OpinionJul 18 2018

The scene is set for fresh Brexit turmoil

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The scene is set for fresh Brexit turmoil

By the time you read this Britain could be without a prime minister, or heading for a general election, or merely continuing to watch our politicians battle it out in Westminster like playing out some ministerial Game of Thrones over whose version of Brexit is the one the country needs. Or even voted for.

Brexit is probably the most overused word in Britain at the moment, the one thing most of us are talking about, and our politicians are struggling to talk about anything else. This is understandable: it is after all the biggest seismic shift in our potential fortunes – whether you think that is for better or worse – in a generation.

Yet you could be forgiven for starting to take the whole Brexit thing less seriously, as so little seems to be decided, despite us passing the two-year anniversary from Britain voting to leave the EU. It is hard to believe it will ever happen. But it is very serious business indeed. 

Brexit is still being peddled by the Leave team as something so good that it seems odd that our ‘leaders’ are finding it hard to agree on what post-Brexit Britain will look like.

The idea that we will be making trade deals with countries around the world that will ‘make Britain Great again’ seems slightly anachronistic.

I mean, what exactly don’t we get now that we will get after Brexit? Or that would be cheaper, or easier to get after Brexit?

I genuinely am interested in the answer: it is not a rhetorical question. 

The idea that ministers can dismiss the worries of big business – such as Airbus and BMW – as if they are swatting away a fly should concern us all.

The possibility of a cosy trade relationship with the US is ebbing away, as President Donald Trump is already firing off salvos of import tariffs against Europe and China, with an additional $200bn in Chinese goods targeted for additional trade tariffs already this month. 

China is retaliating in kind with tariffs of its own on US goods, which raises the stakes in the poker-like stand off between the world’s two economic superpowers and could soon start to harm US workers and consumers.

Nothing to do with us? Think again. Europe has been dragged into the trade war too, after Trump slapped tariffs on imports of European steel and aluminium.

In retaliation, Europe taxed US whisky, cigars and Harley Davidsons. Hard to imagine a more pointed attack on an American icon than that.

But as Martin Wolf wrote in the FT last week, the world is struggling to know how to respond to President Trump because of the chaos he has created, and the fact that “it is so difficult to negotiate with him because nobody knows what he and his team want”. 

The thing is, does not this sound eerily familiar when you look at our own parliament in relation to Brexit? The government still doesn’t know what it wants. So how can we have a sensible Brexit negotiation with Europe?

Think about this: the 27 other member nations in Europe, with all of the differences in culture, political approach and desires to help their own countries benefit as much as they can from their membership, which causes constant friction on a number of areas, took less than a minute last month to concur that Prime Minister Theresa May needs to come up with some ‘realistic’ proposals for Brexit. Less than a minute.

The UK’s political infighting is taking everyone’s energy, and creating a dangerous game of brinkmanship which, no matter which way you look at it, Britain stands little chance of winning.

The idea we are going to be able to cut some sort of amazing deal with partners outside of Europe seems unlikely.

President Trump is adamant that he needs to use protectionist policies to help the US and its workers, but it may end up doing the opposite.

Despite apparently agreeing a Brexit compromise at Chequers, which would deliver a partial Brexit with aligned rules allowing free trade with the bloc, there followed a raft of resignations of Brexiteers from the cabinet, most notably David Davis and Boris Johnson, a key architect of Brexit. 

Mr Johnson, who loves a play on words, was recently talking about a ‘full Brexit’ that should be delivered by the Prime Minister, as if Mrs May is some short-order cook in a greasy spoon. 

However, what the events of last week have left us with is more of a ‘dog’s Brexit’ with ministers resigning left, right and centre, and little in the way of real forward momentum. But then what should we expect? 

The idea that ministers can dismiss the worries of big business – such as Airbus and BMW – as if they are swatting away a fly should concern us all. These manufacturing giants are major employers in the UK, and to ignore any possibility that they may move abroad, taking those jobs with them, is foolhardy.

President Trump and Mr Johnson have a lot more in common than just dodgy haircuts: they are both architects of chaos, and unless there is some significant, real and sustained progress on Brexit, we are the ones who will suffer the results.

Alison Steed is a freelance journalist