contain any requirement for the UK government to implement the results of the referendum”. Voters were not cautioned of this or that one parliament cannot bind another.

Following Cameron’s hasty departure the day after the referendum, an opportunity arose for his successor to heal the wounds of the narrow, divisive vote. Instead, Theresa May took a hard-line approach, ruling out participation in the single market or customs union. The triggering of Article 50 then limited the government’s negotiating flexibility. The ill-fated snap general election had the same self-defeating outcome.

As hubris met nemesis, two years of trying to paper over internal party divisions led to the Chequers proposal to recast the EU’s internal market and customs union, which the EU predictably rejected in two days. Now, after successive wrong turns and superficial theatrics when reality refused to bend to our wishes, the choices available after having pursued this folly are clear, although yet to fully sink in for many Brexiteers: An economically-ruinous no-deal; an almost as disastrous Canada-style free trade agreement that wouldn’t cover most of the UK’s economy, doesn’t allow for frictionless trade and requires a hard border in Ireland; or a ‘Norway plus customs union’ arrangement that would minimise Brexit’s economic damage and protect the Good Friday Agreement but means giving up our seat in setting EU rules that the UK would be required to follow.

Five years of reckless Suez-style blunders, fuelled by imagined invincibility, mean Britain risks a much-diminished future, making a final say on any deal with an option to stay look enticing. Let’s choose our next step wisely.

Barnaby Towns is a former Conservative Party special adviser

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