Let’s talk figures. It’s in the national interest.
Our exports to the EU comprise roughly 44% of our total exports. The EU’s exports to Britain comprise roughly 16% of the EU’s total exports.
This is rather dreary so let’s talk about cakes. The Government likes cakes. So, there are two cakes. One has a piece cut out of it that’s just less than half the cake. The other has a piece cut out of it that is about one-sixth.
Now perform an imaginative feat and make the second cake much bigger. So big that the piece that is cut out of it is slightly larger than the hefty piece cut out of the first cake.
You have not, of course, changed the proportion that is cut out of the second cake. It’s still about a sixth. It’s bigger than the piece cut out of the first cake because the cake is bigger.
Because our exports to the EU total £240 billion and the EU’s exports to Britain total £290 billion (2016 figures), the Government would like us to think that the EU exports more to us than we do to them (true in a limited sense), and therefore that they need us, as an export market, more than we need them (completely untrue). And I am sorry to tax the patience of my readers, who I am sure understand the whole thing perfectly, with this business about cakes, but the population as a whole does not understand it perfectly and the Government has taken good care that it shouldn’t.
Exports were top of the alternative-truth soundbites during the referendum campaign and now, with the general election, they’re back. The highest-ranking Government apparatchik to parrot “they need us more” recently has been David Davis, in an interview with John Humphrys on Today (May 3). Davis, for all his apparent confidence, said nothing in the course of ten minutes and sounded nervous. Davis often does sound nervous, if you listen carefully, but it’s getting worse. He laughs too much. He fiddles with his glasses too much. He knows where it’s all going, and that it will take him with it. Meanwhile he is stuck in the role of the fall guy who hasn’t yet fallen, and he had, at all costs, to stop John Humphrys from getting at the truth about those exports.
He succeeded. He is not ex-SAS for nothing. It was radio so I was unable to see exactly what he was doing to Humphrys, whose voice at one point became strangely muffled, but by the end of the exchange the truth had not emerged. We had not got beyond the money, which isn’t relevant, to the proportion, which is.
I volunteer at a pro-Europe stall sometimes; if people stop, I talk to them. Some of them know exactly what the Government is doing with the trade figures, but those who don’t have a tendency to back away if I try to explain it. It is not my lack of charm or the fear of a parking ticket. They don’t like figures. Moreover, when someone starts to dispute figures for a political purpose, they are instantly suspicious, which is entirely reasonable. However, I’m not the one who is being tricky: it’s the Government which is being tricky. And the trick works.
The £240 billion/£290 billion fabrication is crucial to the Government’s claim that we have a strong hand in the negotiations with the EU, and it has to maintain that claim in order to keep on side the constituency that voted Leave. The Land of Leave has already been destabilised by tremors of doubt. How will the NHS manage if nurses stop coming here from abroad? Why are we being told that immigration might not fall? Does it matter that the banks are relocating? Will the farmers get their subsidies?
These voters have to be reassured. This is no time to rewrite the banners of last summer’s campaign. The fiction that the EU needs us more than we need it becomes, in this context, both a claim that cannot be abandoned, because too many have been abandoned already, and a huge comfort blanket that smothers all worries. There may be bumps ahead but we can sort everything out. Theresa May holds a strong hand. They don’t want us to go. Look at all the German cars we buy!
For some time, truths have been emerging that make it impossible to keep this muddled fantasy intact. Now, the EU has openly called it a fantasy. In any case, we are nearing the point where May can’t control the flow of information in this country because information will be flying all over the place in Europe. This must be her worst nightmare. She pleaded with Juncker to keep the talks secret and he rightly said they could not be. If he had not been such a gentleman he would have laughed in her face. How could she possibly have expected to keep them secret? Europe has a free press, even if we don’t. Soon everyone will know how complex and difficult the negotiations are going to be and how few cards the Government really holds. (Only one, actually: the luckless EU nationals.)
Belatedly, May has started to prepare the country for this. She has put a spin on it that she hopes will serve her well. The talks are going to be tough but that is the EU’s fault: it is “lining up against us.” This puerile rubbish goes down well at the Daily Mail and can readily be dressed up in the Union Jack. And that is very important because there is an election campaign going on.
This election is about Brexit, the Prime Minister says (it isn’t). There is division at Westminster (there isn’t: the Article 50 Bill went through with no amendments). She needs a stronger mandate in order to make best use of the strong negotiating hand she has. This is clever but not clever enough. Even Theresa May cannot pretend simultaneously that negotiations are going to be easy and difficult; more to the point, the size of her majority in Parliament will make not the slightest difference to the negotiations, and Brussels has several times said this, as well. She is confusing negotiation with hand-to-hand combat, which doesn’t bode well.
No matter: the more Brussels protests at her ridiculous assertions the better, because Brussels has been cast as the villain and every counter-assertion it makes will translate into votes for her. To make sure this continues to happen, she is losing no opportunity to provoke the leaders of the EU. If they seek to clarify something, she snarls. If they issue a quiet rebuke, she bares her teeth. It is all going splendidly.
She does not seem to be aware that she is alienating the only people who can help her. The negotiations really will be difficult, and she will be desperately in need of wise friends. The EU has been remarkably patient. It won’t be patient for ever, and it has indicated that, too.
Perhaps she thinks her luck – “a lucky astuteness” in Machiavelli’s apt phrase1 – will come to her aid. Or perhaps she doesn’t care. The whole edifice, being built of lies on a foundation of sand, is going to crumble. However, even that doesn’t matter very much, as long as it falls down after the election.
Beyond that, she has no plan. Win a big majority by declaring war on Brussels, clobber Corbyn because dissent of any kind is intolerable, and ride out the storm. She must know there will be one. If we crash out of the EU, an outcome she is doing nothing to prevent, there will be a storm such as we have not seen for decades. That is what the hoped-for majority is really for. Not for dealing with Europe, but for dealing with us.
For what purpose, finally? What purpose could there be? The good of the country has already been sacrificed on the altar of her ambition. The purpose can only be her own survival as Prime Minister. The ship may sink, but she is the Vicar’s Daughter and she knows she will come through.
1 The Prince, IX, referring to the quality a private citizen needs in order to become ruler “by the favour of his fellow citizens.”