Thursday 26 October 2017

Time's running out: economics is now going faster than politics

It’s a truism that the Article 50 clock is ticking. In March 2019 the UK will be a third country to the EU with all that entails, and any deal will have to be done at least six months before that in order to allow ratification. So there is about a year left.

What is becoming increasingly clear is that this political timescale is being overtaken by the timescale of economics and business. This week, five groups representing British business wrote to the government urging an early agreement to a transitional agreement on, effectively, status quo terms – which would mean many of the things that are red lines for the Brexit ultras, including ECJ jurisdiction. It’s a mark of how strange British politics has become that a Tory government regards these business groups as peripherally relevant or even, for the Brexit Jacobins in the Tory Party, just another group of saboteurs who don’t share the true faith.

But faith doesn’t really cut it when it comes to investment decisions, and whilst the Cabinet have reportedly not discussed what future trade terms the government will seek with the EU (even whilst insisting that the EU must start trade talks immediately) for fear of the splits it will reveal, businesses are obliged to make those decisions. For example, supermarket chains faced with the possibility of lengthy customs checks need to decide very soon on investments in new refrigeration facilities. For airlines, the crunch point of selling post-March 2019 seats is coming in March 2018. And before long, farmers are going to have to make decisions about what crops to plant.

Brexiters don’t understand any of this, partly because very few of them know anything about modern business practice. Very few business people support Brexit – it’s telling that only three have really had a significant profile: James Dyson, JCB boss Lord Bamford and Tim Martin of Wetherspoon. The first two of these have had massive legal disputes with the EU, with JCB suffering a hefty fine for anti-competitive practices, whilst Wetherspoon does not export and is highly reliant on EU migrant labour.

At all events, we’re now getting to the point of no return as regards business decisions. For some, the point is already passed. Internet entrepreneur Jean Meyer is moving his company from London to Paris having “lost track of the number of developers, marketing managers or data scientists who refused to join us following the Brexit vote”. On a bigger scale, the strategically vital pharma industry is getting very alarmed: “will we be able to do everything on time? Probably not” said one senior manager of Merck, a leading player.

Brexiters dismissed the warnings of business as ‘Project Fear’ before the referendum, and since then have dishonestly pretended that since the warnings did not come true the day after (which they did, in fact, as regards sterling) then they will never do so. But the situation now is quite clear: businesses are not investing and are beginning to leave. Jon Worth wrote an excellent blog this week arguing that politically ‘something has got to give’. That’s true, but when it does it is likely only to increase the political uncertainty around Brexit. Which will only accelerate disinvestment. And businesses which leave now won’t come back, whatever subsequently happens with Brexit.

Beyond all the business issues, it’s crucial to remember that uncertainty bites very hard upon individuals, especially EU citizens in the UK and UK citizens in the EU-27 but also people who may be thinking of moving to work, study or retire in other countries. Many of these people are facing decisions without any real way of knowing on what basis to make them: decisions about themselves but also about, say, their children’s schooling. Literally millions of people who, quite reasonably, have built their lives on a presumption of UK membership of the EU are having those lives wrecked and having to make decisions, whilst the meaning of Brexit cannot be defined even by those who most assiduously campaigned for it. Those decisions, like those of businesses, are also being made right now and won’t easily be revoked.

Formally, Brexit happens in March 2019. For many businesses and individuals it is happening right now. Is there anything on the other side of the coin? Are there any businesses or individuals investing in or coming to Britain because of Brexit? No. That is an extraordinary fact so it's worth repeating: there is not one single business investment that has been announced as a result of Brexit.

