Brexit means Brexit… The oft repeated mantra has become as synonymous with Theresa May as Major’s “Back to Basics”, Blair’s “Education, Education, Education” and Cameron’s “Compassionate Conservatism”. Like those, the phrase has become something of a joke – not helped by the assonance of the words “Brexit” and “Breakfast”, and the trap this has provided to ministers and commentators alike. So far, so funny, so harmless. Well, not harmless, but there is a world of difference between soundbites and actual policy. Originally “Brexit means Brexit” seemed designed to simultaneously pander to those who want a hard Brexit, whilst leaving the government leeway to work out what to do.
Of course, the official explanation of a lack of policy is that we cannot “reveal our hand” in advance of negotiations. There can be no escaping the whiff of sophistry about this answer – particularly when you consider the conflicting signals from the various departments charged with coming up with some form of coherent plan for those negotiations, preferably before Article 50 itself is triggered. It is patently obvious that no such plan yet exists, and all the while the clock is ticking towards the government’s self-imposed deadline.
If taken at face value, then May’s approach shows a shocking disregard for parliament, and the people. Her original desire to exercise Royal Prerogative to trigger Article 50 was but a symptom of a wish to retain control over every aspect of Brexit. I doubt those who voted to “Take Back Control” meant “take back control and hand it to the whoever is selected to lead the Tory party to do with as they wish”. Nonetheless in a few short months we have gone from having a government elected on a manifesto in which they said “yes to the Single Market” to a situation where the new Prime Minister will not now categorically repeat that affirmation.
This desire for control was evident in the advent of “Red, White and Blue” Brexit. Back me, or be unpatriotic was the message. Brexit is British: if you don’t get behind it, then your loyalty and even national identity is suspect. Get with the programme or get out… I exaggerate, but there is a serious point here: Brexit has given licence to those whose idea of Britishness is ethnic rather than civic to voice their opinions in ever louder and more aggressive ways. The tone from May, and from elements of the press, add fuel to the fire. It’s all very well to call for unity, but you need to act like you want it.
It is impossible to shake the suspicion is that the government, or parts of it, is intent on withdrawing from the single market whatever their public pronouncements, or lack of them, say. Certainly, having already gained the upper hand once, Tory eurosceptics will now press for “Maximum Brexit”. In building their coalition of support the Leave campaigns deliberately obfuscated on whether we would (or could) remain a member after a Leave vote. Now most of the leading campaigners tell us that Brexit means complete extraction not just from the EU but from all its institutions.
So, we have three possible, and overlapping, reasons for the government’s silence on their vision for the future: 1) a lack of a plan for the negotiations, 2) a certain control freakery, driven by May and 3) an unwillingness to admit that leaving the single market is an aim of at least some of our leaders, if not the settled goal of the government as a whole.
But is there a fourth reason?
Traditionally uncertainty has been the enemy of the markets – and this was evident as the currency markets tumbled following May’s refusal to admit that her aspirations to control migrant numbers would inevitably mean a hard Brexit settlement. But it was more than this, it was a window on what will happen if, or when, it becomes clear that we are leaving the single market. May can ill afford a further sustained devaluation of the currency, the attendant monetary and fiscal measures that would accompany this, or the potential backlash that the resultant cost of living might bring against her and the road she has embarked on.
Perhaps uncertainty is better than certainty, if the latter is suitably grave. Perhaps that’s why, for now, mum’s the word when it comes to Brexit plans.
* Andrew Brown is a Liberal Democrat member in Bristol. He blogs here