Op-ed

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Britain pushes onward in the post-Brexit vote quagmire

by Anthony Cary

Ottawa Citizen
June 8, 2017

Theresa May, hoping to be returned to power with a larger majority that she now has, heads into election day Thursday with a badly weakened reputation.

The prime minister had repeatedly promised no snap election. She justified the decision to break her word by saying she needed a big majority to strengthen Britain’s hand in the European Union withdrawal negotiations that are about to begin. This was billed as the “Brexit election.”

Since the referendum of a year ago, there has been what amounts to a merger between the Conservative Party and the nationalist U.K. Independence Party (UKIP). So in the first few days, May sought to pump up anti-European sentiment by making specious allegations that the EU was seeking to meddle in U.K. affairs. She needed to reassure those abandoning UKIP that the Conservatives offered them a comfortable anti-immigration, nationalist home. 

It quickly became apparent that the prime minister did not actually want to discuss Brexit at all. On this central issue, the Conservative manifesto – when it emerged – offered nothing beyond a string of Orwellian slogans (“strong and stable” leadership; a “smooth and orderly” departure from the EU; a “deep and special” future partnership). Nor was it just Brexit that she didn’t want to discuss. She did not relish unscripted encounters of any kind. She refused to participate in leadership debates on TV.

She gave one interview to a regional newspaper in which her performance was so robotic that it went viral for failing the Turing test.

Soon the focus moved to social care policy and the so-called “Dementia Tax” (with the state setting no upper limit on the amount that people might have to pay for their care in old age). When the tabloids failed to support this policy, May at once backed away from it while maintaining that there had been no policy change. The tide of Conservative fortunes began to ebb.

By the later stages of the campaign, the agenda was dominated by internal security, after the terrorist murders in Manchester and London. This usually plays well for incumbent governments. But May was on the back foot, having been responsible for internal security for six years as Home Secretary and having cut police numbers.

Meanwhile, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn – who has been long pilloried as unelectable – got stronger through the campaign. Labour’s economic plans look unrealistic; their European policy amounts to a promise to maintain all the benefits of the EU while leaving it; and Corbyn’s support for Hamas and the IRA doesn’t help him on the internal security front.

But he came across, at least, as a real human being.

The Liberal Democrats suffered from the classic squeeze on third parties in a first-past-the-post system. Their pro-European pitch was aimed at the 48 per cent who voted to stay in the EU. But half of those voters have since been bullied into thinking it their patriotic duty to make the best of a bad job rather than to challenge the outcome of a consultative referendum.

The EU withdrawal negotiations will now begin. It is probable that they will quickly run into trouble. At best there is going to have to be a very long transitional period after the U.K. leaves the EU in the spring of 2019. It will take many years to negotiate a new deal with former partners and to create all the new red tape that will be required for new customs posts, rules of origin requirements, new regulatory agencies and so on.

At worst there will be a breakdown in negotiations, and the application of World Trade Organization rules, with dire economic and political consequences.

When people realise that the Brexit El Dorado conjured by the Leave campaign was a mirage, it would be comforting to think that the traditionally pragmatic, outward-looking British people would demand the right to think again. It is more likely, perhaps, that the government will wrap itself in the flag, blame vindictive foreigners for seeking to punish the U.K. and appeal to a wartime spirit of defiance.

The international picture is not all so gloomy. Though the U.K. is engaged in an act of monumental self-harm and the United States is suffering under a manifestly incompetent president, the EU is holding together, and – with Canada – carries the flag for the post-war international rules-based order.

When I left Canada in 2010, the Globe and Mail was running a campaign under the strap-line: “Canada. Our time to lead.” Please, please do. The world needs you.

Anthony Cary is former British High Commissioner to Canada and British Ambassador to Sweden. He writes for the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.

Image credit: WPA Pool / Getty Images

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