Update (with apologies for the font/formatting problems which I haven't been able to resolve): The claim at the end of this post, that not one single business investment has been announced as being a result of Brexit, has been criticised on Twitter. Some named well-known cases of companies (such as Amazon, Google and Toyota) which have made investments since the Brexit vote, but these investments are not as result of that vote. Another criticism was that the collapse of sterling following the Brexit vote has made UK firms attractive for purchase by foreign investors. This may be true – although the case most usually cited of this development is the purchase of ARM by SoftBank, whose CEO said “I did not make this investment because of Brexit” - but what I actually had in mind with my claim was firms making new productive investments because Britain has voted to leave the EU rather than the sell-off of British assets to foreign ownership because, as a knock on effect of the vote, the pound has collapsed. It’s also worth saying that the fall in sterling doesn’t necessarily make firms cheaper to acquire because if they make profits in other currencies (notably, dollars) the fall in sterling makes their share price, and therefore acquisition price, higher.
Anyway, I undertook to amend this blog post if examples could be found of companies announcing investments made because the UK had voted to leave the EU. In response, links to several news stories were proposed as examples. However, with one partial exception, which I will come to, they did not show evidence of a company making a new investment because of the vote to leave. They were: a report of an Asian hotel chain that wanted to open a hotel in the UK because of the fall of sterling (but had as yet not done so); a UK holiday camp being re-developed (with an investment that started in 2014, so not as a result of the vote) which is experiencing a boom because the falling pound is leading to more ‘staycations’; a report of booming yacht exports because of the falling pound (no investment announced); an airline saying that it ‘expects’ more business travel as a result of Brexit (no investment announced); a report predicting that more US films ‘could’ be made in the UK because of the falling pound (no investment announcement); a survey showing that 52% of Scottish food and drink firms had increased their investment ‘plans’ because of the Brexit vote (no investment announced); a story about how gin exports have increased because of the falling pound (no investment announced); a report of the CEO of AstraZeneca saying that Brexit will create (unspecified) new opportunities for UK life sciences (no investment announced); and a report of a construction industry leader saying that Brexit ‘could be great news’ for the sector (no investment announced).
So none of these stories show a company announcing a new investment made because the UK voted to leave the EU. But I mentioned that there was one partial exception, a story in the Express, published the same day as my post. This was about a Dutch private equity firm opening a UK office. They see Brexit as an opportunity to “help UK companies to internationalise and to move into the continent” and “provide strategic advice to chief executives that might feel a little lonely at negotiating tables after Brexit”. It is true to say that this is happening because of the vote to leave the EU (although it is not clear what the nature of the investment is) and I am sure that there are many other examples of an industry developing to give advice to companies about how to deal with Brexit. But it’s rather like the chutzpah definition about the man who sought clemency for having murdered his parents by pleading that he deserves sympathy as an orphan to claim that the development of such an industry shows the business potentials of Brexit.
Coming back to the main issue, it may have been a hostage to fortune to say that there have been no announcements of this sort. But I haven’t seen any. Still, it’s impossible to prove a negative only to disprove one, and I wouldn’t be completely surprised if with enough digging it might be possible to come up with some examples. The fact that it is necessary to dig deep is telling in itself and suggests that they will be vanishingly few, and seem likely to be a side effect of the damage that the Brexit vote has done to sterling rather than a direct effect of the decision to leave the EU per se. Thus, at most, they will be indirect consequences. If so, it also bears saying that many Brexiters, most prominently John Redwood, claim that the fall in the pound is nothing to do with Brexit anyway!

Friday 20 October 2017

Brexit is bringing humiliation to Britain, and there is much more of it to come

It wasn’t meant to be like this. According to Brexiters, leaving the EU would be the easiest deal in history, achievable within minutes and assured by the lobbying power of German car makers and French cheese makers as an inevitable corollary of being ‘the fifth largest economy in the world’. Such claims were made not by a few fringe figures but by almost all prominent leave campaigners including present and former cabinet ministers.

Instead Theresa May is reduced to “pleading” with the EU for a deal “she can defend to British voters”. Pleading was not supposed to be the order of the day as the British lion roared again, but perhaps this word is just The Guardian ‘as usual talking the country down’? Alas, if we look at foreign news reports it seems that pleading is the least of it. Begging is how the Swiss media describe it.

This pitiful spectacle is, in any case, not really about finding a deal which May can defend to ‘British voters’. That would probably not be too hard to do, at least if May were prepared, finally, to be honest with the electorate about what Brexit means and what is and is not feasible, and where the trade-offs and incompatibilities lie. What she actually wants is something with can be defended to the ultras within her own party. And that – which is also what prevents her from being honest with the electorate – is not just difficult. It’s impossible.

