May’s Brexit will create a weak and unstable United Kingdom

Voters in next month’s general election are being asked to support Theresa May’s ‘strong and stable’ leadership in the Brexit negotiations. What voters may in fact be choosing is a weak and unstable United Kingdom. Inflation, first prompted by the 15% fall in sterling after last year’s vote to leave the European Union (EU), will continue to erode real standards of living. The drip drip of foreign firms reallocating future investment and jobs outside the United Kingdom will continue. As a result Government tax revenue will decline and Tory austerity will last longer. The Scottish Government will progress a second independence referendum, and there may yet be a border poll on an united Ireland.

Theresa May’s unnecessary general election is based on a false premise. Voters have been asked to give her carte blanche on grounds that the United Kingdom needs her strong leadership to secure the best Brexit deal. However, the EU is used to negotiating with whichever party, coalition of parties or dictatorship governs a partner country. In reality, having a slim majority or being in coalition can strengthen a government’s hand in negotiations.

The EU referendum already extended the split on Europe within the Conservative party to the country, and again their leader is asking the country to resolve another internal party issue. Some hope the likely May landslide might lead to a softer Brexit because she will be better able to face down the ideological Europhobes. This cannot be assured. Will the Conservatives, strengthened by reabsorbing its lost UKIP base, secure a new parliamentary majority large enough to ensure sidelining the 60 (and probably larger) hard core of Brexiteers?

If May were a strong leader, she would not have given into the Brexit bullies in the first place. If she really cared about uniting the country (notably the 48%) and helping the Just About Managing (JAMs), she would not make their situation worse by progressing a hard Brexit. She has drawn the wrong conclusion from the 2016 referendum – control of immigration should not be the red line to the extent that it trashes our economy. Leaving the EU does not tackle the half of immigration coming from outside the EU.

Furthermore, her record in controlling it as Home Office minister is poor, e.g. failing to resource the Border Agency adequately, not counting people leaving as well as arriving, and excluding foreign students from official statistics. We need a Prime Minister to lead the United Kingdom, not an unsuccessful immigration minister to bleed it.

After years of falsely alleging the UK is outvoted 27 to 1 in the European Council, Europhobe Conservatives will soon find out what it really means to be isolated in Europe. In the past, the UK could count on EU allies (LSE studies show we got our own way 98% of the time). In the Brexit negotiations, we shall have no allies. While there may a mutual interest in a positive outcome, a good outcome is a lesser priority for the EU27 than it is for us.

The Brexit negotiations will be like EU accession negotiations in reverse. I took part in many high level Track II discussions between the old EU15 and candidate states after the breaching of the Berlin Wall.  Central and Southern candidates found the word ‘negotiations’ a misnomer. They could secure few concessions other than a slightly longer transition agreement or inconsequential area here or there. Candidate countries became so frustrated with the ‘structured dialogue’ that they referred to it as a ‘structured monologue’.  Candidates had no choice but to take it, or leave it. Like the candidates, we shall find that with 2% of world GDP (compared to the EU’s 22%) we shall be outgunned by this still global bloc. It is therefore delusional to believe the UK has all the cards, or even a good hand.

With the help of our allies, the UK did remarkably well as an EU member state negotiating several unique opt outs and the best deal for Britain. Now that we are alone leaving, we are headed to a likely humiliation. Humiliation will take the form of either no deal, probably because we cannot agree the Brexit Bill, or a softer Brexit. Either may yet split the governing party and United Kingdom. A vote for May’s trumpeted ‘strong and stable’ leadership is a vote for a weak and unstable country.

* Nick Hopkinson is chair of the Liberal Democrat European Group (LDEG) and former Director, Wilton Park, Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

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21 Comments

  • Peter Martin 15th May '17 - 10:20am

    We’ll have to see how it all turns out. My expectation is that we’ll just be given a take-it-or-leave -it deal by the EU regardless of who is in Government and regardless of the size of any Parliamentary majority.

    But its not going to do anyone any good at all if you turn out to be right. We’ll just have to make the best of it.

