“I’ll answer that question in front of a judge.” That’s how a British Brexit negotiator rebuffed one of my questions over coffee in central London.
Another brushed me off: “I can’t tell you that. I have documents on that, but I can’t show you them. They’ll be needed for the public inquiry. And I can’t have anyone know that I spoke to you.”
Whitehall is wracked by a sense of historic failure – one that will eventually have to be studied, civil servants anticipate, under oath by someone looking to assign blame. They all expect a judge-led public inquiry. “I thought we were going to win,” one mandarin told me.
The Brexit talks were a mixture of jurisprudence, trade strategy, game theory, economics and base politicking. But also of fatigue, anger, indecision and attrition. Officials and ministers have missed birthdays, deaths, funerals and weddings.
There were scores of episodes that did not make this piece. I tried to only include the issues that beached us here. These talks were the story of a few vast forces.
- First, there was the basalt solidity of the political consensus in Ireland. Leo Varadkar gets a lot of personal abuse from the British press for his intransigence, but it is hard to imagine another Taoiseach taking a significantly different path.
- Second, the Irish civil service has built a base of expertise to deliver on this consensus. I was struck by how often names appear in documents and then re-occur, years later, in a relevant job. They have taken expertise on Britain and Brussels seriously.
- Third, the EU took a view that a leaky border would never be acceptable – and in a conflict between Britain and Ireland, it would take Ireland’s side.
- Fourth, the sequencing of the talks encouraged EU solidarity and made the Irish border the central issue – a problem to which there is not a satisfactory solution for all sides.
The British were crushed by these pressures. This failure is the responsibility of Theresa May.
Britain started off without a political consensus; in 2016, 48 per cent of the country voted against leaving the EU. That level of political disaffection would be a serious disadvantage in any talks.
In international negotiations, having a consensus is a dread weapon; it allows you to hold your ground, even if the going gets tough. May could have done things differently, assembled a plan, spoken to people from other parties and tried to build as broad a base as possible for her scheme.
She could have appealed to both Leave and Remain voters to build a coalition beyond her own party in support of a plan that honoured the result but acknowledged it was unclear what Leave really meant.
Setting out such a prospectus would also have required a delay to starting the process. She could have put options for the talks to votes in parliament. She could have asked MPs to write and ratify a mandate for the talks. This would hardly be unusual, in international terms, where the need for consensus ahead of negotiations is better understood.
This might have required some concessions on all sides early on to build a broad coalition inside the UK. As she resigned, May praised the benefits of compromise. It would have been better had she practised this wise lesson.
Building a viable plan would also have required her to confront some hard truths: you cannot maintain an open Irish border, avoid intra-UK borders and have an independent trade policy while respecting the EU’s internal order.
But a serious effort at consensus-building might have allowed her to propose something novel – a new sort of relationship with the EU. Instead, her deal, for the most part, just follows the logic of older EU deals, given her red lines on immigration and the European Court of Justice.
Instead of reaching out, she sought – in the word used by her former strategy director – to “privatise” Brexit. To make it a project of the Conservative party. She appointed herself the sole interpreter of the will of the people. This, of course, failed once very visibly at the 2017 general election. But it failed in dozens of more subtle ways.
Britain was negotiating with no destination in mind. All May knew was she had to get on with it. That meant driving on with Article 50 notification – in retrospect, a disaster. The notification activated the two-year ticking clock which applied rising pressure to Britain’s negotiators: strike a deal or leave the EU without one.
This Toryisation would have been one thing, had the Conservatives been united on a destination. But the cabinet was hopelessly riven. So she made decisions very slowly, seeking to minimise problems inside the fractured Tory ranks. “Brexit means Brexit,” she intoned. A baffling slogan standing in for a decision.
The lack of decisions created the space for continuous argument. A deference to purists took hold on both sides. The government was trying to win over Leavers while an accelerating Brexit theology took hold. In 2016, joining a customs union would have annoyed a lot of leavers – but it would certainly have been seen as Brexit. Now it is widely considered a betrayal.
All the while, British officials repeatedly found they had no option but to make concessions during the talks because they were working for a government with little popular support for what it was doing. Britain could not stand its ground, notably, on the sequencing of the talks.
Westminster sages would argue that there was no other way that this could have gone. Of course she could not have reached out to Labour. Of course she had to point out whenever the parties disagree. Of course she had to try to maximise her seat count. If the conventions of Westminster did demand that she make those calls, then Westminster is part of what got us here. Our political system bears a lot of the blame.
Some Brexiters blame officials for pressing the prime minister towards this deal. A better critique is that they sat by and watched the disastrous talks unfold. Deference to ministers went too far. It is absurd that no work was done in preparation for a Leave win. And officials were not fast enough to force ministers to make decisions.
Brexit has exposed how the civil service itself was in bad shape. Devolution led to a lack of foresight about Northern Ireland in London. Dublin went misunderstood. Brussels in the mind of Whitehall had become a place where the UK sent a few men (always men) from the Treasury to try to reduce our financial contribution or fiddle at the edges of the treaties. This narrow vision left us without an experienced machine to actually run the talks.
There are moments in 2018 where I wonder if ministers were adequately briefed. But, equally, this was a fearsomely complex process conducted by tired people under ferocious pressure and intense scrutiny. Yes, ministers were excluded by officials from decisions. But that is because the civil service was working for the prime minister.
What now, then? I cannot tell you.
Britain’s long run of luck has allowed us to approach public life with a profound lack of seriousness. The image I have found myself reaching for repeatedly in the past few months is of a middle-aged man with a motorbike. He has never had an accident before, so why are people telling him to take care on these icy roads? We have now had a crash. But at the moment there is no sign of any change in behaviour.
It is possible that the UK will begin a turn towards No Deal under a new prime minister. It is not clear how long that leadership would last. A general election is surely coming. But we have an electoral system which means the emergence of new parties will have wildly unpredictable effects.
The new Brexit Party could sweep all before it. Or it could simply hobble the Tories, letting a pro-Remain coalition take power. The path to No Deal and the path to revoking the whole thing have become much clearer. The route to ratifying this Withdrawal Agreement is much more convoluted.
No Deal would be brutal for Ireland – but recent polls found 79 per cent of Irish voters support their government’s tough position. Only 7 per cent say avoiding No Deal should be the key aim. An Irish government can stand its ground, for a time at least.
There is no such consensus in Britain.
Not on anything.
That is the root of Britain’s humiliation.