It has now been a year since the country woke to the news that it was leaving the European Union. In that time it seems as though two very different narratives have developed in relation to the handling of exit negotiations.
Soon after the referendum result came in, leaders of the other twenty-seven European nations met to discuss their views and goals for the Brexit process. Once that was decided they quickly appointed Michel Barnier as the chief negotiator for the EU. The UK government, by comparison, dithered. David Cameron resigned, there was a ‘leadership’ election and Theresa May, after winning by default, duly rejigged the cabinet and filled several new departments with both Brexiteers and those of a more cautious bent. Whilst the EU came to the table with proposals, the UK had little more than empty platitudes meant to pacify the Eurosceptic press and UKIP voters the Conservatives were planning to poach. The slogans ‘Brexit means Brexit’ and ‘Red, White and Blue Brexit’ were echoed constantly by government officials, but there was no serious plan put forward as to how they would achieve it.
When they were not endlessly repeating slogans, ministers were stating that the British public had voted for a hard Brexit and that anything that failed to deliver on this was a sham. May played hard ball throughout early negotiations, blaming EU officials and European leaders for not understanding what she wanted and for rejecting the will of the British people. Anyone who did not get on board was a traitor and not a true patriot.
Yet nothing solid was put forward by the British side, merely audacious statements from cabinet members who insisted that they would pay no divorce bill and that they wanted what was best for Britain at any cost. Nothing was presented to either the EU negotiating team or the British public. Then Britain’s top official to the EU resigned, warning his colleagues not to get bogged down by empty rhetoric and to actually advise the government as they were meant to.
What followed were several more months of pointless posturing by the British government, including Theresa May’s call for a general election, aimed at giving her a mandate for a hard Brexit. The election did not give the Conservatives the thumping majority they had expected. Instead it took it away and left them reliant on a partnership with the DUP in order to form a government.
Since then the posturing has gone. Theresa May is no longer the strong leader she was previously seen to be. The cabinet, who once appeared as little more than obedient dogs, have suddenly found their voices, resulting in constant infighting between the pro-Brexit David Davis and Liam Fox and the more cautious, business-friendly chancellor, Philip Hammond. Such divisions have left the EU and the world wondering what the British government is actually doing.
One proposal for trade deal talks has already been shelved by the EU until the divorce bill is settled, whilst another half-hearted proposal on a customs partnership with the EU customs union was criticised by European officials as being too light on detail. All this is bad news for UK-based businesses hoping to retain access to the single market (or even just the customs union) in order to streamline trade. Indeed the brevity of the latter proposal suggests that the government is not completely united behind its Brexit strategy. It would seem that, despite fears in some corners of the EU that all this chaos and confusion is just a ploy, the government really is desperately scrambling for a solution before the UK leaves the EU in March 2019.
What this shows is that this government does not appear to have any real clue as to what it wants, nor what is really happening around it. Talks of trade deals have been cut down and businesses are continuously expressing their concerns over what would happen in the case of the UK leaving without a proper deal. The days of pointless slogans might be gone, but the chaos and confusion remains. The current government looks like a child lost within a maze of reality, an image that hardly inspires confidence. They need to stop their infighting, agree on what they want and come together for the good of the country. And they need to do this quickly.