Expert View

The Three Musketeers of Brexit are failing

by Denis MacShane | 30.10.2017

Denis MacShane is a former Minister of Europe and was a Labour MP for 18 years.

After 15 months in Number 10 it is becoming clear Theresa May’s administration needs a shake-up. The impact of Brexit on the economy is now so serious that even the most Panglossian of civil servants or MPs can’t pretend that the government finances can match the demands of the spending departments.

In July 2016 May gave three of the most passionate anti-Europeans in politics – Boris Johnson, David Davis and Liam Fox – top cabinet slots. They were promoted from the back benches to the highest posts in the land.

David Davis had been an unhappy Europe minister in the dying days of the John Major administration. He spent the next two decades on the back benches doing little other than to make anti-EU speeches stoking up Brexit passions.

Liam Fox was also on the back benches after an unhappy brief period as defence secretary under David Cameron which ended in scandal and his resignation following an investigation by the Cabinet Secretary in 2011. A hardline Thatcherite intimately linked to right-wing Republican circles in Washington, Fox has been one of the most ideological anti-Europeans in the Tory party.

Finally, there is Boris Johnson, again a perennial back bencher who has always preferred a smart quip or a cute article to the seriousness of policy work.

The prime minister has been more than generous in allowing her Three Musketeers of Brexit 15 months to show what they can do. So far the answer is not much.

Davis has nothing to show for his Article 50 negotiations. He is also making a major muddle of House of Commons legislation on repealing EU law.    

Fox has not secured a single new export for Britain despite having had a special department on international trade made to measure for him. He has clocked up air miles but the UK’s balance of trade deficit gets worse. He has also failed to focus on what should be his priority: making sure we don’t lose access to 66 countries with which the EU already has trade deals.

Britain’s foreign office under Johnson has not won over a single EU member state from the other 27 countries to accept London’s demands on Brexit. He did last week make a welcome intervention – saying the rights of Polish citizens in the UK would be protected “whatever happens”. But doubt remains over whether any action will follow from these fine words.

The reorganisation of government departments to deal with the UK’s EU withdrawal is not working.    

Sooner rather than later, it is reasonable to ask if Davis, Fox and Johnson can deliver any concrete, measurable result? If the answer is “No”, May should return them to their natural habitat on the back benches. There is a younger generation of able, talented would-be Tory ministers who can be tasked with pulling Britain out of the mess the Brexit ideologues are making.

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    Edited by Hugo Dixon

    3 Responses to “The Three Musketeers of Brexit are failing”

    • The more incompetent Brexiters are the better, surely? We don’t want people who are competent in pushing this bad idea through.

    • May and her 3 Brexit musketeers should know there is no way Britain can exit the EU. Firstly, there is ECJ, being drafted on to British statute book, but then there is the older DDH – Droit De l’Homme, which is irrevocable and an even older United European Organisation. Once they’ve studied these two laws binding Britain to Europe, they may as well throw in their towels, admit there is no way “out” of the EU which can equal let alone beat being “in” – and retire in silence to the back benches, and forever more hold their peace. Mrs May can then ask for Art. 50 back, and shred it.

