Britain’s Ongoing Brexit Woes: Nero Had Nothing on Deluded Theresa May and Her Inadequate Ministers
October 15, 2016
Nearly four months on from the EU referendum, and Britain is in meltdown — and yet the Tory government and its unelected leader, Theresa May, continue to behave as though nothing is wrong, while what springs to my mind is the Emperor Nero, fiddling while Rome burned.
You can see how delusional the Tory leadership’s state of mind is from a few facts from last week: the pound slumping in value to a 168-year low, and the Treasury — yes, the economic heart of the government itself — pointing out that “Britain will lose up to £66 billion a year if it pursues the so-called ‘hard Brexit’ option of leaving the single market and EU customs union,” as the Independent described it, adding, “Government figures suggest the UK’s gross domestic product (GDP) could fall by as much as 9.5 per cent if it leaves the EU and reverts to World Trade Organisation rules.”
I examined the folly of the “hard Brexit” option — and the alarming racism evident at the Conservative Party conference — in an article last week, Theresa May and the Conservative Party’s Alarming White Fascist Aspirations. The good news — a straw to cling to in a hurricane of wilful ignorance and blind optimism — is that MPs from across the political spectrum have finally woken up to the need to tackle May and her ministers for their stupidity and their arrogance.
The threat posed by a number of high-profile Tory rebels — Remain supporters, like three-quarters of Britain’s MPs — who have been creating a cross-party alliance to avoid a “hard Brexit” and to have MPs properly consulted on plans for leaving the EU, was such that May “promised a series of debates in the House of Commons before article 50 is triggered, while stopping short of promising a vote on the terms,” as the Guardian explained.
The motion for a debate was tabled by Labour, and reluctantly agreed to by Theresa May, who, as the Guardian put it, “had been facing her first government defeat over the motion … as a number of Conservatives indicated they were prepared to vote with Labour to demand greater public debate over the Brexit negotiating strategy.” Emily Thornberry, the shadow foreign secretary, called it “a significant U-turn” and said that Labour “would force the government to be accountable over Brexit,’ in the Guardian’s words.
On the Today programme on BBC Radio 4, she said that the opposition would not let ministers “go into a locked room and come out with some plan that they want to keep secret”. As the Guardian also noted, “Thornberry and Keir Starmer, the shadow Brexit secretary, are demanding answers to at least 170 questions about leaving the EU on everything from single market membership to the impact on the NHS.”
May also came under pressure from Jeremy Corbyn, who, at Prime Minister’s Questions, asked, “Is the prime minister really willing to risk a shambolic Tory Brexit, just to appease the people behind her?” — a reference to her backbenchers. Corbyn also said, “This is a government that drew up no plans for Brexit, that now has no strategy for negotiating Brexit, and offers no clarity, no transparency, and no chance of scrutiny of the process for developing a strategy. The jobs and incomes of millions of people are at stake, the pound is plummeting, businesses are worrying and the government has no answers. The prime minister says she won’t give a running commentary. But isn’t it time the government stopped running away from the looming threat to jobs and businesses in this country, and the living standards of millions of people?”
In the debate on Wednesday, seven former ministers — including Claire Perry, a former Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, and pro-EU Tory grandee and former Chancellor Ken Clarke — savaged the government. Perry said, “I am extremely concerned about what has happened to sterling and interest rates since the prime minister’s comments at the party conference last week,” adding, in a riposte to the giddy and groundless enthusiasm of Brexit Secretary David Davis, “The problem that [Davis] is not acknowledging is that many people in this country do not think that there is a policy to put the national interest first; they think that there is a policy to put people’s narrow ideological interests first. He should be setting out clearly how we will protect British jobs and businesses and putting ideology in the past, where it belongs.”
Ken Clarke, meanwhile, “said no foreign companies would invest until there was more clarity about the UK’s future relationship with the outside world,” as the Guardian described it, adding that Theresa May’s conference speech “potentially signalling an exit from the single market and customs union had caused a ‘reaction in the markets that was only too obvious,’” and that “has continued ever since with continued pronunciations of uncertainty that are holding things back very badly.”
In a key comment, he said, “The pound has devalued to an extent that would have caused a political crisis 30 years ago when I first came here, and not for the first time.” Keir Starmer, for Labour, said it was “frankly astonishing” that the government had no intention of allowing MPs to vote on the terms of our departure from the EU. “I’ve stood here and accepted there’s a mandate for exit,” he said, adding, however, “There is no mandate for the terms. It has never been put to the country. It has not even been put to the secretary of state’s political party and it has not been put to this house. Where is the mandate on the terms?”
Former Attorney General Dominic Grieve, another high-profile Tory critic, said, as the Guardian described it, that “there were likely to be economic risks and a ‘legal nightmare’ caused by Brexit, as he argued there was a longstanding convention that major treaty changes must be approved by parliament rather than royal prerogative.” Even Nicky Morgan, the former education secretary who had earned the unflattering nickname of Thicky Moron amongst teachers and parents, attacked the government. She “said she resented the implication from newspapers, ministers and ‘briefers and spinners at the heart of this government’ that she was trying to block Brexit,” and she “pledged to work even harder at holding the government to account over its role in leaving the EU.”
She added that “she was ‘deeply concerned’ that the cabinet had not been consulted on when article 50 would be triggered and spoke of her ‘heartbreak’ that one of her constituents would find it difficult to carry on living in the UK as an EU citizen.”
Another prominent Tory critic was Anna Soubry, the former Minister for Small Business, who said the country “was facing difficult times and spoke of a small UK firm that was in danger of going under, and others that had told her EU workers were returning to their countries of origin,” in the Guardian’s words. As she put it, “We should be holding our heads in shame that this is a feeling that people have.”