There is no deal which can be defended to the ultras for the simple reason that there is no deal that they will accept. Having pushed the envelope from soft to hard Brexit they are now openly campaigning for no deal as a desirable outcome, even though, thanks to the delays of the election and the lack of planning before the Article 50 letter, negotiations have barely started; even though the talks are following the phasing entailed by Article 50 and agreed to by the British government; and even though it is internal rows within the British government which are the primary cause of the lack of progress on the phase one issues.

EU leaders may have a small degree of sympathy for May’s domestic problems – that is implicit in some of the language at the summit and in the announcement that the EU-27 will begin to talk amongst themselves about phase two (trade) issues. But the sympathy will be very limited. That is partly because they, too, know that the ultras are unappeasable. It is also because British domestic politics are no longer of great interest to the EU. In the past, when Britain was a continuing member, a recognition of our domestic political constraints did engender considerable flexibility, allowing all the numerous opt outs and special deals that Britain enjoyed. Now, the terms of engagement have changed and the EU-27 must, inevitably, focus on their own priorities not those of British politicians. If May is unable or unwilling to stand up to the ultras that is her problem.

But of course for those of us in Britain her failure to do so most certainly is our problem. This week’s begging in Brussels is just a small foretaste of a much greater national humiliation to come. By tying the fate of Brexit entirely to the minority of ultra Brexiters May has ensured that. It is important to recall that there was nothing inevitable about this. It may, politically if not legally, have been necessary to proceed with Brexit in some form because of the Referendum. It wasn’t necessary for it to be in the form that May decided it had to at the time when she still had the authority to take a more consensual line, one more respectful not just of remain voters but also of soft Brexiters.

So the stage is set for what we might call soft or hard humiliation. Either some kind of deal will be done, primarily along lines set by the EU, in which some or all of May’s red lines are breached, accompanied perhaps by either a long transition period or an extension of the Article 50 period. Those things would not, in themselves, be humiliating. They might even, in so far as the word can be applied to any form of Brexit, be relatively sensible although will entail considerable economic and geo-political costs, some of which have already been incurred. But compared with what the ultras promised it will be a humiliation and, of course, will be greeted by them as a betrayal.

Alternatively there will be no deal, and economic and social dislocation of a sort never experienced by an advanced, democratic country in peacetime. That dislocation will come partly because, as I and many, many others have repeatedly explained, the ultras’ mantra of ‘trading on WTO terms’ is meaningless. But also because if no deal really means no deal then that applies to all kinds of things which are nothing whatsoever to do with the WTO, for example air travel and medicine licensing. In this regard, ultras have started deploying two new and highly dishonest claims. One is to pretend that, somehow, WTO rules do cover non-trade things like air travel. The other is to talk of ‘no deal’ whilst also saying, as they used to about trade, that the EU is ‘bound’ to agree (i.e. do a deal on!) these non-trade matters.

In either scenario what is about to be administered is a (long) sharp lesson in reality of an order of magnitude bigger than, say, the Suez crisis. It will certainly make what for years was the line that ‘going cap in hand to the IMF’ in 1976 was a national low seem like the mildest of shames. No one should feel happy about this, for two reasons. First, obviously, because the effects of, especially, no deal are going to land very heavily on all of us, whether leavers or remainers. ‘I told you so’ will not put food on remainer tables any more than ‘we’ve taken back control’ will put it on those of leavers.

And, secondly, because history and psychology tell us that the consequences of humiliation are almost always rage and violence. Those things are never far away with Brexiters anyway – they have been quite as angry since winning the Referendum as they were before. So if the Brexit ‘patriots’ urging no deal with the EU - who are currently on every news programme, as if their views represented anything other than a small, extremist minority – get their way we can be absolutely certain that they will not take any responsibility whatsoever for the consequences. It will be, as it always is for them, the fault of others: of the EU and, closer to home, of those of us who warned them repeatedly of the national humiliation to which they are driving us. It won't be pretty.

Wednesday 18 October 2017

Talk of a 'no deal' Brexit is normalising hard Brexit

One noteworthy feature of the nomination race for the Republican Presidential candidate was that the candidates who might in other circumstances have been thought of as holding rather extreme views became seen as moderate. The reason, of course, was Donald Trump, compared to whom they were indeed relatively moderate. By moving the scale so far to the extreme what had hitherto been seen as extreme became normalised.

