3rd February 2021
One response to the news that former chancellor Philip Hammond has given a candid and critical interview about the Brexit policy (or lack of policy) of the Theresa May administration is to sneer and jeer, announce that he should have resigned rather than be party to it, and to ‘like” and RT some tweet saying so.
And then to not give it a further thought.
Another, more worthwhile reaction is to look out the interview, and to read and consider it carefully.
And in doing so, you should compare what Hammond says now with your recollection of what Brexit seemed like at the time, from the outside.
What emerges is a picture that many of us onlookers – conscious of the issues at stake but unimpressed by the government’s shallow public messaging – suspected was true all along.
The interview – which is part of an impressive series of interviews with ‘witnesses’ of Brexit by UK in a Changing Europe – should be read in full by anyone wanting a real understanding of what happened within government on Brexit.
But below are some examples which, at least for me and my commentary, substantiated what some of us believed to be the case at the time – including about the casual nature of the huge decision to leave the single market and the customs union.
The transcript of the interview is here.
On the creation of the pop-up government departments, the Department for Exiting the European Union and the Department for International Trade, Hammond says:
‘Creating a new Government department, frankly, is a pretty cost-free signalling mechanism for an incoming Prime Minister. So, the Department for Exiting the European Union – a ludicrous notion, absolutely ludicrous; a rookie civil service trainee could tell you that that was a stupid idea – and the Department for International Trade, were both gestures.
‘They were ways of bringing in clear, committed Brexiteers to the Government, and plonking them in a place where they could assert their views, rally their troops, and, she hoped, provide a focal point for the hard-line Brexiteers in the parliamentary party. As well as finding out the hard way how difficult this was all going to be in practice.’
On the botched re-negotiation that preceded the referendum (which was so limited because it misunderstood what the European Union could offer without a treaty change):
‘We all interpreted German pragmatism as support for a more British view of the future of Europe. That was clearly not correct, so we definitely overestimated the flexibility of the Europeans.’
And perhaps most significantly, on the run-up to the fateful October 2016 conservative party speech in Birmingham – and its aftermath:
‘I was completely stunned by the speech that she made at the Conservative Party Conference in October 2016. I hadn’t seen the relevant part of it in advance. I’d had no input to the speech. Nick Timothy kept me completely away from it. […]
‘I was completely and utterly horrified by what I felt was almost a coup: a definition of Brexit without any proper Cabinet consultation at all.
‘My assessment of Theresa May’s Prime Ministership, in terms of Brexit, is that she dug a 20-foot-deep hole in October 2016 in making that speech and, from that moment onwards, cupful by cupful of earth at a time, was trying to fill it in a bit so that she wasn’t in such a deep mess. […]
‘It was a disaster on all fronts, a total unmitigated disaster that scarred her Prime Ministership and should have sealed Nick Timothy’s fate, but I think she only realised later how badly that had constrained her ability to deliver any kind of practical Brexit at all.’
What this interview indicates – if not demonstrates – is how crucial those first few months were after the referendum were to the shape of Brexit, from June to October 2016.
That was when, in my view, the battle for Brexit was won and lost.
Until the conference speech it was possible to conceive of a number of different possible Brexits that could follow the referendum result.
(Or in my (incorrect) view at the time, that it was possible that the thing would just be delayed and delayed, as the sheer magnitude of the task became scarily apparent.)
But after the October speech, the only Brexit which was politically likely would be the absolute version with the United Kingdom leaving the single market and the customs union.
And the only way that such a Brexit could have been stopped, again in my view, would have been if the respective leaders of the labour, liberal democrat and other opposition parties had handled the prospect of a general election differently in late 2019.
In essence: in the whole of the story of Brexit so far, only (a) June to October 2016 and (b) November/December 2019 were the real turning points where Brexit could have turned out substantially different after the referendum.
The interview with Hammond, in particular, reminds us that there were non-Brexiter ‘pragmatists’ as well as (in his word) ‘refuseniks’ in those first few months after the referendum.
And notwithstanding the ‘Brexit means Brexit’ slogan of May in her party leadership bid of that summer, it was still possible to conceive of different outcomes.
The pragmatists could have prevailed.
But something happened – a decision was casually made that will turn out to be as consequential for the United Kingdom as any other immensely important decision in our history.
And that decision was made by a prime minister who, on Hammond’s account, did not understand the import of her decision, and without reference to either cabinet or parliament.
An extraordinary moment, and one which is becoming more extraordinary over time.
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