The Guardian view on Brexit delusions: diminishing Britain’s standing

Editorial
‘The problem at the heart of Theresa May’s Brexit nightmare remains the need to strike a deal with Europe that will prove politically acceptable back home.’ Photograph: Henry Nicholls/AFP/Getty

The wild promises of those leading the Brexit charge were always based on a fantasy about Britain’s global standing. It harked back to the long-gone empire, portraying Britain as vastly more strong, powerful and important than any realistic assessment might judge; the only thing holding us back was the malign influence of the EU. In this way, Brexiters overstated both the ease of negotiating a satisfying departure from the EU for the UK – as if the EU would quickly deliver an outcome suiting the UK rather than the remaining 27 nations – and the ease of translating that into improved trade relations with the rest of the world. Reality shows otherwise; unfortunately, they are increasingly detached from it.

The problem at the heart of Theresa May’s Brexit nightmare remains the need to strike a deal with Europe that will prove politically acceptable back home, to parliament, her party and the DUP MPs on whom her government relies. It is not a coincidence that as things improve on one score, they deteriorate on the other. Two days after the EU’s chief negotiator said matters were progressing well, the former Brexit secretary, David Davis, called for ministers to revolt against Mrs May’s “completely unacceptable” plan. The Brexiters are demanding a strict time limit on the Northern Ireland backstop agreed with the EU in December. Ideology and bravado, spiced with personal ambitions among the Leavers, have made her party unmanageable.

Meanwhile, Arlene Foster has warned that the DUP is ready to trigger a no-deal Brexit over the backstop and regards this as the “likeliest” outcome. Any divergence whatsoever from the rest of the UK is a “blood-red” line. Denials that she is holding the Conservatives to ransom ring pretty thin: a party that cannot form a government at home is dictating the future of the entire UK. This may please her supporters but is all the more wrong and absurd when a clear majority of Northern Ireland’s population voted to remain.

The volatile domestic situation in turn makes a deal with the bloc harder. EU leaders might prefer Mrs May to any likely replacement on the other side of the table, but giving ground if she can’t get a deal through will only weaken their own position. While all this goes on Brexiters continue to promise an international bonanza awaits, ignoring a worsening global context, as Sir Ivan Rogers, former ambassador to the EU, noted in a speech this week. A trade war-loving US president seeks advantage through threats, and strives to harden other countries’ dealings with China. Commonwealth nations have yet to show wild enthusiasm for the kind of trade deal that sceptical Whitehall officials reportedly dubbed “Empire 2.0”. Even the hardest-line Brexiters are not deluded enough to believe that Toblerone display cabinets and “innovative British jams” will save us. If they are facing up to the problem, they are surely counting on deregulation and a race to the bottom.

The same misplaced view of Britain’s standing in the world that was used to argue for leaving the EU has made that exit far harder. With every fresh outburst from the Brexiters it looks less serious, less valuable and less desirable as a partner; more divided, more marginal and more essentially trivial. Even if a fudge can be found to pass muster in Brussels and Westminster, it will be a long way from the kind of long-term solutions that Britain requires outside the EU. A mission claiming to reassert Britain’s might and authority on the international stage is diminishing it at every step. To renege on promises over the backstop would only do more damage, making us look less reliable and less credible too.