UK Government is broken. Rudderless, the nation is heading into a maelstrom as politicians fight over deckchairs with no sign of anyone able and willing to take command, to attempt to avert tragedy. The UK is beginning to feel like a failed state
There is such turbulence that Vince Cable, Lib Dem leader, can seriously suggest that it is possible he could become prime minister, describing the “governing” (my quote marks) Conservative party as being in a state of civil war while Labour is weakened by “suppressed civil war”.
Theresa May, prime minister, has a cabinet riven by division and is unable to sack Boris Johnson as foreign secretary despite his campaign to undermine her position, whatever that might be.
David Davis, secretary of state for exiting the EU, has Ollie Robbins, top sherpa in the Brussels negotiations, moved from his department to the Cabinet office where Robbins will report directly to May. In Brussels this is seen as a result of tensions between Davis who as felt he was being “cut out of the loop” by the close relationship between Robbins and May. Davis’s authority in the negotiations now looks even weaker.
May is taking charge but it is extremely unclear that she has a plan, let alone one that would lead to a consensus in her cabinet and party. Perhaps she will surprise us all with her speech in Florence at the end of the week.
There are two groups with clear and reasonably coherent policies: the hard brexiteers who want to be completely out of the EU to do business of Word Trade Organisation terms and those, only a few in parliament, who want to plead with the EU27 to be allowed to withdraw the Article 50 notice and remain in the EU on existing terms.
In between there are dozens of ideas of what the future might hold. Many of these are wishful thinking — we will strike a special arrangement withe the EU for trade and passporting for services, while not being subject to the European court or free movement rules, or we can more or less carry on as we are by having a Norway-like agreement.
Unless the UK can present the 27 with a coherent plan which would command a stable majority in Westminster the talks are doomed. We cannot expect the 27 to suggest a deal when we have no idea what we want. There is a real risk the 27 will simply say good riddance to a troublesome neighbour.
The referendum offered voters a binary choice: stay in or get out. It was the wrong question asked by politicians who voted for a non-binding referendum but also promised to the to abide by the result. They simply failed to consider the possibility that they could commit the county to huge constitutional change on a vote of 37 per cent of the electorate most of whom thought they were voting for different things.
Keir Starmer, David Davis’s shadow in the Labour party, is making an attempt to find a way through the conundrum, but the opposition is divided too and its rebels voted with the Conservatives on the EU exit bill. If they had voted with their party line the Government would still have won with the support to DUP members from Northern Ireland.
But how stable would the arrangement between the Conservatives and DUP look if faced with hard border controls in Ireland? A majority in Northern Ireland (as in Scotland) voted remain, but their politicians chose to be bound by the UK vote. The future of the UK remains uncertain. Vince Cable wants to get around the referendum vote problem by having a second referendum on whatever agreement is on offer – that must depend on getting an agreement.
In England grassroots pressure is largely absent after the referendum vote which the Alf Garnetts took as a licence to shout out their views. Most people simply avoid taking about Brexit for fear of division in their communities. Theresa May’s general election showed that the UK is more or less divided down the middle, but has not made clear what are the dividing lines.
In times of threat charismatic leaders have, in the past, emerged but it is hard to see anyone currently in Westminster filling that role now. Yet it is urgent that the uncertainty is ended to eliminate the uncertainty which is bound to cost the country dearly.
The signs of the removal vans moving into Canary Wharf and the City are already with us. If we don’t get some certainty soon they will be joined by the low-loaders transporting factories away. We need to get realistic and find someone who can lead.