There’s a small scene in Hilary Mantel’s entrancing trilogy of novels about Tudor England which steps back from the main plot. A few of the faithful search for the bones of one of their number who has been burned at the stake for their beliefs. They have lost almost everything, but stand firm.
The last of Mantel’s series is coming out and it’s easy to make crude parallels with today: harsh politics, national fragmentation and a traumatic break with Europe. Boris Johnson would make a decent Henry VIII. Dominic Cummings is too flash to be a Thomas Cromwell but there’s similar resentment at court. I’m most struck in Mantel’s story, though, by those who don’t give in to the regime, the hold-outs, the stubborn who stick to what they think is right — the mournful few who rake through the ashes to find lost friends.
One evening this week I shared a room with a few good people like this. I was interviewing David Gauke at a defiant meeting of the Conservative Group for Europe. They are the sort of people who remain unafraid of identifying themselves with a cause their party — or former party — has abandoned. No one these days risks being burnt alive for heresy although don’t rule out Cummings striking a match. But their isolation still hurts.
This time last year Gauke was near the top of a Tory cabinet. If the referendum in 2016 had gone the other way, he was in line to become Chancellor. In the election in December he urged voters to give him their support as an independent, having given up hope of a soft Tory Brexit deal. Almost 16,000 people backed him but he lost anyway, as did all the other brave souls from Anna Soubry to Dominic Grieve who tried to resist the tide as independents or Liberal Democrats.
It would be pleasant to say that we ended the evening in good heart. But what stood out is that the degrading consequences of Brexit aren’t over — not by a long way. What’s going to happen, Gauke predicted, is that the EU and the United Kingdom are going to fall out hard and fast. It’s likely to be no deal all over again, only this time there will be little parliamentary opposition and no alternative plan. To most of those who voted for Brexit, and even some of those who didn’t, no deal will seem the only way forward. We’ve got so deep into this morass maybe the only thing is to keep ploughing on through the mud.
Today the British government publishes its negotiating position. A couple of days ago the EU did the same. Although there are areas of overlap, fundamentally these documents aren’t compatible. Unless one side gives in the talks will collapse — and probably soon, in a row about fishing rights: a dispute which the EU wants sorted by summer.
A year ago, a no-deal Brexit looked like a total catastrophe. Now it is on the brink of being official policy
You can question whether it’s fair to ask us to sign up to a close relationship with common standards. But it’s not long since the then new Prime Minister Johnson agreed we should. In October he signed a Political Declaration which contained more references to a level playing field than the Eton prospectus. The Withdrawal Agreement, which carries even more weight, made it clear, too, that goods moving from Britain to Northern Ireland would be subject to a form of customs scrutiny, so the border in Ireland could remain fully open.
Since then a massive majority has sent Johnson’s confidence surging. Now he says he wants freedom from EU standards and promises there won’t be checks in the Irish Sea. So already there’s a collapse of trust. You can only assume the Government doesn’t care.
The Prime Minister’s EU negotiator, David Frost, gave an important speech last week which more or less wrote off a close relationship with the EU. He said one had never really been possible: “Nobody knew whether a deal with Britain would stick”. He was talking about the past but that’s even more true of the future. If even the man in charge of negotiating the next deal thinks our country’s word isn’t to be trusted why would the EU ever meet Johnson’s shifting demands?
As I sat chewing this over miserably with Gauke, the grim logic became clear. The thinner the deal, the less it matters whether we get it — and the deal the government wants now is very thin. It would be worth much political pain to win something like single-market terms of trade but slogging through talks and selling-out fishermen to get a narrow deal aimed at avoiding queues at Dover might not be. The economy’s taking a hit either way, the reasoning goes. Why not go all out for freedom?
The immediate consequences of a form of managed no-deal will surely be awful but the Government will get away with blaming EU intransigence for the pain. Next year it will try to start trade talks again. That way it would be building up from nothing, not down from the intimate ties we have now. If you start with rubble, at least you can’t make the ruin worse.
Sitting in exile in the National Liberal Club, under the gaze of a Gladstone portrait, our group could only wonder what had gone wrong. A year ago, no deal looked like a catastrophe. Now it is on the brink of being official policy. As Mantel’s fine books tell us, all the conviction in the world can’t save you from cruel defeat.