Something very similar is underway now with Brexit. The idea of a ‘no deal’ – or what might be better called kamikaze - Brexit was not even entertained during the Referendum campaign when, as noted in my previous post, leading Brexiters assured us that a deal would be quick and easy. But now no deal is being talked about quite blithely as not being too bad or, even, as being actually preferable to having a deal. And this comes not just from fringe figures on social media but from senior MPs like John Redwood and even cabinet ministers like Liam Fox.

Anyone who knows anything at all about it knows that the consequences of no deal would be catastrophic for the UK – not just in terms of trade but a wide range of the taken-for-granted amenities of modern life from air travel to affordable food to cancer treatments. No less significant is that such an outcome would shred Britain’s credibility as a trusted negotiating partner, with consequences for both trade and geo-political deal-making. Pretending otherwise does not hold water even as a ‘negotiating tactic’ since the EU knows all this just as much as anyone else. This is not, as some seem to imagine, a game of poker in which one player can bluff because each player already know what cards the other holds.

So no deal is not, and should not be regarded as, a serious possibility. But the consequence of talking about it as if it were certainly has serious consequences. It serves to normalise what is actually an extreme position, namely hard Brexit. Thus we are getting to a situation where it seems as if just avoiding the catastrophe of no deal would somehow be a sane, pragmatic and desirable outcome.

In fact, as those long months in which all we knew was that ‘Brexit means Brexit’ showed, in the initial period after the Referendum the spectrum of possibilities ran from soft Brexit – meaning single market membership and some form of customs union membership – to hard Brexit, meaning neither as well as exiting numerous bodies such as Euratom. It was not until May’s Lancaster House speech in January 2017 that we were told that Brexit must mean hard Brexit. Yet now, it is common to see no deal described as hard Brexit, and what used to be called hard Brexit depicted as a soft position. Thus Philip Hammond is eviscerated for his lack of faith for championing what was once seen as the extreme form of Brexit.

I’ve written elsewhere about how no matter what concessions are made to Brexiters they always want more. They have now succeeded in dragging the whole country with them. There is simply no way that most, or even many, leave voters could have thought that the no deal scenario was what they were voting for. But now that this scenario is being discussed as a real possibility many voters – whether they were for remain or leave in the Referendum – are highly likely conclude that, by comparison, hard Brexit is ‘not so bad as that’*. In this way, hard Brexit, which was never voted for by the British people, is becoming normalised.


*That claim is in no way undermined by the recent Sky News poll finding that 74% of people would prefer ‘no deal’ to ‘a bad deal’ because a question posed in that form would be bound to achieve such a result. A ‘bad deal’ sounds – of course – like something bad; whereas ‘no deal’ sounds neutral, as if nothing much would change (some respondents might even interpret it to mean remaining in the EU). But if a question were posed in terms of choosing between the realities of ‘no deal’ and those of hard Brexit the result would certainly be a preference for hard Brexit.

Friday 13 October 2017

Brexit is becoming a battle for Britain's political soul

As the complexity and chaos of Brexit become increasingly clear, the behaviour of Brexiters is becoming correspondingly unhinged and dangerous. This is most obviously manifest in calls for the Chancellor of the Exchequer to be charged with treason or at least to be sacked for ‘sabotaging’ Brexit. His heresy is not to have questioned Brexit or even hard Brexit. It is simply that he is resisting spending money on preparations for a ‘no deal’ Brexit – preparations which would in any case be pointless even if the catastrophe of such a Brexit were something any sane politician would countenance as a possibility. For some Brexiters his ‘crime’ is the even more trivial one that he does not show enough positive enthusiasm for Brexit.

More insidious than, although part of, this Brexit McCarthyism is the re-writing of history which is going on apace. Examples include airbrushing out assurances given by Theresa Villiers (then the Northern Ireland Secretary) and Boris Johnson that the Irish border would be unaffected by Brexit; or the impossible promises by the Leave campaign that a new deal with the EU would be negotiated before even beginning the legal process to leave. Most fundamentally, all those Brexiters who assured voters that an advantageous Brexit deal would be easy, quick and inevitable are now insisting either that they always knew it would be hard or, even, that no deal has always been the most likely outcome. The latest offender is Nigel Lawson, but as I have catalogued elsewhere there are numerous other examples, including Peter Lilley, Peter Hargreaves, David Davis and Liam Fox.

