Apparently the British negotiating team still had their papers in their bags when the photo was taken, but the confident Europeans with their stacks of briefing papers sitting opposite the Brits armed only with inane grins and misplaced confidence is a powerful visual metaphor for how the Brexit process is going so far.
The EU negotiating team have finalised and published detailed Brexit position papers on a whole range of different aspects of the Brexit negotiations, and their stance is universally backed by the 27 remaining EU states, which is no mean feat given that they range from the extreme-right governments in Poland and Hungary all the way through to Syriza in Greece and the Communist-backed government in Portugal).
It’s a national embarrassment to Britain that our negotiating team is so chaotic. Not only are the British public still deeply divided on whether Brexit should even be going ahead after all the lies and dodgy dealings during the referendum campaign, the Tories who have been charged with delivering Brexit are all pulling in different directions.
Tory Brexit is turning out to be just as chaotic and damaging as almost all of the economic and international law experts predicted during the rushed referendum debate in 2016.
The problem isn’t just that the Tories didn’t even draw up a contingency plan for what to do in case David Cameron’s EU referendum gamble backfired, it’s that the governing party is still deeply divided on what they want to achieve out of the Brexit process.
The Tories aren’t just split between two camps any more like they used to be (Europhobes and Europhiles) they’ve fractured into all kinds of factions, each arguing for their own agendas under Theresa May’s weak leadership, and agreeing on one thing only, that the opposition parties and devolved parliaments should be given as little influence over the Brexit process as possible.
On Sunday 16th July the Tory Chancellor Philip Hammond made the extraordinary admission that there are some members of the cabinet who don’t agree with his stance (brazenly one he just nicked off Labour) that protecting British jobs and the UK economy should be the first priorities of the Brexit negotiations.
We can have a good guess as to who these cabinet members are who would sacrifice other people’s jobs and living standards to secure the hard-right extreme Brexit they crave. They’re clearly the same ones who talked Theresa May into adopting her toddler tantrum Brexit strategy of endlessly repeating her give us exactly what we want or we’ll walk away with nothing threats, that do nothing but massively increase the likelihood of an extreme “no deal” Brexit.
There’s ginning David Davis, who is so clearly out of his depth it would be hilarious if our national reputation and the living standards of millions weren’t hanging on his ability to suddenly and miraculously develop some basic levels of competence.
There’s Boris Johnson who seems to have carte blanche to just make up whatever positions he likes, including telling the EU to “go whistle“ during a parliamentary debate, for which he received the usual mild rebuke and no further action for what would be firing/resignation offences under the leadership of anyone but the weakest of Prime Ministers.
Then there are the absolutely clueless gibberish-spewing buffoons like Owen Paterson, who actually claimed that the UK could obtain the benefits of the Single Market by imposing import tariffs on EU produce, meaning he’s apparently unaware that the main benefit of the Single Market is the lack of import/export tariffs!
Then there are the reluctant Brexiters, who know perfectly well that Brexit is going to be a social and economic catastrophe for the UK, and campaigned against it during the referendum debate, but who are now clearly prioritising the interests of the Tory party way above the nation as a whole by supporting a policy that they know will do severe long-term harm to the economy and to the national reputation.
Last of all is the almost eradicated Europhile faction which is now represented in the House of Commons by the solitary backbench figure of Ken Clarke (the only Tory MP to vote against invoking Article 50).
The source of this chaos is obviously Theresa May’s feeble directionless leadership.
Instead of defining a clear position and making sure her cabinet members stick to it, she’s allowing them to say whatever the hell they like, and contradict each other time and again, without taking any real disciplinary action whatever, even when they come out with outrageously confusing and counterproductive gibberish.
Either the Tory cabinet ministers are continually bickering and contradicting one another because they’re as unclear about the official Brexit negotiating position as the rest of us are, or they do actually know what the supposed endgame is, but they’re got such contempt for their own party leader that they feel free to defy her by claiming whatever they like with total impunity.
Whatever the causes of this chaos, disunity and infighting within Theresa May’s cabinet, it’s clearly an absolute embarrassment to the UK that while 27 politically diverse nations have come together to formulate clear, timely and transparent negotiating positions after having had Brexit thrust upon them, the Tory party that brought us Brexit in the first place are so shockingly disunited.
I know “I told you so” is not a good look, but anyone who imagined that the fanatical hard-right fringe of the Tory party would be capable of delivering anything but an absolute shambles must at least be feeling their misplaced faith evaporating away quite quickly by now.
These hard-right Europhobes had four whole decades of whinging to actually develop a plan for getting out of the EU, but incredibly they’re still too busy fighting and bickering amongst themselves to focus on the job that they created for themselves, even an entire year after the referendum result, and with the Article 50 clock ticking away.
There are four main options for the UK.
1. Just muddle along and pretend that Theresa May and the absolutely chaotic party she’s so demonstrably failing to lead aren’t slow-marching us off an economic cliff until the ground begins actually crumbling away beneath our feet.
2. Demand a more inclusive Brexit that at least offers the opposition parties and devolved governments some proper influence over the UK’s negotiating objectives (highly unlikely with a wannabe tyrant like Theresa May still clinging desperately to power).
3. Demand a second referendum on the final Brexit terms. Whether this would act as a safeguard against Theresa May doing a catastrophic “no deal” strop would depend entirely on the EU, since it’s up to them whether they would accept the revocation of Article 50 in the event of a “please stop this madness now” referendum vote.
4. Demand another General Election, in which Labour would almost certainly make significant gains, either winning a majority, or taking enough Tory seats to form a progressive coalition. It would be unlikely that such a move would be enough to stop Brexit entirely, but at least it would hand the task of sorting out the mess to Keir Starmer QC, who is much more qualified for such a vital job than bumbling David Davis.
Obviously none of these options are ideal, but then we’re the ones who voted to put ourselves in this ridiculous position last year, so we’re just going to have to own the consequences.
Obviously the first option is the worst of the lot, but unless there’s some concerted effort to stop it going this way, the cliff edge is clearly the direction of travel.