After the exhilaration of the last week, the political realities of leaving the European Union have hit Britain with an almighty thud.
Rather than focusing on using their wonderful new-found freedom to unveil a foreign and trade policy fit for the multi-polar world, the Conservatives have instead contented themselves with fighting like ferrets in a sack for the party leadership. The growing suspicion must be the incredible notion that there was no coherent plan in place for what to do once Brexit had been achieved. At this crucial juncture in British history, it seems as if literally no one is minding the store.
And the Tories look positively statesmanlike compared with the shenanigans now going on in the Labour Party. Following Jeremy Corbyn’s sub-par performance (even for him) in the Brexit campaign, the parliamentary Labour Party, staring a decade of irrelevance in the face, has finally had enough, launching a full-scale revolt against their highly gormless leader. The only problem with this is that Corbyn is wildly popular with the Labour rank-and-file, the people who will actually determine the outcome of any leadership election. Labour proves the adage that the tallest pygmy in the village is still considered a giant. For all their embarrassing dysfunction, years of Tory primacy stretch before us.
So once the new Conservative leader is finally in place in September, what should they do? First and foremost, if the Brexit vote fits snugly into overall British political culture (Anglo-Saxons simply do not much like being told what to do), what follows will be far more difficult for an island used to muddling through slowly over time. Britain must clearly articulate a dynamic and decisive foreign and trade policy (as I attempted to do last week) and, what is more, must move quickly to realise it. Being decisive goes against the very grain of British policy-making, but there is simply no way round it if the heady days of Brexit are to lead to a brighter future for the UK.
The negotiating strategy must have three parts: cherry-pick the Europeans, nail down the Americans, and play the long game with the Chinese and the Indians. One of the few rays of sunlight last week must be the fact that – for all that the British elite seems to have been incredibly caught off-guard by the Brexit vote – the European political establishment seems to have been equally incapable of genuine political risk analysis. In this chaos two camps are emerging: the Europe of nation-states (led by Germany, whose exports total nearly 50 per cent of its GDP) who are pragmatists, and the euro-federalist ayatollahs, led by the arrogant and almost always wrong Jean-Claude Juncker, who are demanding their pound of flesh in the negotiations.
The British should immediately (and by that I mean today) reach out to Berlin, as an easy deal on goods between Europe and the UK seems eminently doable. At the same time, politely ignoring the weak Commission while engaging Germany will drive the wedge between the two ever deeper. The disarray in Europe makes for a golden opportunity for London, if it can get its act together.
Likewise, a trade legation should be sent to Washington immediately, to begin preliminary discussions on a US-UK free trade deal with such key players as speaker of the House Paul Ryan, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, and both presidential candidates and their teams. The goal must be to hit the ground running in January 2017, when the new administration comes to power. Beginning the process of having these preliminary discussions now will bear dividends in the near future as these trade talks – amounting to a geopolitical no-brainer for both countries – can be finished off by the end of the coming year so the deal itself can be put into practice as soon as Britain actually exits the EU.
If a deal with the US, still the world’s most important economy, can be done by the end of 2017, still more pressure will be brought to bear on Europe to settle with London on relatively favourable terms, as a punitive deal will make no sense following enhanced trade links being secured with America.
Finally, trade feelers must be sent at the soonest possible moment to Beijing and New Delhi. These deals will take more time, and are the ultimate prize of the Brexit process. The sooner Delhi and Beijing are engaged, the better.
I know that it is holiday time in Britain, but surely – following 23 June’s historic vote – a modicum of seriousness is in order. On your bike Britain, get on with engaging the Drakean world, and now.