Since last month’s British election, when Theresa May got walloped and lost her Conservative government’s parliamentary majority, there’s been no official change to the rhetoric around Brexit. The sentence is the same – its object is Brexit and the verb is ‘will implement.’
The problem is, the subject has disappeared. There is no longer a ‘We’ in ‘We will implement Brexit.’ Say all you will, but Brexit can’t, at least for the time being, go ahead. For while we know what the action and its intended consequences are, there is no actor. A tree falling in the forest can’t make any noise if there’s no tree.
Theresa May can put on a brave face, but she and her government are no longer the ‘we.’ With her slender majority in parliament, propped up by a small Northern Irish party that has her just where it wants her, she’s hemmed in. If she tries to proceed with the hard Brexit her party’s Eurosceptics demand, her party’s Europhiles will rebel and join the opposition to bring down the government. If she tries to please that lot with a softer version of Brexit, the Eurosceptics will do likewise.
There had been some talk of turning to Labour to help shore up her support, since the party promised in the election campaign to respect last year’s referendum result. But that idea lasted the better part of a day before Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn pointed out that he could deliver Brexit himself – as soon as the next election puts him in Downing Street.
Fearing just that eventuality, the Tories have rallied around Mrs May. All the same, her days are numbered. She will be replaced, quite possibly before year’s end. That’ll hardly help matters, though. It’s not clear that any other Tory can unite the divided party, let alone win an election in the foreseeable future. Any eventual replacement may well end up biding his or her time in the hopes the party’s numbers improve and it can risk another poll – a gambit which could, of course, backfire, as it did for Mrs May. And all the while, with the future outlook so unclear, ministers openly contradict and even mock one another, each advancing his or her own vision of the future.
Every minute that the government is frozen in such inertia, the future shape of Britain grows murkier. Businesses, which hate such uncertainty, have begun to suspend long-term planning until they can get a clearer picture of what Britain’s future economic and trading arrangements will be. Investment drops, and with that economic activity. At the time of last year’s referendum, Britain’s was the fastest-growing developed economy, and could plausibly claim Europe was holding it back. Today, it is the slowest-growing of the bunch, and the gap between it and Europe looks set to only widen further.
That’s because the clock is ticking on the two-year countdown that began when Britain formally gave notice it was quitting the EU in March. It was always hopelessly optimistic that Britain could negotiate an exit, agree a new trade deal, and replace the mountain of EU legislation that will expire, all in just two years. Every day that passes with no clear direction, that hopelessly optimistic task moves further into the impossible column. Yet since nobody can offer a plausible route forward, the economic uncertainty only deepens.
As the economy worsens, support for Brexit will weaken, making it even harder for a new ‘we’ to emerge to complete the sentence. Many of the voters who chose Brexit in last year’s referendum did so in the expectation it would make Britain richer – £350 million a week richer, if they believed Boris Johnson’s campaign bus – or at least no worse off than it was within the EU: as Mr Johnson added, just to further elongate his nose, we’d get to eat our cake and still have it. It’s a wonder anyone still listens to Bojo (though to judge from the regularity with which his cabinet colleagues slap down his remarks, maybe they don’t).
With the new reality dawning, some Leave voters are starting to lose faith. Coincidentally, the 52-48 margin by which the Leave vote won last year’s referendum happens to be the same seat-margin that US Republicans, who are trying to pass an equally divisive health-care bill, have in their Senate. They know all too well that if just a few senators are peeled away, the whole enterprise fails – and that is with someone directing the process.
However in Britain, it feels like we’ve all gone to the circus to see a much-hyped high-wire bicycle stunt, only to find that when the spotlight shines on the platform, the bicycle sits empty. We’ll shuffle around in our seats and eat popcorn for a little while. But sooner or later, if nobody turns up, we’re going to want our money back.
Now in bookstores: ‘Imagine one day you went to a cash-machine and found your money was gone. You rushed to your branch, where a teller said that overnight people had stopped believing in money, and it all vanished. Seem incredible? It happened, and it could happen again.’