Second, freedom to conclude trade deals. Everyone will be happy to sign new trade agreements with us. The question is, on what terms? There is no free lunch in international trade (I know, I have spent years negotiating such deals). Size matters: the bigger you are, the better the deal you get. Britain is smaller than the EU, the US, China or Japan. Once we have left the EU with no deal – on the infamous ‘WTO terms’ – we will be at a disadvantage to everyone else who currently has a free trade deal with the EU, and will be demandeur for the best deal anyone will give us. The US Administration has generously offered a quick deal (though it is Congress not the Administration that will decide what it is and when we get it) and that offer will be to open up the British market to US food and US pharmaceuticals, on their terms. This will cut us off from, or penalise us in accessing, the EU markets that currently take most of our goods. And will the US really open up to our services in its current protectionist frame of mind? So who wins? The US, not the UK. India, Africa and China will all demand a quid pro quo for continued trade, an improvement on the deals they have with the EU. These concessions will not be what the UK wants, because we need the deal more, but what they want: more protection for services and industry, freer immigration access to the UK, less human rights conditionality. Who wins? Again, everyone but the UK.
Third, freedom of laws and security. The EU was built on the principle of the rule of law, and member states collaborate extensively on law enforcement. Security is one area where everyone has said the UK will be worse off if, under no deal, we lose access to police cooperation. Who wins? Not the British public, whose security services will be overstretched trying to compensate for the lost intelligence. And have the Royal Navy really enough ships (and sailors) to police all the UK’s fishing waters now we no longer have access to the European Court of Justice to enforce British rights, and escort British tankers in the Gulf, police the Red Sea and challenge China in the South China Seas?
Finally, in leaving the EU Treaty obligations without a Withdrawal Agreement, and effectively abrogating the Good Friday Agreement by forcing the re-establishment of a border in Ireland, the UK will be seen as untrustworthy – not to be relied upon to respect its international commitments. If in addition, it refuses to pay its debts by settling its outstanding budget obligations, its creditworthiness will also come into question – which could prove costly to both the government and the country. Do the British public care about this? Maybe not. But the rest of the world will, and a reputation once lost is very hard to recover.
In short, a no-deal Brexit would be seen as a heavy international defeat for Britain. We would not have got our way. We would have proven unable to negotiate – with our nearest friends – a deal that protected our economic interests. And the world will see this. They – the US, China, India, Russia, the Gulf states, African and Latin American countries, Spain, Mauritius, Argentina – all will say to themselves that Britain is now weak, it needs our support, and we can ask for whatever we want.
The Prime Minister will blame the EU (or rebel Tories, or anyone else he can think of) for his defeat. Of course. I’m sure Napoleon blamed Wellington for his defeat at Waterloo; Charles I (the last man to try to rid himself of a troublesome Parliament) no doubt blamed Cromwell for his defeat in the Civil War. But they still ended up defeated and, in the latter case, dead. What the PM’s famed War Cabinet do not seem to realise is that they have ten tanks and their opponents have fifty. That requires very skillful tactics to win. Sadly, the PM’s tactics seem more reminiscent of the Charge of the Light Brigade than El Alamein. It might make a great poem, but not a famous victory.
In the anarchic society that international relations is becoming once more, it is important to know your strengths. But it is even more important to know your weaknesses, so that at least you don’t expose them. It is surprising that the Prime Minister does not realise this, riding into battle with his rusty armour hanging off. But nor it seems does the Foreign Secretary, nor the Chancellor, the International Trade Secretary, the Defence Secretary, the International Development Secretary or the Home Secretary, who are supposed to tell him. I am sure their officials are all too aware of the limits of British power, but it seems they are no longer welcome to explain them. Doomsters and gloomsters will be banished, like some disloyal SPAD.
In today’s international jungle it will also be more important than ever to have friends, and a no-deal Brexit is the best way to lose them fast. The Commonwealth is too disparate, and will wonder if this is how Britain treats its neighbours, how will it treat them? So Britain may have no option but to turn to the US, swapping 27 firm and equal friends for one big fickle one. Good luck with that.
There was a time, in living memory, when a British government ignored the realities of power and ploughed ahead to prove its virility to the world. But the Suez crisis of 1956 did not end well for Britain, thanks no little to the US. In less than ten years the British Empire had disappeared. This time the victim of a no-deal Brexit is more likely to be the United Kingdom itself, broken into pieces too small to even pretend to be a great power. Some might call it hubris. Others, unbelievable stupidity. But either way, Britain will be the weaker and the poorer, and the world will know it, even if we don’t.