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Brexit: You broke it, you fix it.

November 23, 2016 10:54 AM
By Lord William Wallace in Liberal Democrat Voice
Originally published by High Peak Liberal Democrats

It's now five months since the EU referendum on June 23rd: plenty of time, you might have thought, for a government which appointed ministers committed to Brexit to key posts to have developed a strategy. Yet confusion reigns in Whitehall and Westminster. The clock is ticking towards Theresa's pledged date of invoking Article 50 by the end of March. Yet the government seems more focused on fighting a court case to limit the involvement of Parliament than in setting out its preferred future relationship with our neighbours on the European continent.

This is a degree of incompetence about which we should be angry, on top of our anger at the false promises and illusions of the Leave campaign. Some, at least, of the leaders of the Leave campaign should have had a strategy for negotiating a new relationship with the EU. But the coalition of ideologues and opportunists who led the Leave campaign only agreed on what they did not want. Economists for Britain wanted unilateral free trade; Professor Tim Congdon is still promoting this in the press. Liam Fox thought the Anglo-Saxon Commonwealth would welcome us with generous free trade agreements, and has discovered that this is not how trade negotiations work.

Boris Johnson has so far offended most other EU foreign ministers by flippant remarks and unwillingness to recognise that they have their own interests to defend. The anti-foreigner undertones of the Conservative Party conference hardened attitudes in Berlin, the Hague, Stockholm and Helsinki - our closest natural allies within the EU - and reduced willingness to offer special concessions to ease the Conservatives' dilemmas. The Europhobe ultras continue to argue that we should tear up the treaties and leave, without further negotiations. And heaven knows what the Prime Minister thinks; stories circulate around Whitehall about her determination to keep control of the process, but she has few people around her who understand the issues.

Tory Europhobes, the Daily Mail and the Telegraph have covered this drift and confusion by ever-more shrill attacks on their critics - from judges to Liberal Democrats. Bits of information are slowly emerging. The government has said that it wants to stay plugged into police and intelligence cooperation (thank goodness); papers are reportedly being written about how to maintain cooperation in defence and foreign policy (but the Europhobes will bitterly oppose that); some sort of deal has been offered to Nissan, and another may be cooked up for the City. But there's no coherent package within sight.

Meanwhile, the total contradiction between shrinking the state and 'taking back control' becomes clearer. The Taxpayers Alliance wrote in last Friday's Times that ministers should resist taking on more civil servants to manage the negotiations; somehow we should manage this massive task while cutting staff and taxes further. Parliament heard on Monday that the UK has 3 coastguard boats to patrol our lengthy maritime border, while the Dutch have 16 boats for 200 miles of coast. Promises of more money for the NHS and funds for an industrial strategy are yielding to cuts in corporation tax to compete for business outside the EU.

This is a mess. In previous revisions of the EU Treaties, our governments published white papers, set out their objectives, and carried the public with them. This time, the Prime Minister is clinging to secrecy, in order to avoid deepening the antagonisms within her own party. Any international negotiation has to win over domestic opinion as well as persuade foreign partners; so far, over five months, the government has gone backwards in convincing either side. Liberal Democrats have the right to say to those who led the Leave campaign to its narrow victory: 'You broke it, you fix it.' 'And if you can't work out how to fix it, what then?'

* Lord Wallace of Saltaire is a Liberal Democrat member of the House of Lords.