Late August and change is in the air. A shifting and a shuffling of priorities. Summer’s pleasantries are coming to an end. Time for important work to be taken up once more. The London Sun knows what it’s about: “The silly season is coming to an end but it seems only Britain is getting serious.” With its withdrawal from the European Union looming in March next year, the United Kingdom is preparing for no deal.
Would it ever have been otherwise?
Hard to say. Had the British government been less dithering and more proactive, it may have been possible to drive home a mutually beneficial deal. It may still be, though the shortening timespan makes this unlikely. It is, in any event, growing more difficult by the hour to get beyond the fact that Brussels officials lack the incentive to cooperate with the Brexit program and every enticement to frustrate secession.
They know Continental discontents are watching Britain’s maneuvers closely and taking notes, either to twist their own concessions out of the EU or model their own exit proposals. There is good reason to remember William Pitt the Younger’s words on his battles with Napoleon. “Let us hope that England, having saved herself by her energy, may save Europe by her example,” he said. It turns out this isn’t the first time that Britain’s cause has been the cause of every freedom-loving European.
Brexiteers must also look on President Trump with a certain envy. The President accuses the EU of unfair trade practices, announces tariffs on EU steel and aluminum in retaliation and, as a result, can proclaim, as he did during the Commission president’s visit to the White House in late July, the start of U.S.-E.U. negotiations toward true free and fair trade. If only someone had shared copies of “The Art of the Deal” around the cabinet table at Number 10.
All the government has put on the table is the flawed Chequers agreement that reduces it to vassal status: submissive to EU regulations without a voice in their formation, severely restricted in their scope to form global trade deals on their own, and warned by Brussels that more concessions must come.
And Brits aren’t happy about it. A poll commissioned for the Sun finds that pluralities of 47% want to exit the EU as planned (shrugging off the idea of a second referendum) and 40% want to leave, with or without a deal. A sizable 68% have not reconsidered their historic June 2016 vote, and those that have done so have moved in favor of Brexit, not against (15% and 11%, respectively). Significantly, “six in ten believe the EU is out to punish the UK by refusing to compromise in talks on trade and free movement” — which is the same percentage as those who say they’re “really bored by Brexit.”
Just don’t think these numbers cheer the Conservative government. Support for the Labor opposition stands at 40%, three points above the Tories. An unforeseen hiccup could still displace this minority parliament and bring Jeremy Corbyn — despite the charges of anti-Semitism staining his party — to power.
And what of Boris Johnson? Don’t count him out yet, either, despite his latest controversial remarks about burka-wearers resembling “letter-boxes.” Bookies have just slashed the odds on Bojo becoming premier, so that they’d pay a scant five dollars on a one dollar bet on his emerging at the head of the government. The former foreign secretary will speak at a fringe event at his party’s conference next month, where he will no doubt pressure Prime Minister May to scuttle Chequers and brave the EU tempest. One doesn’t envy the Prime Minister confronting rank-and-file indignation and trying to rationalize her soft Brexit platform.
Parliamentarians return to the House of Commons on September 4, but with conference season hot on its heels, Brexit debate will be haphazard and may not begin in earnest until early October, mere weeks before Mrs. May is scheduled to meet her EU counterparts to finalize the withdrawal negotiations before the agreement goes to member countries for review.
For two years the Government turned the ancient aphorism of careful preparation, festina lente — “hurry slowly”— on its head and now crunch time is at hand. For its sake and the welfare of the United Kingdom, it could echo some of President Trump’s “bumptiousness” and refuse to back down on the ultimate question of restoring British sovereignty. “Brexit means Brexit” has, after all, been the rallying cry from the start. What could be simpler?
Mr. MacLean, who writes the blog of the Disraeli-Macdonald Institute, keeps a Brexit diary for The New York Sun. The painting is “La Liberte ou La Mort” by Jean-Baptiste Regnault (via Wikipedia).