Editor’s Note: Jane Merrick is a British political journalist and former political editor of the Independent on Sunday newspaper. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.
August 2018: The most dramatic week yet in Donald Trump’s presidency.
Australia’s government is in turmoil as its prime minister fights a leadership challenge.
And in the UK, Theresa May’s government is ordering stockpiling of medicines, warning of soaring credit card costs, lost pensions and disruption to food supplies in the event of no deal being reached with the EU on Brexit.
Except these dramatic developments, as alarming as they should be to British citizens, businesses and politicians, have emerged in a series of 25 incredibly technical documents covering finance, farming, medicine and even imported sperm donation.
The British love dry, bureaucratic technical reports as much as they love queuing. Which is to say, they love it a lot.
May’s government has been under pressure to reveal its contingency plans for what will happen to the country’s infrastructure, mass transit, health care and trade if her ministers cannot broker a deal with Brussels.
Britain is leaving the European Union in seven months, and yet more than two years on from its public vote for Brexit, a deal has not yet been reached.
Talks have been slow, held back by political wrangling among May’s own senior ministers. The Prime Minister’s latest vision for an exit strategy, known as the Chequers plan, is opposed by large parts of her own Conservative Party, as well as negotiators in Brussels.
In reality, the deadline for a Brexit deal is far sooner than March, because a deal is supposed to be struck by October so it can be ratified by Britain’s parliament, as well as legislatures in other EU countries. As such, the prospect of a no-deal scenario grows more likely by the day.
In theory, then, British politics should be as dramatic as the events that are unfolding in the US and Australia. Brexit – and the apocalyptic worst-case scenarios as set out under a no deal – should be one of the most significant pieces of political theater the UK has witnessed in years.
The EU mantras of clocks ticking and “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed” should be electrifying the body politic in the UK. In reality, Brexit has become stultifying and technocratic.
But is this deliberate? Dominic Raab, who has been in his job as Brexit Secretary for a matter of weeks, unveiled the no-deal planning papers in a speech in London on Thursday morning. The content of his speech was technical and sober, his delivery studiously dry and calm. He spoke of “managing and mitigating the risks.” There was only one line that gave a hint of drama, when the minister said: “Amidst all of the technical detail we understand that real livelihoods are at stake here.”
Yet, as many observers pointed out on Twitter, Raab was sweating profusely – no doubt as a result of the atmospherics in the room, but the contrast served as a reminder of the disconnect between the newly published papers and what many see as the very real and alarming prospect of chaos if a no-deal Brexit does take place.
The UK government is having to walk a very fine line: if it engages in alarmist language, it will be accused by pro-Brexit politicians and commentators of trying to create panic and “project fear,” and prevent what those Brexiteers really want, which is a much harder Brexit than the Chequers plan envisages, with all trade and customs links to the EU severed.
Yet if the government does not entertain the prospect of leaving the EU without a deal, with all of the associated complexities and logistical problems that entails, there will be public outcry if that no-deal scenario comes to pass.
British businesses, in particular, have been calling for no-deal contingency planning from May’s government for at least a year. They are alarmed that it has taken until now, with seven months to go before Brexit Day, for that planning to be published.
Politicians and civil servants are still haunted by events of 18 years ago next month, when what started off as an apparently innocuous, small-scale protest by UK farmers over the rising cost of fuel turned into a full-blown crisis within a matter of days when an oil refinery was blockaded, gas pumps ran dry across the country, supermarket shelves were emptied by panicking citizens and hospital operations were canceled.
The Labour government of the time, taken by surprise, nearly fell. It was a sign of how Britain, a country famous for its queuing and stable but dull bureaucracy, tipped into panic-buying and chaos in the space of 72 hours. That is the no-deal Brexit dilemma facing May’s government right now.