Brexit has ground to a halt. Theresa May will put her deal to Parliament again and it will fail again. At this rate we will come to the end of the extension period having achieved nothing. Which isn’t surprising, given that very little has really changed in the past two years.
Why has there been so little movement? Simple. Brexit is a really bad idea. Some of our politicians have known this for a while and the reality is beginning to dawn on many others. The trouble is, they haven’t got a clue what to do next.
People have come up with various analogies to illustrate the near impossible situation in which we now find ourselves. Perhaps the most famous is Hugo Rifkind’s ‘submarine made out of cheese’:
The thing is, the best way to understand Theresa May’s predicament is to imagine that 52 percent of Britain had voted that the government should build a submarine out of cheese.
— Hugo Rifkind (@hugorifkind) December 10, 2018
Perhaps a better way of understanding it, though, is to imagine that people had voted to get rid of motorways. After all, few of us like motorways. It’s much more pleasant to drive on A and B roads. If someone promised that it would be possible to get where you needed to go just as quickly on A roads and that you need never drive on a motorway again, there would be plenty of takers. After all, many of us have fond, half-remembered recollections of the days before motorways. Quiet roads and gentler speeds. Pootling through the Cotswolds, along tree-lined lanes, stopping at a little cafe or some woods by the road for a picnic, Dad having a chat with the petrol pump attendant on a crisp spring morning, the sun just poking through as the mist rises over the Fosse.
It’s even possible to construct a cod-economic argument against motorways. After all, the UK’s per capita GDP grew at a faster rate in the decades after the Second World War than it did from the mid-1970s. The more motorways we had, the less our economy grew. And just look at all those booming economies with much lower motorway density than the UK, such as India, China and Singapore. Motorways, who needs ’em?
The trouble is, after having voted narrowly to get rid of motorways the problems start to become clear. Motorways are baked into the business models of many UK firms. They assume that it will be possible to get from one point to another in a certain time. Many companies warn that getting rid of motorways will put them out of business. Others point to the devastating impact on just-in-time supply chains. Modelling by civil servants predicts a significant hit to the economy and, in the case of a sudden ‘cliff-edge’ closure, localised shortages of food and medicines.
Some politicians put forward compromise plans, such as a phased transition period or a ‘name only’ option under which all the motorways will be re-branded as ‘A+ Roads’. The ultras are having none of it though. They dismiss the warnings as ‘project fear’ and insist that the motorways be closed immediately as its ‘what the people voted for’. A TV presenter remarks that we managed fine in the 1960s before we had motorways. “It’s not the end of the world. We won’t starve,” say rich businessmen who can afford to go by helicopter or private plane. A bombastic and hitherto unknown MP pops up, decrying motorways as a foreign idea and saying that his dad didn’t fight at D-Day only to have a Nazi road system imposed on Britain.
The hardliners come up with ever more preposterous explanations as to why a sudden closure of the motorways would have barely any impact, often citing crank science or convoluted interpretations of obscure laws. A consultant appears offering to implement an as yet untested technological solution that would somehow enable A-road journeys to be done at motorway speeds but with none of the tedious unpleasantness. It could be done ‘if only governments had the will’ he insists. Despite most other experts dismissing this as a ‘unicorn solution’, his comments are seized on by hardliners as ‘proof’ that the motorways could shut tomorrow and life would go on as before.
MPs are split. At one extreme is a small but growing group who realise that the whole idea is crazy and should never have been suggested in the first place. At the other extreme is a group of ultras. They are a mixed bag, ranging from those harking back to a semi-mythical Golden Age of British Motoring, through to the financier-politicians paying lip-service to the nostalgic dream while salivating at the prospect of making a killing by building new toll roads. One MP, while publicly sticking to the patriotic rhetoric, advises his investors to get out of the industries that will clearly be damaged and to invest instead in those companies preparing for the new world of privatised highways.
In the middle is the bulk of MPs who know that closing the motorways will screw the country but who don’t want to be seen as going against the ‘will of the people’. They struggle frantically to find a compromise that will minimise both the economic damage and the risk to their political careers. Arcane ‘solutions’ are debated, voted on, rejected, amended and them debated again. The MPs hope that if they string it out, eventually something will turn up. Against all logic, some of them put their faith in a new leader somehow being able to sort something out. None of this will make any difference. It is a circle that can’t be squared. No matter how many people voted for it, it is impossible to close the motorways without severely damaging the country.
A ridiculous story? Well, yes, but not that much more ridiculous than the impasse we find ourselves in over Brexit. Membership of the European Union and the frictionless trade that goes with it is baked into companies’ business models just as surely as the assumption that they can use motorways to move their goods. The economic arguments for Brexit and the fairy-tale technologies and made-up legal arguments that will make it work are every bit as preposterous as the suggestion that we could close motorways and carry on as before. There really is no way of doing Brexit without damaging our economy and/or unravelling our country, unless we stay so close to the European Union that there seems little point in leaving. The options are, to varying degrees, bad so it’s no wonder we can’t get a majority for any of them.
None of this is going to change, regardless of who wins the Euro elections or whether a Tory leadership contest or a general election gives us a new prime minister. Whoever replaces Theresa May will be up against the same problems. However tough their talk, the reality remains the same. People have been promised the impossible – leaving the EU without any negative economic or geopolitical consequences. As a result, there is now no way out of this dilemma without significant political damage to parties and individual politicians. By far the least damaging option for the country would be to revoke Article 50 and stay in the EU. The political fallout will be horrible whatever happens but dealing with it after a chaotic Brexit would be so much worse. How long it will take for this penny to drop is anybody’s guess. Perhaps we need another leader to fail before the reality becomes so stark that even the most blinkered of MPs can see it. The road to Brexit leads only to stagnation and chaos. It’s time to turn off and take another route.