18 May 2019

prologue

Defeated by Brexit

  • Britain’s attempt to leave the EU has made it a laughing stock and ruined its reputation for competent government
  • But the real story was played out not in Parliament but behind the scenes in Whitehall
  • This is the first comprehensive account of what went wrong

Britain has failed. In the same way that the Suez crisis left the nation diminished both in the eyes of the world and in its own sense of itself, the Brexit process has seen Britain surrender its reputation for competent government, making a laughing stock of politicians and Parliament.

This is not to take sides on Leave or Remain. Britain’s government has been left looking arrogant and amateurish, insular and indecisive. It failed to leave the European Union on 29 March, as it said it would. The civil service fudged difficult decisions and has been found out. The party of government put its internal differences above the interests of the country. The prime minister has been unable to do the one thing required of a leader – to choose. Parliament itself tried to wrest power from government, only to achieve nothing.

Brexit has driven Theresa May from office. This week she conceded defeat. Next week her Conservative Party looks set to be humiliated in European Parliament elections that should never have been held. Next month May’s deal will go before Parliament for the fourth time. Win or lose, she will leave Downing Street soon afterwards. With the question of what kind of Brexit is to come still unanswered, the race to lead Britain has begun.

The Brexit negotiations have done lasting damage to the standing of Britain’s parliament and its politicians. The BBC’s Parliament channel is winning new audiences around the world, because people enjoy the spectacle. The Speaker’s call to a rowdy House of Commons – “Order! Order!” – has become a comedy catchphrase. For the past two years, Brexit has become a well-watched Westminster farce with a now notorious cast of characters – Gove and Johnson, Rees-Mogg and Farage, Corbyn and Grieve.

Behind the scenes, it’s worse. It’s a Whitehall tragedy. Those responsible are unseen, mostly unknown. The drama has been conducted behind closed doors, not in red-faced rhetoric but in “mandarin”. An elegy for the prestige and professionalism of British government, the really important story was determined not in the House of Commons but in the corridors of Downing Street, the Cabinet Office, the departments of state.

For the past three months, as the political posturing and parliamentary brinkmanship continued, Chris Cook, a Tortoise editor, has been investigating the Brexit negotiations. He spoke to dozens of people, many of the most senior figures, past and present, working with the prime minister as she tried to negotiate a deal. This is the first history of how the UK government struggled to meet the demand of the 17.4 million people who nearly three years ago voted to leave the European Union.

What he discovered is illuminating, but does not cast British government in a flattering light.

Once again, London lazily misunderstood Ireland. The British civil service was woefully underprepared, then overestimated the strength of its hand as well as its diplomatic prowess, and was consistently outplayed by Dublin and outmanoeuvred by Brussels.

The Brexit dilemma was particularly difficult for the leader of the Conservative and Unionist Party, as it required the prime minister to choose between two Tory shibboleths: a clean break from the European Union on the one hand, keeping together the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland on the other. For too long, British government officials didn’t see the problem coming. When they did, the prime minister tried to have it both ways. The civil service was left to invent fixes and fudges. In Whitehall parlance, they kept trying to draft it away…