Three turbulent years after 17 million British people voted to leave the European Union, Brexit has grown from a quaint word to an ugly cloud hanging over the nation.
This week it claimed its second Prime Minister, Theresa May, who was forced to step down after trying, but failing, to grapple with its inconsistencies, the many lies and exaggerations told during the referendum campaign, and the deep divisions within her own party.
The Brexiteers claimed for instance that Britain would “hold all the cards” (David Davis), “getting out of the EU can be quick and easy” (John Redwood) and that a free trade deal with the EU would be the “easiest in history” (Liam Fox).
Brexit was her constant shadow, casting her in an unflattering light and dwarfing her abilities to tame its effect.
In the week she finally capitulated to its capricious impact and relinquished her weakening grip on party and Parliament, Brexit took several more bites out of Britain’s confidence.
First, US President Donald Trump swept into the UK Monday, with the usual political maelstrom in his wake, on course to collide with the Brexit vortex.
Even before his plane touched down, Trump chilled his reception by criticizing May for failing to turn the Brexit tables on Brussels and said bookmakers’ favorite Boris Johnson would be “excellent” as her successor. He also made an undiplomatic over-reach in comments on Brexit talks, telling the UK, “if you don’t get the deal you want, if you don’t get a fair deal, then you walk away.”
Once on the ground Trump took his Brexit meddling even further. He walked the country to the edge of the precipice, offering Brexitted Britain a “substantial” and “fair” trade deal, and saying “we have the potential to be an incredible trade partner with the UK.” Then he flashed the price tag for his post-Brexit nirvana: access to the UK’s revered, state-run National Health Service (NHS).
At a news conference standing next to the exiting Prime Minister, Trump said everything should be on the table for a trade deal between the countries, including the cherished free-at-point-of-provision health system.
Trump’s statement was a double whammy given that some Brexiteers campaigned on the duplicitous claim that, once out of the EU, the UK would receive a £350 million a week rebate that could be used to top up the NHS’s depleted coffers.
The President’s comments triggered a toxic backlash, opening May’s Tories up to a tongue-lashing from opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn and leaving Trump’s pick for PM to insulate himself from the fallout. Johnson opted to talk to the President by phone rather than meeting him face-to-face in London, as another leading leadership contender Jeremy Hunt did.
The only bonus Brexit delivered this week was to the bookies who continue to cash in on its uncertainties and the myriad options they open for a quick flutter.
Trump likely added to their profits by backtracking on his NHS comments within hours of his previous pronouncement on the subject.
Too large to ignore
With mercurial partners like Trump in the offing, in what could potentially be the UK’s biggest post-Brexit trade deal, the whole project looks more tarnished by the day.
Not so long ago the word Brexit sounded ridiculous, a made-up name to cover up an incredibly complicated concept, akin to describing an elephant in a single word: gray.
At the EU’s HQ in Brussels, Brexit permeates many conversations. Even if not mentioned by name, it stalks the rooms and corridors like the proverbial beast in the room, too large to ignore and not tame enough to lead through the exit door.
This week, Jean Claude Juncker, the outgoing European Commission President, tried to take the Brexit beast by the horns, declaring that the UK will leave the bloc on the already negotiated terms. But this raises the likelihood of a confrontation with Johnson, or whomever becomes the British PM, which in turn increases the possibility of a hard Brexit – which might be best likened to the aforementioned elephant storming out of a china shop.
If that weren’t enough mayhem for the week, Brexit shook another card out of its flimsy house, with an unwanted intervention from US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Pompeo implied that, if the UK buys Chinese telecoms giant Huawei’s 5G network infrastructure, vital intelligence sharing between other Five Eyes partners (US, Australia, Canada, New Zealand) could be withheld from the UK.
The UK’s answer to this latest conundrum likely falls in line with so much else to do with Brexit. That is policy put together on the fly, in this case assuming that the UK is powerful and has enough leverage to trade with anyone it wants.
So secretive was the UK/Huawei trade discussion that, when word of it leaked, May sacked her defense secretary. Since then, she implied she would stick with some sort of deal, and Trump implied after he met her this week the pair had overcome their differences.
But May is now gone and Trump’s word is unreliable.
This is yet another factor that no one discussed or even predicted before Brexit. What if the world order changes and the UK’s allies outside the EU become less reliable or trustworthy? What does it do if it has to put all its trade eggs in the US basket?
Under a new PM, the Huawei deal may fall by the wayside. Indeed, a Boris-Trump alliance could rewrite much of the pre-Brexit logic and diplomatic landscape, two self-admiring charismatic populists with similar agendas, albeit with polar opposite lexicons.
Last week Brexit’s shadow got bigger not smaller.