In Hans Christian Andersen’s tale of The Emperor and his New Clothes, two weavers appear to be at work creating a set of sumptuous new clothes for the emperor.
They tell the emperor that only those unfit for their position will not be able to see them and so the emperor carries on regardless, unaware that there are no clothes at all and that he is naked. As he parades through the streets, it takes a small boy to shout out: ‘The emperor has no clothes!’ At which the scales fall from everyone’s eyes and they accept the reality.
Perhaps the UK is on the edge of realising that Brexit has no clothes. All pretence that the sumptuous promises of the Brexiteers will come true is fading fast. There might have been some hope that a competent government would take over and show a way forward out of the EU. As it is the present government appears swamped in its own mediocrity. The prime minister may mouth a few platitudes that keep her followers onside but she cannot keep up the pretence for ever. The mask of ‘Brexit means Brexit’ has now given way to the claim that it would be wrong to give away the UK’s negotiating position. This only conceals the reality that after Article 50 is invoked the UK has very little negotiating position to reveal before, after two years, the country is driven off the cliff edge by the EU. Invoking Article 50 is, in fact, an abdication of the UK’s sovereignty.
In every aspect of its policy the government shows its clumsiness. Theresa May’s speech to the bankers revealed that she once had a strong case for remaining within the EU. One might have expected that she would have stood as a candidate for prime minister on the platform of accepting the referendum result but staying in the single market as the option closest to her own beliefs. Yet she then appointed ministers who wanted to go for a ‘hard’ Brexit and appeared to support them at the Conservative party conference. These contradictions here have struck a major blow to her credibility as an effective leader.
She has another major handicap. While she may have no talent for oratory, she might have appointed someone who could write speeches that offered some form of vision for a future outside the EU but there is none. She seems incapable of realising how her statements and those of her appointed ministers look outside the UK. Her sidekick, the home secretary Amber Rudd, talked of firms, many of them foreign-owned, drawing up lists of their foreign workers. The gaffe was quickly withdrawn but the statement appalled her European listeners. May then goes off to India to set up possible trade deals just at the same time as she is making it harder for Indian students to study in the UK. As a result the trip is wasted.
She goes on losing points. The independence of the UK judiciary is a fundamental part of the British Constitution and the Lord Chancellor is supposed to defend it. The present Chancellor, Lynn Truss, who those in the profession have already put on probation for lack of any legal qualifications, behaved lamentably in failing to defend the judges over the recent High Court judgement on the prerogative. This may be due to her failure to understand her role as chancellor or maybe she was told what to say by her boss. The prime minister did not help matters by saying that she would win the appeal to the Supreme Court from the High Court decision as if the judges could shift the law to please her. Her attorney-general, Jeremy Wright, who is leading the government case, has hardly shown that he has the capability to do so.
The shambles goes on with the obsequious response by both the prime minister and her foreign secretary to the election of Donald Trump. It is obvious that, alone outside the EU, the UK will need to kowtow to the larger economies of the world to be allowed any scraps of free trade but Trump endorses values that even this government must find unacceptable. There is still the insular and delusional belief that the UK really matters to the US and policy will be shifted to accommodate it. If the UK is now a proud confident nation as Theresa May asserts it to be, why cannot it remain cautious in accepting Trump, as Angela Merkel has done in her ‘welcome’ to the president elect? And this is the government that will be in charge of whatever negotiating position it eventually puts together. There is no sign that it has the competence or independence to succeed.
Meanwhile all the Brexit news seems to be bad news as the appalling complexities of negotiating any kind of position outside the EU become more obvious. The latest realisation that, after the two year cut-off point from Article 50, negotiations are unlikely to have been completed and therefore there will have to be a whole set of transitional arrangements, perhaps lasting for years, adds to the tangle. Polls now show that the public when asked their views on life outside the EU are equally split between those who wish to stay in the single market and those who want to leave it. So here will be further confusion that will possibly split the Conservative Party yet again. It is hardly surprising that, as the frustration with the government grows, opinion polls now suggest that public opinion is turning against Brexit. Parliament which, extraordinarily, left it to others to make its case for representation in deciding the terms of leaving, is now involved and the sensible proviso that any settlement should be voted on again is gaining ground.
Yet the uncertainties continue. While for many already struggling to make ends meet, it will be the steady erosion of living standards as prices rise and wages stagnate that eventually resonate, the most acute anxieties are among the three million EU citizens living and working in the UK and the 1.5 million UK citizens in the EU itself who have no stability in their lives. Liam Fox’s admission that they may become bargaining chips has added to the tension. It could be years before their status is confirmed. Meanwhile, there is little point in EU citizens applying for jobs in the UK from which they might be sent home in the future. It is better to seek a career elsewhere as many who do not have family commitments in the UK surely will.
To find a way out there has to be a new vision as sudden and dramatic as the cry of the small boy who spotted that the emperor was naked. The cynically contrived slogans under which the Brexiteers marshalled support in June are now seen to be hollow and they have nothing left other than to hysterically cling to the mantra that they are fulfilling ‘the will of the people’. With winter coming, the Brexiteers need clothes and they have none.
So it is a time to think hard about priorities for the UK. These are not hard to find. There has been growing inequality that has left many parts of the United Kingdom isolated, the NHS is in extreme crisis as is the provision of social care. Schools are under pressure with falling resources per pupil head. The prisons are also in crisis. As an economy, the UK’s full employment (despite migration) masks its low productivity and so wages are stagnant. There is a failure to cover imports with exports. The Times reports that £65bn of investment is now on hold. The United Kingdom has no obvious economic advantages over its competitors but Brexiteers still assume they will ditch the EU single market and make more lucrative trade deals in a world where protectionism is growing.
None of this is the fault of the EU and diverting immense resources to establish a mythical ‘independent sovereignty’ outside Europe are not going to solve any of the priorities facing the UK. The need for an alternative vision is imperative. Once it is accepted that Brexit offers nothing for rich or poor, affluent or deprived, then there is the possibility of building an alternative vision for the UK and the diversity of peoples which make it a successful nation. The case for withdrawing from the Brexit fiasco seems ever stronger and may only be a matter of time before the public realises that the Brexit emperor has no clothes and will never have them. If a coalition of MPs, supported by the lord, can make the case, we might ditch the emperor altogether.