We are very sorry to break it to you, but there is some bad news on the UK government’s Brexit approach.
First published in May 2018. | Updated in October 2019.
It has been fashionable to compare aspects of the UK government’s Brexit approach to Schrödinger’s thought experiment about the cat in a steel chamber that is simultaneously alive and dead. Like the eponymous feline, the government’s approach could be considered both ‘alive’ in the sense that it was being energetically pursued and at the same time ‘dead’ because it was impossible to achieve. We can now bring an update on the cat. Unfortunately, there is some very bad news. The steel chamber has been opened. The cat has passed away.
The government’s Brexit approach was fatally flawed from the start. Designed to appeal to as many Leave voters as possible, it combined control (the three red lines) with the promise of a frictionless relationship with the EU. The theory was that the EU’s economic interest was so strong that political considerations would be swept aside and agreement swiftly reached.
Much like the cat, this plan has not aged well. Ironically, the core problem was not, in fact, the three red lines. After all, the UK could have drifted into a green and unpleasant autarky – grow more vegetables, grow more doctors, fracking – with its red lines kept intact. The plan’s fatal flaw was its aspiration for a future economic relationship whose basis was so inimical to the Single Market that the EU had little choice but to reject it out of hand.
Like the unfortunate cat, the government’s approach to Brexit was not able to survive even cursory observation. Identifying the precise point of its demise is difficult, but there are some obvious moments. Cynics might point to the EU’s negative response to the aspirations of the ill-fated Lancaster House speech. Other possibilities include the UK’s agreement to the Irish border back-stop option, or, more prosaically, the point at which the words ‘as’ and ‘as possible’ were inserted before and after ‘frictionless.’
Returning to the steel chamber, the most surprising aspect of the cat’s demise is that it has been so little noticed despite the many signs of its passing. The EU has reiterated on numerous occasions that the British plan will not work. There has been hardly any progress made on the negotiation of the future relationship. It’s been almost two years since the referendum, and the Cabinet still can’t agree on a customs scheme to pursue.
But despite all the evidence, the government continues to pursue its Brexit with the glassy-eyed determination of a punch-drunk boxer. There are reasons, none of them good, for this wilful suspension of reality. Many political futures have been hitched to the success of this particular Brexit. Labour continues to rely on its policy of strategic ambiguity, loosely summarised as ‘not that Brexit.’ And the public has not yet been roiled by a crisis sufficient to cause its Brexit views to change materially.
But the current situation will not last. No amount of resuscitation or wishful thinking will bring the feline back to life, although the occasional dead cat bounce may bring some fleeting hope. There is some evidence that we are edging closer to this sad realisation. The eagerness of the House of Lords to amend the government’s bills suggests an institutional mood shift. In the Commons, the government has delayed its Trade and Customs bills, a clue. Even the economy has unfurled a brightly coloured warning flag.
At some point, the demise of the cat will be too obvious to ignore. Perhaps, in the absence of any decision from the UK, the EU will make its own proposal and say, ‘Take it or leave it.’ And take it we will (of all the cats, the No-Deal feline had the shortest life). But, however this point of realisation is reached, its impact will be profound. The Conservative Party’s uneasy truce will disintegrate. Labour will be forced finally to clarify it’s own position.
More importantly, someone, a new Prime Minister presumably, will have to explain to the public why the Brexit it was promised is no longer achievable.🔷
Disclaimer: No cat was harmed in the making of this article.
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