    • A Brexit Allegory
      Denis MacShane demonstrated to my satisfaction that the hard line Brexiteers, Messrs Davis, Johnson and Fox, are making an utter cods of their attempts to steer Britain towards a gloriously prosperous future, one enabled of course by release from the shackles tying us to European bureaucracy and denying us economic independence. ‘King John’ commented, “The more incompetent Brexiters are the better, surely? We don’t want people who are competent in pushing this bad idea through” This evokes an image of
      The Swamp
      The multitude, who inhabited dry land surrounded by a swamp, had voted in leaders who enriched themselves and their supporters at the expense of the poorest in their territory. This was clearly a policy that paid off, because a majority of the multitude continued at successive elections to return those leaders to power.
      There was a group within the governing party who called themselves the Patriots. These were aware of the danger of their party being voted out of power by the increasingly hard pressed poor, but nevertheless resisted promoting measures to boost their popularity by sharing out some of the community’s riches to make the poor less poor. That would not go down well with their wealthiest and most ardent supporters. Instead they hit upon a propagandist solution. They drew attention to the sunlit hills that could be seen in the distance beyond the swamp. They revived folk tales of the happy shepherds and shepherdesses who in times past, when the land had been less crowded, had grazed their flocks upon just such rich pastures that, surely, still enriched those distant hills.
      They belittled the pessimists, many even in their own party, who opposed their idea of building a causeway across the swamp, or partially draining it, or anything to gain access for the people’s livestock to that rich grazing. The swamp was not as deep or difficult, claimed the Patriots, the costs of crossing it nowhere near as high, as the pessimists warned. The rewards for carrying out the ambitious plan were far in excess of the minor difficulties and short term sacrifices involved. The Patriots liberally disseminated spirit-raising falsehoods to demonstrate the supposed accuracy of their predictions and recommendations.
      The leader of the governing party (call him prime minister) opposed the Patriots’ scheme, thinking it impractical, uneconomic and unlikely to be accepted by most of the citizens. However, rather than exercising strong leadership and proposing its rejection in a vote by the Counsel, he kowtowed to the Patriots by offloading the decision onto the whole community. He called a referendum. Let the people decide, he thought. They will reject the scheme, and my hand will be strengthened against these nuisancy ‘Patriots’.
      Much to his astonishment and chagrin, the people voted for the scheme; and he promptly resigned. His prime ministerial successor, who had also mildly opposed the scheme, then began her own scheming, and put the Patriots’ leaders in charge of enacting their plans – not necessarily because she expected them to succeed, but partly in a fit of pique that it served them right to be told to clean up their own mess, partly because she thought she was onto a two-way winning bet. If they were to succeed, she’d be seen to have successfully carried out the people’s will. If they failed, it wasn’t her fault: events and the perpetrators had proved the people wrong. At least she’d given it a chance. She would remain popular and powerful either way.
      In fact, the Patriots’ chief spokesman and propagandist had not for a moment expected the ‘favourable’ referendum result, having only proposed his scheme as a sop to the sizeable, impoverished minority of the electorate, whose large but unsuccessful showing in the referendum he imagined would bolster his own position in the governing party. To some extent he succeeded, having been appointed in the new administration to a senior government post and to be an important member of the team charged with responsibility for carving a passage through or across the swamp.
      What about the new prime minister’s judgement? More than 16 months after the referendum result, no noticeable progress has been made towards engineering passage across the swamp. Just as the ‘pessimists’ foresaw, the swamp is deeper and far more expensive to cross than the Patriots had suggested. Moreover, the free availability of rich grazing in the hills beyond is far less apparent now than they had promised. It would seem, then, that the Patriots’ idea had been a very bad one, and/or that they are extremely incompetent at pushing it through. So can we agree that “We don’t want people who are competent in pushing this bad idea through”?
      Can the current prime minister win out by announcing that, “Alas the Patriots got it wrong, and they hoodwinked the people into going with them? We shall change course. I am kicking the Patriots’ leaders out of my administration. We’ll give up the idea of crossing the swamp, and we’ll eliminate (politics-speak for ‘slightly reduce’) the poverty of our unfortunate poor. Here is my wealth redistribution plan …”?
      If only it were so simple. Having so wholeheartedly backed the swamp-crossing scheme, the prime minister could not expect to survive its abandonment as party leader. Perhaps a braver, more visionary, more charismatic prime minister might make it work, but not this one. Even if such a successor instantly emerged from a desperately divided party, the ravages suffered by the economy have hugely diminished the opportunities for financing any meaningful wealth distribution scheme.
      Nevertheless, the official Opposition, traditionally the champions of the poor, have tabled plans for just such a redistribution. The government’s mess could well trigger a general election and let in that opposition. BUT, eheu and misery, the opposition’s policy is still to persevere with the swamp crossing exercise: “It was the will of the people”! To persist with the immense diseconomies of this policy and try to implement their redistribution plans would appear to be such economic madness that … well, maybe there is a spark of hope!
      Perhaps the opposition’s idea is SO mad that finally some spark of common sense, some reaction against gross party and personal interest, must assert itself. Or maybe those nasty motives could help to save the situation. Maybe the official opposition cannot achieve an overall majority. Maybe its very lust for power could lead it to compromise: to form a coalition with one or more other parties, whose condition of joining them in government would be abandonment of all aspirations for swamp crossing but who could give general support to sensible plans for economic recovery and income distribution.
      Pipe dreams? What other hope do we have?