Some of you will be old enough to remember when the choice was leave or remain. How quaint it seems now. Because once the country voted in June 2016, we faced a new choice. For the true believers, simply leaving the European Union was not good enough: it had to be a hard, rather than a soft, Brexit. Now even a hard departure is not sufficient for the most devout Brexiteers. Demonstrating the purity of their faith, they yearn for a no-deal Brexit.
Over the many decades that the European question has loomed over Conservative, and therefore British, politics, the debate’s centre of gravity has shifted ever rightward. There was a time when mere opposition to British adoption of the euro earned you a Eurosceptic merit badge. Now you have to go much further. Simply leaving the EU is for wimps. To prove your anti-European hardness, you must storm out, slam the door – and throw a brick through the Brussels window.
Many of this week’s demands for a no-deal Brexit have come masked in rueful pragmatism, the ultra-Brexiteers feigning a heavy heart as they bow to the hard facts of life and prepare for that unwanted eventuality. But it’s all bogus.
Any visitor to the Tory conference in Manchester this month could see that, on the contrary, no deal brings instant arousal to the EU-loathing faithful. It carries that frisson of outlaw defiance, of burn-the-house-down iconoclasm, that has always been a crucial component of the Eurosceptic’s self-image.
No one arrives at no deal through a cool cost-benefit analysis. What takes them there is ideological zeal. Witness the five-word reply John Redwood sent to a protesting remainer who had set out the case for staying: “I just want to leave.”
If this were about the national interest, no one would countenance no deal. Amber Rudd is right that it is “unthinkable”. The independent assessments are quite clear that, if Britain were truly to walk out with no accord at all, planes would be grounded, and customs paperwork would increase fivefold – instantly leading to endless queues and gridlocked roads at the ports, and fresh produce rotting on the Dover dockside. Prices would rocket, supply chains would collapse, and everyone would be worse off. It’s worth studying the detail: it’s all bad.
Yet for the hardcore Brexiteer, none of this can compete with the lure of turning our back on the continent. A revealing, if bizarre, insight into the mindset came – again – from Redwood, when he described how he had spent the summer avoiding European goods, patrolling the supermarket aisles as if he were chemically allergic to anything touched by our nearest neighbours. “English, Australian and New Zealand wines are great,” he wrote, “so no need to buy French or Spanish.”
As it happens, the no deal that turns Britain into a no-fly zone of rotting fruit is almost certainly a mirage. In reality, if negotiations with Brussels fail to make a breakthrough by 29 March 2019, there will be a series of temporary mini-deals with Europe – on aviation, customs or the rights of EU citizens – just to keep planes in the sky and families from being deported. But they won’t be good deals for Britain. One Whitehall mandarin told me how he’d heard a Brexiteer minister complaining about the EU talks, saying: “You never beat Brussels in a negotiation.” (The mandarin had resisted the temptation to say: “Precisely. Which is why the EU is such a successful trading bloc that most nations would clamour to join rather than leave.”)
English, Australian and New Zealand wines are great, Redwood wrote, so no need to buy French or Spanish
Still, the shift in focus to no deal is performing several useful functions. For one thing, it’s highlighting how chaotically divided this dysfunctional shower of a government really is, contradicting itself by the hour. While Theresa May was on her feet at the Brussels summit on Thursday night, trying to win the goodwill of her fellow European leaders, the Times was preparing its Friday front page. The headline: “Davis draws up plan for no deal on Brexit talks.”
What’s more, the no-deal discussion is doing what the referendum campaign never managed: exposing the true consequences of this national act of self-harm. President Macron nailed it when he said today that “those who persuaded the British to vote Brexit never explained to them what the costs would be”. Nor, in truth, did their opponents. The remain campaign failed to find a positive message, but it also failed to give voters a peek over the cliff edge. Project Fear was not scary enough.
This week the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development made a contribution, setting out the damage Brexit has already done to Britain’s growth, share values, currency and inflation. But the prospect of no deal draws that case in even sharper lines.
We may well avoid that outcome. The signals from Brussels suggest that in December the EU will allow the talks to move to the next phase, so the two sides can, at last, discuss not just their divorce but their future relationship. Forget any delusions about wrapping up an EU-UK free-trade agreement by October 2018, in time for a UK exit six months later. That’s not going to happen. The best we can aim for is a diplomatic “heads of agreement” text, a broad outline of principles combined with an agreed transition period.
If that sounds relatively smooth, think again. The current phase will be “a picnic in the park compared to the bloody battlefield of what’s ahead”, says Charles Grant, of the Centre for European Reform. Not least because May and her cabinet have never agreed on what the future UK-EU relationship should look like. The premature triggering of article 50 meant Britain entered negotiations not knowing what it wanted: never a smart move.
In all this, there is a curious quiet – and it comes from the quarter where you’d expect the loudest protest. Jeremy Corbyn had an excellent prime minister’s questions this week, asking pointed questions on the economy, universal credit and public sector pay. But even after the OECD report and evidence of yawning splits in cabinet, he did not ask about Brexit. One Labour bigwig, loyal to the leader, finds it tactically odd not to hit the Tories where they are so vulnerable. “You punch the bruise,” he told me. “And the bruise is Brexit.”
But this goes beyond mere tactics. Britain is heading towards a national disaster, a decision that will weaken this country for generations to come. Facing the government is an opposition surging with confidence, led by a man who has inspired a mass movement of many hundreds of thousands. But on this, the most pressing question of the age, it doesn’t know what to say.
Sure, Labour rightly faults the Tories at every turn. Yet when it comes to setting out its own vision for life after Brexit and after the transition period, Labour’s view is wreathed in fog. It has grown attached to the mixed message that, it hopes, will keep both pro- and anti-Brexit voters on side. But Brexit is too serious for equivocation. The government is driving the country off a cliff, debating only how fast it should go. Faced with that peril, the duty of the opposition is clear: it must oppose.
• Jonathan Freedland is a Guardian columnist