Tell us what you want, Britain’s European partners ask ever more plaintively. We need clarity, chorus the businesses at the sharp end of Brexit. Downing Street is silent. For good reason. Theresa May’s approach to Britain’s departure from the EU has become a strategy to avoid a strategy. The prime minister’s chosen road to Brexit is paved with fudge. Hard choices can wait. The only thing that counts is getting over the line by March 2019.
Not so long ago, cabinet Brexiters were boasting that a comprehensive trade deal with the 27 EU nations would be wrapped up by the day before yesterday. Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary, scoffed at the notion that it would take two years to disentangle Britain’s affairs from those of its near neighbours. As reality began to impose itself there were what seemed reasonable hopes the government would raise its game. It might even develop a plan. Not a bit of it.
Mrs May, it is obvious, has no organising vision of the shape of Britain’s post-Brexit relationship with its own continent. Yet she does have one overarching ambition. As things stand, history will remember her as an accidental prime minister who foolishly squandered a parliamentary majority in an election she had no need to call — the worst prime minister of modern times with the exception, of course, of her immediate predecessor, David Cameron.
By her own lights, the way to change this narrative is to make sure Britain leaves the union next March; to demonstrate that she has honoured the decision of the 2016 referendum. Everything else — the nation’s prosperity and security or its standing in the world — is a second order question.
The scope of a trade deal, arguments about a customs union and access to the single market, the role of the European Court of Justice, co-operation against terrorism — all these can be settled once Britain has cut its bonds with Brussels.
Hitherto, there has been an assumption that negotiations with the EU27 about the future relationship would concentrate minds in Downing Street. The government would make the difficult choices — between continued economic integration with Europe and supposed freedom to strike out elsewhere, between regulatory convergence and divergence, between a customs union with the EU and third country trade deals. Subject to an agreement with the EU27, these choices would be embedded in a deal to be finalised by October. The arrangements would be put in place during a two-year transition period.
Instead, Downing Street has brought down a curtain of secrecy. Insiders find it is easier to divine the thinking deep inside Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin than get straight answers from No 10. What was promised as a firm framework for the future now has the consistency of a bowl of blancmange. Brexit in this mindset resembles nothing so much as an empty box. As long as the word is emblazoned on the lid, no one asks what is inside.
In the parlance of trade negotiators the best that can now be hoped for in the autumn is a “heads of agreement” — a non-binding expression of intent and aspirations. Even that might be beyond reach. Mrs May would probably settle for a vague political declaration.
Extraordinary though it may seem, Britain will then be forced to argue about the terms of a new relationship from outside rather than inside the EU. The transition will become a de facto negotiating phase, with Britain’s hand weakened by its status as a “third country”. This approach, best described as one of “close your eyes and jump”, draws scorn from those versed in international negotiations. Mrs May, though, is not about to measure the national interest against the desperate effort to rewrite her political epitaph.
A kinder interpretation might say that a comprehensive economic and political deal was never going to be possible within the two years allowed by Article 50. That Mr Johnson and his chums thought otherwise was simply testimony to their ignorance.
Maybe. But what was within reach — and with intelligent and courageous leadership from Downing Street still might be — was an accord that sustained the essential fabric of Britain’s ties to Europe, even if from outside the formal structures of the EU.
Instead, the only calculations that have mattered have been party political. Could the prime minister satisfy the Little Englanders in her cabinet while retaining the votes of pro-European Tory MPs in parliament? The perceived risk on one side, underlined by Mr Johnson’s latest public display of disloyalty, was of a cabinet coup; on the other that an agreement that satisfied the foreign secretary and his cabinet fellow traveller Michael Gove would be voted down in the House of Commons.
Hardline Brexiters are ready to conspire in the strategy of prevarication. Having won the referendum they are suffering a loss of nerve. Mr Johnson’s claim that Brexit would yield a multibillion-pound “dividend” for the health service has been exposed in all its mendacity. Calls from business for Britain to remain in an EU customs union are growing louder. Voters are watching their living standards fall.
How soon, these zealots fret, before someone suggests an extension of the Article 50 process? Their priority is to make Brexit a legal reality. Brexit means Brexit, Mrs May once said. She had no idea of what that meant. Britain is still in the dark. The prime minister intends that this is how it should remain.
This article has been updated to insert the illustration
Copyright The Financial Times Limited . All rights reserved. Please don't copy articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.