This matters hugely not in order to hark back to the Referendum campaign but in terms of what happens now. Because it is becoming ever clearer that nothing that the Leave campaign promised voters was true and that had they told the truth about what leaving the EU meant then far fewer people would have voted for it. What this means now is that the lies told are coming back to haunt them and in particular to fatally undermine what has been their most effective line since the vote: that Brexit is the “Will of the People”. Manifestly that falls apart if what people who voted leave were promised turns out to have been a lie. There’s nothing new about that insight, of course, it has been the case since the very first hours after the Referendum but it can only become more obvious as the situation unfolds. It is not just that people will change their minds – as they are beginning to do – it is that the very legitimacy of the result is discredited in a way it could not be had Leave won on the basis of an honest campaign.

It is because of this that Brexiters are so desperate to conceal what they promised, and so viciously turning on those, such as Hammond, who are not “true believers”. That now even extends beyond the re-writing of the past to a demand that evidence about the present and future be falsified. Thus John Redwood this week called for the Treasury to revise its economic forecasts so as to be more ‘realistic’ and ‘optimistic’ about Brexit (quite how they could be both is an absurdity in itself). Forecasts are not facts, but that they are forecasts is a fact and to demand that standard models of forecasting (for all their imperfections) be doctored to fit in with Brexiter faith is ridiculous.

It is crucial that we do not think of this as just the normal business of politics, with protagonists putting the best gloss they can upon their positions. What is underway is something much more fundamental, in a sense even more fundamental than Brexit. The hardcore Brexiters of both the political Right and Left think of themselves – correctly, in my view – as enacting a revolution, and in pursuit of that they are not just willing to risk economic disaster but actually hope to destroy liberal political discourse in its broadest sense. The sinister language of traitors, sabotage and loyalty tests is not the last desperate throw of the dice as Brexit goes wrong; it is the beginning of what they want to be the normal terrain of politics. Similarly, the re-writing of history and of facts is not just a tactical gambit, it is part and parcel of their desired form of politics as decoupled from evidence, logic and rationality.

This won’t go away if and when Brexit is shown to fail. The Brexiters will not take that to show they were wrong but will say that it re-affirms they are right, as we are already seeing is the case. Nor will it go away by conceding to their demands about what form Brexit will take, since we have already seen that each concession made to them only brings forth an even more extreme demand. In a way, the Brexiters’ growing immoderation is doing us a favour in giving a warning as to what kind of country they want whilst there is still the outside chance of avoiding the Brexit which would allow them to create it. For whatever else may have been the ‘will of the people’ it was not the Jacobinism that the Brexit ultras are now revealing to the public.

In this sense, there is a battle underway which is not just about Brexit but about the political soul of the nation. And if this is so, it becomes vital that all of us, but politicians especially, recognize and respond to what is at stake. It goes beyond political party loyalties and cuts across them. There can really be no case, now, for politicians to enact or support the enactment of Brexit when – as seems to be the case for May, Hammond and Damian Green amongst many others – they not only do not believe in it but actually know it is hugely damaging. If they fail to act on that knowledge they will not only be complicit in that damage but in the even greater disaster of taking the British polity down a toxic path that leads inexorably to dark, dangerous and violent places.

Tuesday 10 October 2017

By accident or design, a 'no deal' Brexit is getting closer

Theresa May’s commons statement on Brexit progress was a strange, confused and confusing mixture indicative of the strange, confused and confusing situation we are now in. On the one hand it showed some glimmers of realism about how in any ‘transition period’ ECJ jurisdiction would continue. That immediately attracted the ire of the Brexit Jacobins, such as the ubiquitous Rees-Mogg. Interestingly, there are signs that the Brexiters in the cabinet – Gove, especially – are more relaxed about this, reflecting, I suppose, the distinction between those who have the luxury of not having to take any responsibility and those who do. On the other hand, there was a much harder sense that May is preparing for a ‘no deal’ or 'Kamikaze' Brexit, and in that, of course, she has the unqualified support of the Ultras.

