Britain in La La Land on Brexit

In the past week or so, Toys R Us and Maplin Electronics have gone into administration with the loss of around 5,000 jobs, house price growth has slowed to a crawl, economic growth has been revised down. One of the biggest shocks came from Foxton’s estate agents which announced a huge 65 per cent plunge in annual profits.

The cause of all these shivers was not the Beast from the East but Brexit, casting an economic chill wind across the country

Into this cold environment stepped Prime Minister Theresa May, finally setting out her vision for Brexit on Friday in an effort to lift the gloom.

Mrs May laid out five tests to guide the UK in its Brexit negotiation. Much time will now be spent trying to work out what any of this really means.

Mrs May’s first demand is that any Brexit deal respects the result of the 2016 referendum.

But for the 16 million people who voted to Remain in the European Union (EU) who will struggle to ever respect the referendum result.

There remains a debate about what the referendum result meant anyway. Whether it meant leaving the Single Market and Customs Union is very much an open question.

Healing divisions?

Next, Mrs May wants to ensure any deal with Brussels doesn’t break down. But what on earth does this mean and how can this be guaranteed?

Mrs May also wants the deal to protect jobs and security. Again, many will ask how this can be achieved.

A lot of people will also ask how removing ourselves from the EU chimes with Mrs May’s demand that the deal be "consistent with the kind of country we want to be" – modern, outward-looking and tolerant. To many Remainers, Brexit feels very much like a rejection of all of those things.

Finally, as has been mentioned before in this column, Britain remains intractably divided over the issue of Brexit. So how any Brexit deal will possibly bring the country together, as Mrs May wants, when on this single issue it is so utterly and bitterly divided, is a mystery.

But thanks to Mrs May’s speech there are some things we do now know. The Prime Minister appeared to give ground on EU State aid rules, there was also some give around the European Court of Justice (ECJ) too. Mrs May suggested “reciprocal, binding arrangements” with the Single Market, an arbitration service that isn’t the ECJ, an arrangement for data protection and an ongoing dialogue with the EU. But Mrs May still had few answers to the Irish border issue and free movement.

You may look at the demise of Toys R US and Maplin, falling house prices and a slowing economy and conclude that none of these things are the result of Brexit.

Equally maybe such things constitute the “hard facts” Mrs May said we all needed to face on Friday. Whether that will leave people feeling more optimistic or confident about their future is another matter.

What is clear from Friday is that the government, and much of Britain, remains in La La Land over Brexit. It’s only a matter of time before the country is served a cold dose of reality from Brussels.

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