As I left London yesterday to return to DC, I checked my cellphone at Heathrow airport to discover that Theresa May’s government was teetering on the brink of collapse after two major figures in the conservative party abruptly resigned from her cabinet. I had been thinking earlier that day about how difficult May’s position was, and how I couldn’t see it getting much worse for her after being forced to craft a deal to leave the European Union she didn’t want to make.
Unfortunately in politics, it can always get worse — and not just for the politicians.
In protest against May’s plans for a “soft Brexit,” both Brexit Secretary David Davis and Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson resigned from their posts expressing dismay that their hardline approach to leaving the EU hadn’t been taken seriously. Davis — a hardline Brexiter who infuriated EU negotiators due to his unwillingness to confront the reality about what Brexit meant for Britain — was likely a survivable loss. But Johnson’s departure only hours later compounds a serious deficit of faith in May’s ability to hold a divided government together.
The “dream” of Brexit, according to Boris Johnson in his resignation letter to the PM, “is dying, suffocated by needless self-doubt”.
“With the result that we appear to be heading for a semi-Brexit, with large parts of the economy still locked in the EU system, but with no UK control over that system,” he continued.
“It is as though we are sending our vanguard into battle with the white flags fluttering above them.”
This coming from a man who cynically attached himself to the pro-Brexit movement believing it had little chance of success but would play well with hardline conservatives and help him in his leadership bid for the Tory party. Johnson has always known that leaving the EU would be a disaster for the British economy, but continued beating the drum for a hard Brexit anyway. As one of the chief architects of the “Leave” camp, Johnson lied relentlessly to the public about what Brexit would mean, calculating he’d never have to account for those lies when Brexit failed. But when the British public narrowly voted to leave the EU in a referendum, Johnson and his fellow Brexiters were confronted with the reality of leaving a decades old political and economic union vital to the economic survival of the country.
The EU’s incentives to give Britain a fantastic deal have always been and will always be close to nothing. The EU can survive losing Britain, but Britain cannot survive losing access to the EU’s single market without a comparable trade deal already lined up. And given EU rules stipulate no trade deals can be negotiated while still in the union, Britain has no choice other than to negotiate a Brexit deal that allows them to stay in the single market. This essentially means obeying EU laws while losing out on the ability to vote — a Brexit that allows Britain to survive economically, but radically reduces its standing in Europe. The EU has all the cards and no incentive to make this easy for Britain — on the contrary, the process will be astonishingly painful in order to convince other EU nations that leaving really isn’t in their best interest.
A soft Brexit was always going to be the best deal we were ever going to get, and one Theresa May has worked diligently to cobble together. She has put forward a plan that attempts to minimize the damage to the UK economy and forced the hardline Brexiters to get behind it. It still hasn’t been accepted by the EU, and almost certainly won’t be in its current form given May’s vagueness on freedom of movement and her desire for Britain to set its own tariff rate and negotiate its own trade deals. But it is the start of something rational that can be built on.
Davis and Johnson’s departure will be deeply damaging to May’s attempts to negotiate a sane Brexit — free from the restrictions of being in government, Johnson and Davis can help foment a leadership challenge that could bring May’s government down for good. Should a hardliner then take May’s place (potentially Johnson himself), we can look forward to a complete break down in negotiations with the EU and no deal whatsoever. While the hardliners are convinced Britain can walk away from the EU and “go it alone”, the business community in Britain has been clear that this is not an option.
“If we do not have a customs union, there are sectors of manufacturing society in the UK which risk becoming extinct,” said Paul Drechsler of Britain’s biggest business lobby group, the Confederation of British Industry. “Be in no doubt, that is the reality.”
As CNN reported this week, “Jaguar Land Rover, Britain’s biggest carmaker with 40,000 employees, cautioned this week that a bad deal would slash its profits by £1.2 billion ($1.6 billion) a year. Airbus ( ) and BMW( ) also issued dire warnings.”
If Boris Johnson or other potential hardline candidates like Tory MP and Jacob Rees-Mogg want to preside over a no-deal solution with the EU, they must face the prospect of a catastrophic recession that would destroy millions of jobs and millions of lives. And yet still they persist, attacking the EU and blaming the sane for wanting to put an end to this madness.
May’s plan “is not really leaving the European Union,” said Jacob Rees-Mogg in the wake of May’s new deal proposal. “She has advanced backwards. She has advanced not to have Brexit.”
In Rees-Mogg’s make believe world, Britain has all the leverage and can tell the EU to get lost without consequence. A hedge fund millionaire, he of course would not feel the pain of a colossal recession. But for those attached to reality, it is an unthinkable prospect.
The Brexiters have brought Great Britain to its knees in their efforts to dishonestly extricate the country from the European Union. There is no way out of this mess that does not severely damage the nation — there are only bad options and catastrophic ones. Unfortunately, their mission to destroy Britain is not yet over, and their decision to leave Theresa May to clean up their mess only makes the prospect of a bad Brexit less likely and a catastrophic one a future we must all contend with.
Ben Cohen is the editor and founder of The Daily Banter. He lives in Washington DC where he does podcasts, teaches Martial Arts, and tries to be a good father. He would be extremely disturbed if you took him too seriously.