Why should ‘no deal’ even be being spoken of at this point? The answer seems to be a realization that the EU is unlikely to agree that sufficient progress has been made on phase 1 issues in order to progress to trade talks, and raising ‘no deal’ is perhaps designed to put pressure on the EU – or more accurately the individual member states – to give ground on this (and, by the way, even if they do UK ideas of what the future trade relationship would look like are unrealistic).

That in itself is absurd. The reason there has been no progress on phase 1 is almost entirely because the UK has failed to come up with anything remotely realistic on the issues of citizens’ rights, the financial settlement or the Irish border. And the reason for that, as ever, is because the Brexit Ultras won’t countenance anything realistic on the first two of these, whilst there is no obvious solution to the third of them. Moreover, progress has been made slow by the lack of British preparation prior to triggering Article 50, the time wasted by the election and by Tory infighting, the confused departmental structure created to handle Brexit, and the low-energy approach of David Davis to the negotiations.

What May is proposing to the EU probably leaves them with no option other than to decline it – at which point they will be accused of collapsing the talks and, possibly, giving a pretext for a UK walkout. If this is indeed about negotiating tactics then it is taking a massive gamble since it would, at the least, precipitate an immediate further collapse of sterling. In the longer run, using such tactics risks the possibility of a ‘no deal’ by accident – the political equivalent of nuclear brinksmanship going wrong. If that happens then the consequences will, of course, be economically and socially catastrophic – as outlined in an alarming, but by no means alarmist, post by pro-Brexit blogger Pete North.

Even accepting that Brexit is going to happen, there is absolutely no reason why it needs to be pursued in this way. I don’t just mean that a soft (single market) Brexit would avoid what is happening now. I mean that even a hard Brexit does not need to be pursued in this fantastically reckless and incompetent way. Having made its ill-advised choice, the government could fairly easily deal with citizens’ rights by not fixating on an ECJ role, and with the financial issues which are not, in the overall scheme of the costs of Brexit (and certainly the costs of a no deal Brexit) so great. And on Ireland they could at least develop some meaningful proposals, unlike the latest absurdity. Above all, there is absolutely no reason why they need to be in such a hurry. Given the complexities involved, there’s no reason in principle why the UK could not seek a much longer transition period and/or an extension of the Article 50 period. Whilst neither could be guaranteed, a more pragmatic and conciliatory stance from the UK could have made them achievable.

But for the ultras, if not for the government, the ‘no deal’ scenario is not something to be raised as a negotiating ploy – no matter how absurd and, had things been approached differently, unnecessary – it is the desired outcome. This is abundantly clear from the statements of many of them, including a contemptible piece by Bernard Jenkin, every sentence of which was a distortion of the truth, when it was not an outright lie. The overall message was clear – Brexit should be easy, and is only being prevented from being so by the vindictiveness of the EU and the machinations of remainers, in which conspiracy the Treasury and the CBI were included.

What Jenkin and his allies plainly want is for the talks to collapse and for a no deal Brexit to occur. Whether this is because they hope this will be a platform for a complete re-design of the UK along hard Right lines, or just because they are so viscerally bent of shape by their hatred of the EU is hard to tell. At all events, the government is now hostage to them, meaning that any halfway economically pragmatic approach to Brexit is politically impossible, and anything which is politically possible is economically untenable. So we are getting closer to ‘no deal’ even if, as David Allen Green argues, it is not inevitable.

It’s possible that this will change – a collapse of the talks would, as Jolyon Maugham suggests, throw into sharp relief just what a calamity ‘no deal’ would be, and might precipitate some parliamentary regrouping around sanity. But it is equally likely in such a scenario that a narrative of ‘EU punishment’ is whipped up, driving us headlong to the reality of ‘no deal’. If that comes about, those of us who can would be well-advised to make plans to emigrate, whilst those who can’t should stock up on tinned goods and install some good, strong locks.

It should never be forgotten that nothing remotely like the situation we are in – let alone that which might shortly unfold – is what was promised to those who voted to leave the EU. They were repeatedly told that leaving would be quick, easy and wholly positive. Every reptilian Brexit politician who piously invokes ‘the will of the people’ to justify this emerging national tragedy should be reminded of that.

