Written by Sir Ivan Rogers, former Permanent Representative of the UK to the EU

I wrote most of the text of my short book, Nine Lessons in Brexit, for a lecture I delivered just before Christmas 2018: hence its title.

It was already clear by then that Theresa May’s strategy to deliver her preferred version of Brexit was falling apart. The very night I gave the lecture was supposed to have been the one of the so-called Meaningful Vote in the Commons to bless the Withdrawal Agreement she had agreed in the November with all the 27 Heads of Government in the EU.

In practice, the vote was postponed. And when she eventually held it in January, she was beaten by an historically huge margin. Two subsequent attempts also failed. And by the late spring, the consequential demise of the Prime Minister was a certainty: arguably the fourth consecutive Conservative Prime Minister whose fate has been sealed by the European question.

Perhaps inevitably, if depressingly, the main lesson the Conservative Party seems to have chosen to derive from the last three years, as demonstrated by their choice of Boris Johnson as leader, is that they needed to become the party of ‘no deal’ enthusiasts if they were to head off the political threat from the Right.

Purely politically, that may be an understandable choice. And, as I write, the possibility that we are grinding inexorably towards ‘no deal’ this autumn – a dangerous prospect of which I have been warning publicly since 2017 – seems ever more probable. We face too the growing likelihood of a second General Election since the 2016 referendum, as the paralysis in Westminster encourages another Prime Minister to risk another ‘the people versus the political elite’ election.

It might yet even ‘work’ this time. If, by ‘work’, one solely means changing the composition of the House of Commons sufficiently to be able to assemble a majority in favour of the hardest of hard Brexits.

Much of the public is understandably fed up with the length of the exit process and finds the political manoeuvres and blame games on all sides increasingly unedifying. That may well play to the advantage of those crying ‘let’s just get it done’. Though they have been playing just as many games as anyone.

As has often been the case over the past generation, the forces seeking a so-called ‘soft Brexit’ and to stop ‘no deal’ seem less united and less determined to win at all costs than those who want to drive through a ‘no deal’ outcome.

But as I hope my short book demonstrates, ‘no deal’ is actually neither a genuine destination nor a sustainable solution for the UK. Going to ‘no deal’ in reality gets nothing ‘done’. It would prove just to be a different route to a longer period of damaging uncertainty and a weaker negotiating position for the UK for the, inevitable, next stage in the negotiations to fashion a new relationship between the UK and the bloc it is leaving. And it might well fracture the United Kingdom permanently along the way.

Amidst the noise and fury of the current debate, it is too easy to lose sight of the fundamental questions we need to address. And too many politicians are still intent on obscuring the real choices and trade-offs we face, and much prefer to re-enter ‘campaign mode’ than to govern and have to confront realities and be honest about them with the public.

The central argument advanced by the new Prime Minister against a Brexit deal like the one his predecessor ended up advocating, is that we need full autonomy to run our own trade policy and conclude our own free trade deals.

It is too easy to lose sight of the fundamental questions we need to address.

One can certainly argue that case. No serious Government can argue, though, that the only major country or bloc with which we will not need a free trade deal is the one with which we currently do much the greatest trade. (Indeed, we conduct more trade in services with the EU than with our next eight trading partners, including the US, put together.)

No serious Government can argue either that it is fine to trade on ‘WTO terms’ with that largest trading partner when its own behaviour repeatedly shows that, in trading relations with all others, it accepts there a huge advantage for the UK in trading on ‘free trade deal’ terms which are much superior.

So unless they are indeed arguing that, one has to assume that the argument for going to ‘no deal’ is either that:

  • The other side’s solidarity will crumble when they see we are serious about threatening to walk. In reality, there has never been the slightest evidence of this being true, however often it has been repeated; the EU sees the costs to the UK of a ‘no deal’ Brexit as much higher for the UK, and the costs to itself much larger if it were to abandon its core principles. It won’t. This is a pipe dream.
  • It will prove a quicker and better route to a new free trade deal than agreeing any Withdrawal Agreement on the table. And will enable us to escape both the ‘backstop’ which has become a key stumbling block to any deal, and some of our financial obligations on exit. This too is a pipe dream. The EU looks at the new Prime Minister’s conception of the free trade deal and sees an even greater necessity to stand firm on the backstop. And it views ‘no deal’ as handing it virtually complete control over how and what we trade with each other until any deal is done. All the pressure to escape the ‘no deal’ noose will be on the British side.

‘No deal’ would not hasten the road to an eventual free trade deal, and improve its terms once negotiated. It would slow it up, and worsen them.

The lessons from the first Brexit negotiations are clear and many. The sooner the British political class digests them, and starts being honest with the public about the major trade-offs ahead, the sooner the country can reunify and tackle its huge challenges. The signs, however, are that this remains a distant prospect.

This article appeared first in 'The Geographer', our quarterly magazine (Autumn 2019 edition).