As the EU’s chief negotiator warns of a ‘no deal’ crash-out, Jonathan Lis assesses whether the chaos is a villainous plot or pure incompetence

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Brexit is back, and the news is bad.

The EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier has warned that a trade deal with the UK Government is “unlikely” before the end of the year.

On Wednesday, the Daily Telegraph reported that UK ministers have effectively abandoned hopes of a deal with the EU and assume that the UK will default to World Trade Organisation terms next year.

It is not so much that the Prime Minister’s July deadline will be breached, few people expected either side could meet it. Rather, the UK insists that it will not budge on the issues of fishing, the level playing field and oversight of the deal – and neither will the EU.

Brexit is the Government’s sole policy and sole ambition. The problem is that it has absolutely no idea how to achieve it.

To make matters worse, the Financial Times has reported that the UK and America have abandoned plans for a trade deal – the much heralded ‘replacement’ for our EU relationship – before the end of the year. That was despite claims on both sides that it could be negotiated by this summer.

With just over five months until the end of the transition period and the total severance of the UK’s European economic harmonisation, it seems a good time to ask: what on earth is going on?

Brexit Trumps Everything

The newly-published Russia Report is an appropriate place to begin, partly because it exposes the Conservatives’ indifference to – or subversion of – the national interest, but principally because it emphasises just how essential Brexit has become to the body politic.

Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) did not confirm that Russia had interfered in the 2016 EU Referendum, merely that the Government had not even asked the question.

In other words, Brexit is so crucial to the operation of the British state that the legitimacy of the vote does not actually matter. It is not only worth sacrificing the country’s economy, but potentially, democracy itself.

At its most basic level, Brexit and the Conservative Party have fused: their destinies are interlocked. Brexit is the Government’s sole policy and sole ambition. The problem is that it has absolutely no idea how to achieve it.

This is the theory of accidental chaos. In essence, our leaders have latterly discovered the vastness and complexity of their project and don’t know what to do. The theory is compelling because it reflects the reality of the past four years. The two Brexit Prime Ministers have lurched from one crisis to the next, patching and making it up as they go along.

When we ascribe a grand plan to the disorder, we give them the credit they do not deserve. It reflects the earliest days of the Brexit negotiations when Brussels viewed the UK’s panicked scrambling as some kind of double-bluff or cunning plan. But, in fact, things were exactly as they seemed – Britain’s leaders are less villainous masterminds than lightweight incompetents.

Calling their Own Bluff

In a sense, then, this whole process has been about bluff.

In 2017, the Government really was as disorganised as it appeared and the Civil Service as unprepared.

But only one side in the negotiation has learnt anything. Because while the EU has discovered the UK’s incompetence, the UK has still not understood its own lack of power.

The notions of British strength and pragmatism were rooted in a mythologised past and the past four years have dispelled any notion that they might return. But, even after all the climb-downs and humiliations, the lorry parks and job losses, the Government still believes everything will turn out alright if it just wills it to.

This is partly a question of who leads us. Theresa May was gripped by a rigid exceptionalism that could not tolerate dissenting opinion or constructive advice. Prime Minister Boris Johnson is an old Etonian chancer who thinks he can get whatever he wants through charm and breeding alone. Both not only failed to allow compromise or reflection, but grossly miscalculated the negotiation’s dynamic.

Even now, the Government assumes it can spook Brussels into giving the UK whatever it wants by threatening to walk away. That misapprehension explains the current negotiation strategy.

On the issues of the level playing field and fishing, the Government has either signed up to something it refuses to deliver or has drawn a red line around its own interests and refused to acknowledge the existence of anyone else’s. It has not, in short, negotiated in good faith.

The UK stance may stem from ineptitude and misunderstanding, but still also allows for malice. One can understand the importance of ‘delivering Brexit’ and still not grasp the question: why this Brexit, the hardest and most extreme?

Mission Creep to the Cliff-Edge

Perhaps it was always going to be like this.

The Eurosceptic movement has always been defined by mission creep. The 1990s Maastricht rebels did not propose leaving the EU. Even five or six years ago, the most hardline Conservatives were advocating remaining in Margaret Thatcher’s single market.

But, since the referendum, any harmonisation at all with the EU has been deemed an unacceptable breach of sovereignty or an insult to Britain’s global ambition.

The UK is, after all, focused on reclaiming the sites of colonial memory. A meaningful relationship with Brussels would only remind it of the 47 years spent under Europe’s imaginary yoke.

It is, therefore, necessary to consider the alternative scenario: that the Government, in fact, wants maximum breakage and disruption, which it will hide under the Coronavirus crisis or for which it will blame the EU.

This framing is already growing commonplace. The i newspaper, not known for an anti-EU stance, produced a headline last week entitled ‘EU Red Tape Could Block Thousands of British Businesses Exporting Goods to Europe’. That ‘red tape’, of course, is the rulebook for third-country trade which the UK devised, endorsed and voted through. British voters didn’t elect to leave it behind but to implement it.

And yet, for all the headlines, voters will not, in the end, have the option to blame the EU. It is the Government, not the European Commission, which will appear on the 2024 ballot paper. It is a huge gamble to hope it will have all blown over by then or that voters will simply shrug off the Conservatives’ voluntary economic damage.

As for COVID-19, Brexit will hit an entirely different area of the economy: services, manufacturing and supply chains. The two crises are unique and distinct.

Perhaps, then the Government is genuinely placing its faith in new trade deals. But on any rational understanding that, too, falls short of the mark. The Government itself has forecast the benefit of a US deal as just 0.2% of GDP.

Shocking Doctrines

And so it is necessary to consider the most disturbing theory: that it could be deliberate chaos. Is Brexit the ultimate embodiment of a ‘shock doctrine’?

Certainly, some Conservatives long for a deregulated ‘Singapore upon Thames’ in which rights are granted to businesses, not workers or the environment. Others really could be motivated by the vulture-capitalist dreams of a crashed economy and lifeless pound. But it is hard to identify that as an overarching ambition.

The majority of Conservatives did not enter politics to become personally rich at the expense of their constituents. The political ramifications would be severe. And you do not, in the end, get rich by setting fire to the source of your money.

In a sense, deliberate chaos would be an improvement. At least you could crystallise and understand it. Sometimes it is worse to fight an opponent who doesn’t actually have a plan or know what they are doing.

The truth of Brexit is that it belonged not to reality but the imagination, and it is now out of of control. The UK is on the road to the cliff-edge, and it’s not just that the driver won’t slam on the brakes – we don’t even know if there’s anyone steering the car.

Jonathan Lis is deputy director of the pro-EU think tank British Influence


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