OPINION
22/10/2019 11:43 BST | Updated 22/10/2019 14:59 BST

Tony Blair: Brexit Has Become As Complicated As Rocket Science

The details, twists and turns of the debate are hard to follow even for seasoned experts. For the public with a day job, it’s next to impossible, Tony Blair writes.

PA Media
Boris Johnson

The trouble with Brexit is that at a certain level it is rocket science. I am constantly re-impressed by the madness of thinking we could ever take a decision of such import and complexity through a simple “yes/no”, “in/out” one-off vote on one day.

The details, twists and turns of the debate are hard to follow even for seasoned experts. For the public with a day job, it’s next to impossible. And that is the opportunity for the government. Just “get it done” has turned into a highly effective but utterly false mantra. The Remain side is in danger of winning the process battle but losing the battle for public opinion, such is the fatigue. 

Even the distractive effect of Brexit – preventing us from dealing with the decisions of importance for Britain, all of which, of course, are taken in Britain not Brussels – has been switched into the fault, not of those who gave us this Brexit insanity, but those of us who oppose it.

And as always, a situation which shrieks for a credible forensic dissection, is made worse by the challenge of mounting one in such a charged political atmosphere.  

There is anger and dismay in the country at present directed at parliament. But I appeal to MPs to think about two years’ time: imagine the anger then, when we are back confronting the same no-deal or bad deal choice, but this time already out of Europe and with the livelihood of their constituents at risk.

The people are told that agreeing the deal will end the Brexit debacle when it won’t, and MPs, including some Labour MPs, are persuaded that “the deal” is the least worst option because it takes no-deal off the table, when manifestly it doesn’t.

And MPs are being intimidated by the refrain from the government and their supportive papers that they’re fools, knaves and con merchants, when what they’re doing, often to the detriment of their career, is their job. They’re analysing the deal and understanding it is the real “con”.

Agreeing the deal won’t end the Brexit saga because the deal does not resolve the future relationship between Britain and Europe, which is subject to a new negotiation. No-deal is not off the table because it remains a very possible outcome to that negotiation.

The fateful mistake was made when Britain acceded to the idea that we should separate the Withdrawal Agreement from the negotiation over the future relationship. We agreed to exit before the negotiation began. 

We should never have done this, just as we should never have triggered Article 50 before we knew what we wanted. But as always, the politics took precedence over the substance.

Ireland has been difficult because it was agreed that Ireland should be decided before exit i.e. as part of the Withdrawal Agreement. The future relationship between Britain and Europe has not yet been subject to the same scrutiny because it wasn’t.

But the Irish problem is about to become the British one. And though obviously of much greater importance to Britain, it will be decided after leaving not before.

Essentially over the Irish border, we faced a choice over how to reconcile the different objectives of an open border and the commitment to leave Europe’s trading system – the Single Market and Customs Union. We couldn’t do both. 

What happened is that Boris Johnson caved in and agreed that Northern Ireland would stay within that system. The backstop became a frontstop. And he therefore sold out the DUP and left a division between Britain and Northern Ireland. 

Now, Northern Ireland will be bound by Europe’s rules but without a say in them, the “Pointless Brexit”.

But he only did this because he had to, because without that concession, there would have been no Withdrawal Agreement.

The new negotiation faces the exact, identical dilemma of different objectives: one part of the Political Declaration sets out the ambition for tariff-free and easy access to the European market, which British business needs. The other part sets out the European insistence that there should be “fair competition”, a level playing field on tax and regulation, and regulatory equivalence in things like financial services.

I profoundly disagree with Nigel Farage on Brexit; but he is correct at least in his analysis of the incompatibility of the government negotiating objectives for the new negotiation of Britain’s relationship with Europe.

He believes Boris Johnson will sell out the Brexiteers in this negotiation. But selling out 10 DUP MPs is one thing. A new Tory Government with a stack of new Brexit-supporting MPs – and those are the ones presently being selected as Tory candidates – might well decide instead to sell out the moderates.

But the point is: we don’t know. 

What we do know is that negotiation will revolve around the clash between Europe saying: “Fine, if you want preferential access to our markets, then we will constrain your regulatory divergence, and the Brexiteers saying: “No, the whole point of Brexit is we need to go our own way.” Their preferred option is no-deal. Or what they call “Clean Break”.

The Europeans, as Angela Merkel is already signalling, regard a trade deal with Britain as a much bigger competitive threat than the deals struck with countries thousands of miles away.

Think the Irish negotiation was a nightmare? Wait for this one.

Johnson who lives in the political moment is saying to Labour MPs: “I won’t undercut Europe on Labour markets and the environment etc.”; and to the Brexiteers: “No-deal is not excluded”, and of course it isn’t. 

But for sure, both outcomes can’t be right!

Labour MPs, tempted by going with the flow of “get it over with”, should, at least, insist that no-deal is taken off the table as an outcome to the negotiation which is about to commence, when outside the European Union, we will have next to zero negotiating leverage and when a large section of the Brexit movement has the opposite motivation to those MPs.

There is anger and dismay in the country at present directed at parliament. But I appeal to MPs to think about two years’ time: imagine the anger then, when we are back confronting the same no-deal or bad deal choice, but this time already out of Europe and with the livelihood of their constituents at risk.   

Tony Blair served as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1997 to 2007