‘A failure of British statecraft on a scale unseen since the Suez crisis.” You might think the former transport minister Jo Johnson’s parting shot at Theresa May stood a fair chance of attaining immortality in the A-level history exams of the future.
Martin Wolf, of the Financial Times, attempted the question. “Comparisons with the 1956 Suez crisis do not get close to the mark,” he opined last week. “This is a far more significant mess than that.”
But what could be worse than Britain’s humiliating withdrawal from the Suez Canal zone in 1956? The answer, according to David Keys, of The Independent, is the Munich agreement of 1938.
Exchanging the acrid, smoke-filled air of northern California for the damp, foggy miasma of London was something of a relief . . . until I started listening to the chatter about Brexit. Suez? Munich? These are wildly inappropriate parallels. In 1956 Britain invaded Egypt and was forced by American financial pressure to withdraw. Sir Anthony Eden’s blunder was to think he could challenge Gamal Abdel Nasser without clearing it first with Dwight Eisenhower. Failure exposed Britain’s post-imperial weakness and dependence on Washington.
In 1938 Britain sacrificed Czechoslovakia rather than risk confronting Adolf Hitler. Neville Chamberlain’s blunder was to believe that the time he bought at Prague’s expense was not equally available to Hitler. Failure condemned Britain to fight Hitler a year later with no possibility of help from the USSR because of the August 1939 Nazi-Soviet pact.
Brexit is quite different. As I have argued, the British people’s majority vote in the June 2016 referendum was a vote for divorce. It more closely resembles Henry VIII’s decision in 1532 to leave the Roman Catholic fold, with the electorate now in the role of the king. Both divorces faced bitter opposition, at home as well as abroad. Henry’s was both complicated and protracted. Indeed, it was very nearly overturned by his daughter Mary I. Yet in the end the English Reformation stood. Despite challenges by Habsburgs, Bourbons and Jacobites, Great Britain emerged as a pillar of Protestantism.
My guess is that Britain’s departure from the EU will be just as complicated and protracted but will have a similar eventual outcome. So long as the political elites in France and Germany aimed at a Bundesrepublik Europa, Brexit was both inevitable and necessary. Now that we are leaving, however, European integration has ground to a halt. With the election of populist governments — not just in Hungary and Poland but this year in Italy, a founding member of the EU — it may even be going into reverse. The Holy German Empress, Angela Merkel, is fading from the scene.
True, the divorce terms that Mrs May has brought home from Brussels are awful. “Leave” voters wanted to “take back control” in the belief that Brexit would restore British sovereignty, particularly on immigration and trade policy. But the draft withdrawal agreement consigns the UK to a limbo of an unknowable duration. The 21-month transition period may be extended by mutual agreement but the backstop for the Irish border could keep the entire UK in a customs union with the EU indefinitely.
During the transition the UK will cease to be a member of the EU, but it will not be wholly sovereign. It will be subject to the EU-UK joint committee overseeing the execution of the agreement. In case of disputes, a five-person panel of judges appointed by this joint body will rule. However, any issue pertaining to EU law will be referred to the Court of Justice of the European Union.
Article 6 establishes a single customs territory between the UK and the EU. “Accordingly Northern Ireland is in the same customs territory as Great Britain.” As I read it, Northern Ireland will in fact be in the EU customs union. Unless and until the Irish border issue is resolved, the UK will remain subject to EU trade rules, as well as current and future environmental rules, labour and social standards and state aid rules. (This last restriction would heavily circumscribe the policies of a future Labour government.)
Mrs May has repeatedly said that no deal would be better than a bad deal. Well, this is not a bad deal: it is a terrible deal. It is a divorce agreement that gives the UK’s former spouse powers that no divorcée would tolerate, including the power to prevent the UK from forming any other relationship during a potentially interminable transition period. Northern Ireland is a kind of child hostage, ensuring there can be no final break without the ex’s consent.
But what did you expect? Did the Pope make life easy for Henry VIII?
So what now? Mrs May likened herself last week, improbably, to the cricketer Geoffrey Boycott. Well, it is time to bowl her out. I would guess there are by now at least 48 letters from Tory MPs calling for a vote of confidence, and I would hope she will lose such a vote, triggering a leadership contest.
Her successor must learn from her mistakes. From the moment article 50 was triggered, Britain was in a weak position. That position only got weaker because Mrs May declined to plan for a no-deal scenario. She refused to explore the possibility of an Anglo-American free trade agreement (FTA), even when Donald Trump floated it — as I have it on good authority he did. Nor did Mrs May resist when the Europeans inserted the Irish border issue into the negotiations.
The best explanation of her conduct is not that, as a “remainer”, her heart was not in Brexit. The draft withdrawal agreement bears not her fingerprints but those of Oliver Robbins and the other civil servants who have negotiated it, clause by clause, with their European counterparts. It is vintage Sir Humphrey Appleby: under its terms Britain leaves the EU in order to remain in it; it exits so as to stay.
Mrs May’s successor cannot credibly propose to renegotiate the divorce, because the Europeans will just say no to that. Nor can her successor credibly offer to repudiate it, because the preparations for a no-deal scenario have not been made. The Tories must avoid a second referendum, as a vote to exit Brexit — which is not inconceivable — would estrange at least a third of British voters from their party for a generation. A general election would be no better: whatever the polls say now, Labour would sweep to victory when voters were asked to judge the woeful record of the May years.
The only option is therefore to play for time. This terrible agreement will be voted down in the Commons. The new prime minister can seek an extension in the wake of that. At the same time, the planning for a no-deal outcome must supersede all other business. The negotiation of the US-UK FTA is the next item on the agenda. It would not hurt, at the same time, to revive once lively relations with the Chinese, whose large investments in the UK were another source of leverage spurned by Mrs May.
Henry VIII was famed for his ruthlessness. Ministers who failed him were disposed of much like his wives. Yet his greatest talent was for playing the long game. “Leave” voters need to learn from his example. The prize for Mrs May’s successor is not trivial: “A success of British statecraft on a scale unseen since the Reformation.” Discuss.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford