We now know a little more of what Theresa May means when she says ‘Brexit means Brexit’. It means, in the first place, appending EU law in its entirety to the United Kingdom’s statute book. Adopting all those hated Brussels dictats wholesale is part of the strategy of becoming an “independent, sovereign nation”. This, so the logic goes, will give the UK total freedom to keep all the things about the EU it likes while casting off the bits it doesn’t.
What we have, then, is Schrödinger’s Brexit. The United Kingdom will leave the European Union but effectively stay in it, before staging a fudged withdrawal, constantly tinkering with the heads and handles without ever needing to replace the broom. We may not discover that the exit door has closed until years after the event, at which point it will be too late for the banks to panic and derail the economy. May’s model for leaving the EU seems to be the foreign student who overstays his visa and bums around, picking up odd bits of work and hoping nobody notices he’s still there. That kind of disappearing act is quite feasible in a country with 60-odd million people and a hopeless bureaucracy, but harder to pull off when you’re the most disruptive kid in a class of 27.
May’s game plan sounds like a winner: take back control by removing EU legislation brick by brick, like a giant game of Jenga. Anyone who has played this game to its conclusion may be less confident of a smooth transition. There are other complications, such as the fact that Britain will have negotiated a deal with the European Union which will specify, among other things, which EU laws the UK must retain. So if, for example, Brussels insists that the freedom of London’s banks to trade in euros is conditional on accepting freedom of movement of workers, the UK will have to give up its right to repeal one or the other.
The Great Repeal Bill is being sold as a managed withdrawal from the EU, offering peace of mind to those on both sides of the Brexit divide who are anxious about the potential for short-term disruption. On closer inspection it looks more like a PPI scheme: a string of extravagant assurances that turn out to be worthless when you come to make a claim. Whichever side you approach it from, it strengthens the impression that Brexit is the great mis-selling scandal of the decade.