    There were similar prophesies of doom when Singapore was expelled (or left according to your view of history) from the Malaysian Federation in 1965. Singapore is just a tiny island with inadequate farming land for its own population. It can’t even supply its own water. So how could it possibly survive on its own?

    But fast forward 52 years and we see Singapore doing very well indeed. I’m not suggesting that we follow everything that Singapore has done. But, we can take some heart that it is quite possible for the UK to have a successful economy and be quite separate from the EU too.

  • Besides having credible policies, you must know that Singapore also hugely benefited from Vietnam War. It had a strategic position in SE Asia at that time (and also today) since it is located right on a major sea lane.

  • Beautifully and convincingly argued. But let’s face it, the Lib Dems are stuck in the polls probably because many, not just some, Remainers hope that giving Theresa May absolute power will enable her to face down her party’s fanatics and avoid a cliff-edge Brexit.

    Lib Dems should constantly remind the electorate that it is Theresa May herself who has determined the UK will leave both the single market and the customs union. That is the policy for which she is explicitly seeking a mandate.

    The message must be that if left unchallenged, Theresa May’s chosen route will inevitably lead to further cuts in public spending on the NHS, social care and schools. To vote for her and the Tories is to collaborate with a programme of national impoverishment.

  • I also believe that Theresa May will reach an acceptable deal with the EU. I try to avoid hard and soft Brexit as terms because in a practical sense they are unhelpful. May and the Tories have to have an established walk away position in the negotiations. In my professional life I have conducted many major commercial negotiations many of these involving EU or Global Supply Chains. I wouldn’t dream of entering negotiations without a walk-away position and the courage and resolve to fight my corner as necessary. She needs Britain’s support and it will be tough. The YouGov poll identifying HardLeavers and re-Leavers at 68% and committed Remainers at only 22% feels about right to me and explains why Tim’s principled is proving negative in the polls. We have to see the future and deal with it as best we can.

  • Graham Jeffs 15th May '17 - 11:19am

    Good article – but the party needs to be stressing to Leavers that governments with large majorities can be ‘loose cannon’ and that the professional and sober evaluation of all legislation can easily be ignored to the detriment of all, irrespective of their Brexit views.

    The quality of our democracy is what is now under threat – and we should be saying so very vocally!

  • Leavers seem to be terrified of being held to a standard of an exit deal that is better than remaining members. They promised us that it they could get before the referendum. Within hours of the result, their promises started falling apart and the UK dropped below France (where we stay) in size of economy.

    Will we have an economy outside the EU? Of course? Will be be smaller? Yes. Does anybody have a plan to make up the lost ground? No. Will this mean higher taxes and/or less money for public services? Yes. Is that what people were voting for last June? No.

    I’ll face your reality if you allow the national interest to come into the equation. Deal?

  • Andrew Toye 15th May '17 - 3:31pm

    What follows from a “Hard Brexit” is Hard Globalisation – Britain trying to compete in unregulated markets. People who have been left out or “left behind” – many whose Leave vote was motivated by international economic forces – will suffer badly under Hard Globalisation. Remember David Cameron’s talk of a “Global race”?

  • I think Nick Hopkinson has pretty well got it spot on. It’s tragic and depressing. The only question is whether we crash out without a ‘deal’ or pay a significant amount of money to the EU. I suspect the former. If we cannot shake things up in the next three weeks (doesn’t look like it at the moment) then we will go to the next stage of damage. I wouldn’t be sure that the game is up though. T.M. has got this election in just before the impact of Brexit starts to manifest itself. The political fallout in the Labour party is another story yet to factor. Don’t bet your house on this going full term without another referendum or G.E. In the mean time I hear the voices of acquiescence all the time on this site and throughout the population as a whole. It doesn’t need to be that way. I believe Brexit is a massive mistake and will only concede defeat on this issue and ‘make the best of it’ when we are finally out.