There were also passionate speeches from two former party leaders, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg, as can be seen in this video of the debate put together by Open Britain, the campaign for the UK to remain in the single market that has arisen out of the ashes of the Stronger In campaign that argued for the UK to remain in the EU. Last week there was also a very specific challenge on one particular issue regarding the proposals for leaving the EU. Open Britain noted that 52 Labour MPs have challenged Liam Fox, the disgraced former Secretary of State for Defence, who is now the Secretary of State for International Trade, “to demonstrate that the benefits of leaving the Customs Union are outweighed by the costs.” In a letter to Fox, organised by Open Britain, Keir Starmer, Alan Johnson and 50 other Labour MPs have demanded that he “‘produce a rigorous and publicly available cost-benefit analysis’ before pursuing his ‘personal preference’ of leaving.”
Backing up the MP’s disquiet, which, I hope, will not diminish in the weeks and months to come, the legal challenge against the government’s plans, which I most recently wrote about here, reached the courts on Thursday, when three of Britain’s most senior judges – the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, the Master of the Rolls, Sir Terence Etherton, and Lord Justice Sales – heard arguments by lawyers representing a number of individuals seeking to establish that “the government does not have legal authority to use royal prerogative powers to trigger Brexit without parliamentary approval,” as the Guardian described it. The Guardian also explained that, “In opening arguments over who should initiate the UK’s departure from the EU, Lord Pannick QC, who represents the lead challenger in the claim, Gina Miller, said formal notification by ministers alone would undermine parliament and ‘deprive people of their statutory rights.’”
He added that triggering our departure “leads to the removal of a whole series of important rights whatever Parliament may think about it later.” Lord Pannick also stated that “[p]rerogative powers may not be used by the minister [David Davis, the Brexit secretary] to remove rights established by the act of parliament,” and pointed out that the case raises questions of “fundamental constitutional importance [about] the limits of the power of the executive.”
Dominic Chambers QC, who represents the second claimant, Dier dos Santos, told the court, “The referendum did not replace the [UK’s] system of parliamentary representative democracy.” As the Guardian described it, he said that, “For the government to trigger article 50 … it would be setting itself up as a ‘de facto legislature,’” and he proceeded to explain that it would involve the executive essentially saying to Parliament, “without consulting you we have set in train an unstoppable process of leaving the EU.” He added, “This is a case about what is legally required, not what is legally expedient.” The case continues on Monday, when the government’s lawyers will present their arguments, but in the meantime, anyone wanting to examine an informed and alarming worst-case scenario about Britain’s economic decline should a “hard Brexit” go ahead is advised to read “The markets have taught Theresa May a hard lesson on sovereignty” by Martin Wolf in FT last week. After painting a picture of the British economy potentially collapsing, teaching the government about “the limits of sovereignty in an open economy,” Wolf noted that, in response to this scenario:
The views of Philip Hammond, chancellor of the exchequer, who reminded his party last week that the British people did not vote on June 23 “to become poorer, or less secure”, might then count for more, and those of the Brexiters in the cabinet for less. In a crisis, the unthinkable becomes thinkable. Triggering Article 50 without parliamentary approval might be impossible. It surely ought to be impossible. By a thin margin the country voted for some kind of Brexit. But the government has no mandate for the rather extreme version it is choosing. Moreover, Brexiters insist that their goal is to restore parliamentary sovereignty. Why then does the government plan to ignore parliament when these decisions are taken?
This last question, I believe, strikes to the heart of the arrogance of Theresa May and her trio of pro-Leave Brexiters — David Davis, Liam Fox and Boris Johnson. How can they “insist that their goal is to restore parliamentary sovereignty,” but then “ignore parliament when these decisions are taken”? The obvious solution is to allow MPs to vote, and to discuss openly the potentially disastrous effects not only of “a hard Brexit,” but also, I believe of any kind of Brexit at all, a course of action that remains potentially suicidal, that should never have been allowed in the first place, and that ought not to take place if, as Martin Wolf suggested last week, the end result will be almost unimaginably disastrous. As he noted at the end of his article:
What drove Leavers was, we are also told, “the principle that decisions about the UK should be taken in the UK”. The currency markets demonstrate the emptiness of that principle. Britain’s EU partners are about to do the same. The premise of the Leave campaign was false: a host of decisions that affect the UK will always be taken outside it. But this truth is unlikely to stop the train towards a complete Brexit from departing on its timetabled journey. Stopping it would take a miracle, or rather a crisis. Is that likely? No. Is it possible? Yes.
Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer, film-maker and singer-songwriter (the lead singer and main songwriter for the London-based band The Four Fathers, whose debut album ‘Love and War’ and EP ‘Fighting Injustice’ are available here to download or on CD via Bandcamp).
He is the co-founder of the Close Guantánamo campaign (and the Countdown to Close Guantánamo initiative, launched in January 2016), the co-director of We Stand With Shaker, which called for the release from Guantánamo of Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison (finally freed on October 30, 2015), and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by the University of Chicago Press in the US, and available from Amazon, including a Kindle edition — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield.
He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here — or here for the US). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to Andy’s RSS feed — and he can also be found on Facebook (and here), Twitter, Flickr and YouTube. Also see the six-part definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, and The Complete Guantánamo Files, an ongoing, 70-part, million-word series drawing on files released by WikiLeaks in April 2011. Also see the definitive Guantánamo habeas list, the full military commissions list, and the chronological list of all Andy’s articles. Please also consider joining the Close Guantánamo campaign, and, if you appreciate Andy’s work, feel free to make a donation.