It is hard now to believe that the 2016 referendum on EU membership was supposed to end divisions in the Conservative Party over Europe. Instead it is hard to see how it can avoid eventually splitting.
This happened in the 1800s over the Corn Laws, when the party was divided over allowing imports or helping English landowners by maintaining high prices. It was then unable to form a majority government for the next 30 years, and that has to be a sobering thought for those Conservatives prepared to bring down their own government over Brexit.
No matter how people voted back in 2016, few would have wanted or envisaged the chaos the economy and society now face. All that most people want is an outcome that ensures a stable future. As things stand there are no signs as to how that might be delivered. Even if the cards fall in such a way that the deal being discussed with the EU-27 can be put in place that will only be the start of a long process. Beyond that, if ways can be found to get it through the House of Commons, there is still a long way to a trade deal that will allow business to continue as it is now.
Most people have little interest in the detail of Brexit, or how and if a backstop might work in Ireland. They simply want something that will work. It will then be up to historians and economists, in years to come, to decide whether Brexit liberated the UK economy from the drag of EU regulations, or left the UK a minor player in a world dominated by large trading blocs. At the end of the day arithmetic matters when it comes to trade. The EU with 500 million consumers is attractive, as is the United States, the Mercosur countries in South America or China and Japan.
The UK with just 60 million, albeit relatively prosperous consumers, is small beer in comparison. That is a reality that will become clear as the government seeks trade deals that do not simply scrap the tariff barriers that protect UK industry and ensure continuing access to the EU-27 market.
The document now on the table in Brussels brings back memories of successive CAP reforms. It is aspirational rather than a road map, and there is a lot of kicking for touch over major issues. This comes in the form of statement that these will be discussed as the negotiations continue. This is a good way of parking the controversial issues, including the backstop. It is a well tried and tested Brussels approach, and while the stakes are much greater over Brexit this is exactly how CAP reform negotiations have happened for 30 years. We have the document with lots of issues delayed to avoid conflict; we have Spain using it to push for a concessions over Gibraltar – a technique Ireland used to great effect over the years in CAP reform; we have a last minute sense of panic ratcheting up the negotiating stakes, and we are braced for a lot of political grandstanding over the weekend.
That is all a fact of life, and it is the way the EU does and always has done business. In response we will see the extremes emerging at Westminster. Many pro-Brexit Tories will continue to want EU surrender on every issue, while others committed to the remain cause will view any concessions as worse than if we remained an EU member state. Nothing will change their opinions. The real battle, as always, will be in the middle ground with those who simply want Brexit resolved. That resolution is about delivering space and time for further negotiations, and avoiding the disaster it would be for agriculture and the rest of the economy if we crashed out of the EU next March with no deal in place.
Assuming what is on the table is agreed by the EU heads of state we are going to have to be patient.
The next big challenge will be the House of Commons, where despite current rhetoric it may get through if MPs heed those that elected them and who are worried about their jobs and businesses.
Beyond that there would be at least two years of negotiating twists and turns. Only then will we know whether Brexit is an opportunity or a threat for agriculture. One thing is however already certain – no deal now would certainly be a threat.