  • Most people are not that interested in politics and to be blunt until it starts to hurt they will pay little attention. When the pain sets in, well that is an entirely different kettle of fish. The brave Brexiteers may shout “Blame the EU” but if the pain doesn’t stop well that won’t work for long and you’ll soon see a lot of worried Brexiteers and a lot who swear blind they had always been remoaners.

  • Katharine Pindar 16th May '17 - 12:37am

    Good to see Nick Hopkinson with his very relevant experience and expertise reiterating and expanding the points I made in my article on May 8 (The country goes a-Maying now…), showing that Theresa May’s strength will be harmful rather than helpful in the Brexit negotiations to come. I urged that in this election campaign we need to show voters that however strong she is and however large her majority, her aiming for a ‘hard’ Brexit is entirely wrong and impossible of having a good outcome.

    Since writing I have read more evidence of why our party’s insistence on the need to remain in the EU’s internal market is vital. Although predominantly rural areas such as my Cumbria, Devon and Wales voted to leave the EU in large numbers, it seems that farmers in particular are now realising how important for their economic future is continuing tariff-free access for our food exports to the EU. An Exmoor hill farmer was quoted in The Times last week as saying that ‘We are slowly waking up to the fact that Brexit could be a nightmare for farmers. We won’t be in the single market or the customs union and our subsidies will be slashed so it will be a double whammy for us.’
    Thus regrets are growing, the government’s negotiating stance is harmful, and we need to be saying so loud and clear in these remaining weeks of campaigning.

  • Peter Martin 16th May '17 - 7:16am

    @ Joe Otten

    “Will be be smaller?”

    No. I’d be happy to have a friendly pint-of-beer type bet on the outcome of that.

    “Does anybody have a plan to make up the lost ground?”

    If you mean to keep the economy growing then yes. Whether the government does the right thing remains to be seen.

    “Will this mean higher taxes and/or less money for public services?”

    Probably not. Higher taxes would only be required if the economy started to overheat and inflation became an issue.

    “Is that what people were voting for last June?”

    No. I’d agree on that. Sometimes people do the right thing for the wrong reasons. Like not wanting to switch the pound for the euro for example.

  • Peter Martin…I’ll take that bet!

    The thing that matters is that a market of half a billion people, on our doorstep, will have obstacles (increasing year by year as their regulations change) in place…
    As for the fantasy that the world is queuing up to trade with us?…The media barely mentioned Bojo’s overseas odyssey over the past few months (where he visited countless ex Commonwealth countries making all sorts of promises including financial aid (bribes) in return for a trade deal)….What success could he claim on his return? ” A little company that makes the wooden display counters that are used to sell the duty-free Toblerones in every Saudi Arabian airport.”””If we can crack markets like that, think what we can do when we have free trade deals”??????? …

  • Antony Watts 16th May '17 - 9:51am

    I still cannot fathom why we are leaving in the first place. Its not the referendum that did it, that could quite easily have been swept aside by MPs, which just leave Tory Power and Glory reasons, of which only two are still standing, immigration and the ECJ,

    Immigration is a snake pit, for many reasons, May didn’t sort it when Home Sec, UK approach is two way, both based on colonial past, and none going the EU way of 3 months support to find a job anywhere in the EU. We live in the past, and obstruct the future

    And then there is the ECJ, which is indispensable, because we need an international (i.e. between nations) court to settle disputes. We will always need such a court, and what better than a European one not an International WTO one?

    Leave is daft, Tory backbench rubbish and must be seen as such,

  • nvelope2003 16th May '17 - 3:03pm

    Yes leaving is daft but we will because the majority want it. We have to find a way for those who successfully advocate a misguided policy to be personally responsible for the cost and for those who did not to be compensated for their loss which seems to be what happens in many spheres of life.

    Before the last war Britain could force its colonies, including Ireland up to 1922, to accept British goods and the Royal Navy was used to this end. When America put a stop to this and seized our markets for themselves Britain had to join the Common Market because trade with the Commonwealth was declining. Missions were despatched by the Government to try to reverse this but without success. When I explained this to a Brexiteer he said he had never heard such nonsense. What history is taught in schools now ? When I was a child we still had the Empire but it is almost forgotten now and from what I hear of it a good thing too.