Thursday 5 October 2017

Brexit for juveniles: the Tory Party conference

It is well over a year since the referendum result and over six months since Article 50 was triggered. This – according to both remainers and leavers – presages a massive change in British history, with far-reaching economic and geo-political consequences and presenting very significant challenges for every area of policy.

Yet one would hardly have thought so from the Conservative Party conference. Here we had the governing party, charged with and apparently enthused by overseeing this historic transformation, with nothing to say about it of either sense or substance at all. That is not say that they partook of the Labour Conference’s absurd conspiracy of silence about Brexit. They spoke constantly of it, but in ways so ludicrous as to be laughable were it not so dangerous.

Thus Boris Johnson, forever stuck in the factory-reject Churchill imitation of the Referendum campaign trail, reprised his empty ‘be bold’ rhetoric. At least he did not pretend to have anything of substance to say. But Liam Fox, the Brexit cabinet’s job creation scheme for one man, claimed that he had. There would be 40 new trade deals immediately ready for signature on Brexit, apparently on the basis that countries with deals with the EU would cut and paste them for the UK.

No detail was given, which is not surprising as it is complete fantasy. On the one hand, no country is going to simply replicate agreements with the EU for the much smaller market of the UK. You might as well expect someone who has signed a contract to buy a five bedroom house to Tippex that out and replace it with a one-bedroom flat whilst leaving the purchase price unchanged. On the other hand, no country is going to agree anything until the terms of UK-EU trade are known, and after that it will take months if not years. What Fox said will not happen, it really is as simple as that.

Beyond the fantasy lay a massive contradiction. For Fox, free trade agreements with these countries are vital – it would not be good enough to trade on ‘WTO terms’ (not that he, like other Brexiters, shows any sign of knowing what this actually means). That is why he insists Britain must leave the Common Commercial Policy and Customs Union. Yet with respect to the EU he equally vehemently insists that there is nothing to be feared from not reaching a deal, since trading on WTO terms will be perfectly fine. So which is it? He doesn’t say because he doesn’t know, or doesn’t care. His language is less larky than Johnson’s but for both of them it’s just a game, detached from any kind of reality.

Outside of the main conference hall were fringe events, with Jacob Rees-Mogg being a particularly popular fairground attraction. From him, we got such inanities as that the solution to the vexed issue of the Northern Ireland border was easy. In a master stroke that has eluded all those who are struggling with this issue he declared that we would just not have a border! If the EU wanted spitefully to create one then that was down to them. Yet this same Rees-Mogg is an enthusiast for the hard Brexit of leaving the customs union that makes a border inevitable. This wasn’t anything as mature as ‘having cake and eating it’, it was a toddler smearing himself in jelly and then licking it off in public. But how the other children cheered.

As for Theresa May’s fiasco of a speech, her remarks on Brexit, which seemed to finally reduce her to coughing incoherence, were confined to a few platitudes about a deep and special partnership (deep and special being the new strong and stable). The reason was obvious. If she indulged in the kinds of nonsense that Johnson, Fox and Rees-Mogg spouted even the very slender bridge she built with the EU in her Florence speech would be undermined. If she challenged it, the conference hall would have joined the prankster who presented her with a P45. So she had nothing to say, even if we could have heard it.

Her broken voice may attract sympathy (certainly from those of us who speak in public) but it was an overt reminder that she is a broken politician. And there should be no sympathy for that: she broke herself. Having come to the leadership by presenting herself as the adult in the room she failed to stand up to the Ultras when she could, created unnecessary and ill-judged ‘red lines’, triggered Article 50 unprepared and then called and fluffed the General Election.

Saying all this is not, in itself, to be either pro- or anti-Brexit. We now have a government which is engaged in a supremely serious business without the tiniest sign that it has any serious ideas about how to do it. To the extent that there is any serious work going on, such as the impact assessments, it is being kept secret from the public and parliament and – spoiler alert – this is not because they show that the impact will be anything other than calamitous. As this farcical spectacle plays out, back in the real world the Article 50 period is running out and business are beginning to make crucial investment decisions. It’s tempting to say that we are sleepwalking to disaster, but the Conservative Party, at least, is going there joyously, blowing a tin whistle and playing pin the tail on the donkey. Our emerging national tragedy is that the rest of us are shackled to this latter-day Children’s Crusade.