  • Katharine Pindar 16th May '17 - 9:32pm

    To say, nvelope 2003, ‘that leaving is daft but we will because the majority want it’ is wrong for two reasons. 1. Enough of the majority may be changing their minds. 2. Our leaders should not follow the majority if it will lead to the ruin of the country, because their ultimate duty is to save the country from harm.

  • Peter Martin 17th May '17 - 1:46pm

    @ Katharine

    Your second argument is very dangerous. A similar line would be that when given a choice between Barabbas and Christ the majority voted for the former and therefore can’t be trusted.

    Except that was an argument used by Pinochet in justification for his army’s overthrow of the democratically elected Allende government. That’s not to say that Remainers are on the same low moral level as him. But nevertheless they need to get over it and move on. Most have. There was a time to make an argument against a referendum on the EU but that was at a time that all Lib Dem MPs , with the exception of Nick Clegg, were siding with the Cameron govt’s decision to have one.

  • Catherine Jane Crosland 17th May '17 - 2:04pm

    Katharine, I am worried by your argument. Surely the essence of democracy is that the electorate have the right to make decisions – which includes the right to make mistakes.

  • Peter Martin 17th May '17 - 2:33pm

    @ Katharine,

    Sure, there’s quite likely to be some pushing and shoving with the EU over Brexit. But it is not at all likely to lead to our economic ruin.

    If we look at the long term yields for gilts we can see that the UK government can borrow money at interest rates of 0.1%, 0.49%, 1.07%, and 1.7% on 2, 5,10, and 30 year terms respectively. That seems pretty reasonable to me. And incidentally these are four very good reasons for any publicly owned body to stay away from so-called PFI agreements. They are a complete rip-off.

    If you were a foreign investor who was concerned that Brexit meant ‘ruin’ or even significant ‘harm’ to our country, would you be prepared to lend at such low rates?

    https://www.bloomberg.com/markets/rates-bonds/government-bonds/uk

  • Katharine Pindar 17th May '17 - 11:46pm

    Peter and Catherine, I have said several times on this channel that, IMO, since MPs are not delegates, their ultimate right and duty, if faced with conflicts of interest between for instance their constituents’ majority view and their loyalty to their party, is to vote for what they believe is best for the country. So I held that our MPs were right to vote against Article 50, if they believed that Brexit is bad for the country, whatever their constituents thought. Of course as I believed that myself I was pleased that the party policy was consistent with this and that the majority of our MPs voted against.

    Peter, there are so many harmful outcomes to expect from leaving the EU market that the government’s current ability to borrow at low interest rates does not seem to me very significant. As the poor get poorer and inequality grows, I am grateful for our staunch Liberal principles, now being demonstrated through our election Manifesto, and upheld so well by our leader.

  • Peter Martin 20th May '17 - 3:39pm

    @Katharine,

    We’ve had increasing inequality while we’ve been in the EU. I’m not saying that the EU are necessarily responsible for that but neither can the EU be relied upon to prevent it.

    I would say the LibDems need to get away from the Brexit issue as much as possible for the remainder of the campaign. That was last year’s argument in the minds of most of the electorate.

    This election is turning out to be much more normal than I’d expected. In other words its about what type of society we want. Its about taxes, education, the NHS. All the usual things.

    So, yes Brexit is still one issue, but Mrs May isn’t having it all her own way. The Tories have blundered on their “dementia tax” and school lunch proposals. That’s their weakness and that’s where you need to focus your efforts.

  • Richard Underhill 21st May '17 - 6:53pm

    Nick Hopkinson has pretty well got it spot on. Note that Theresa May’s Team are not putting numbers in her manifesto, nor pound signs (£££). She knows that the UK’s economic future is uncertain. On immigration she knows that about one million UK citizens are resident in the EU27. If they decide to exercise their absolute right to return to the UK and use the NHS, etcetera the immigration promises she is making will look silly. Immigration forecasts can be met if there is a sufficiently severe recession, so, is that what Theresa May is forecasting?

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