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Opinion | Niall Ferguson

The Brexit mess calls for a Tory Henry VIII

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May. Matt Dunham/AP

“A FAILURE of British statecraft on a scale unseen since the Suez crisis.” You might think former United Kingdom Transport Minister Jo Johnson’s parting shot at Prime Minister Theresa May stands a fair chance of attaining immortality in the British history exams of the future.

Martin Wolf of the Financial Times attempted the question. “Comparisons with the 1956 Suez crisis do not get close to the mark,” he opined last week. “This is a far more significant mess than that.” But what could be worse than Britain’s humiliating withdrawal from the Suez Canal zone in 1956? The answer, according to David Keys of The Independent, is the Munich agreement of 1938.


Exchanging the acrid, smoke-filled air of northern California for the damp, foggy miasma of London was something of a relief . . . until I started listening to the chatter about Brexit. Suez? Munich? These are wildly inappropriate parallels. In 1956 Britain invaded Egypt and was forced by American financial pressure to withdraw. In 1938 Britain sacrificed Czechoslovakia rather than risk confronting Hitler.

Brexit is quite different. As I have long argued, the British people’s majority vote in the June 2016 referendum was a vote for divorce. It more closely resembles Henry VIII’s decision in 1532 to leave the Roman Catholic fold, with the electorate now in the role of the king. Both divorces faced bitter opposition, at home as well as abroad. Henry’s was both complicated and protracted. Indeed, it was very nearly overturned by his daughter Mary I. Yet, in the end the English Reformation stood despite repeated challenges by Habsburgs, Bourbons and Jacobites.

My guess is that Britain’s departure from the European Union will be just as complicated and protracted but will have a similar eventual outcome. So long as the political elites in France and Germany aimed at a Bundesrepublik Europa, Brexit was both inevitable and necessary if that project was to be achievable. Now that the Brits are leaving, however, European integration has ground to a halt. With the election of populist governments — not just in Hungary and Poland but this year in Italy, a founding member of the EU — it may even be going into reverse. The Holy German Empress, Angela Merkel, is fading from the scene.


True, the divorce terms that May has brought home from Brussels are awful. It is a divorce agreement that gives the UK’s former spouse powers that no divorcée would tolerate, including the power to prevent the UK forming any other relationship during a potentially interminable transition period. Northern Ireland is a kind of child hostage, ensuring there can be no final break without the ex’s consent. But what did you expect? Did the Pope make life easy for Henry VIII?

So what now? May last week likened herself, improbably, to the Yorkshire cricketer Geoffrey Boycott. Well, it is time to bowl her out.

Her successor must learn from her mistakes. From the moment Article 50 was triggered Britain was in a weak position. That position only got weaker because May declined to plan for a no deal scenario. She refused to explore the possibility of an Anglo-American free trade agreement (call it AAFTA), even when Donald Trump floated it — as I have it on good authority he did. Nor did May resist when the Europeans inserted the Irish border issue into the negotiations.


The best explanation of her conduct is not that, as a “remainer,” her heart was not in Brexit. The draft withdrawal agreement bears not her fingerprints but those of the civil servants who have negotiated it, clause by clause, with their European counterparts. Under its terms, Britain leaves the EU in order to remain in it; it exits so as to stay.

May’s successor cannot credibly propose to renegotiate the divorce because the Europeans will just say no to that. Nor can her successor credibly offer to repudiate it because the preparations for a no-deal scenario have not been made. The Tories must avoid a second referendum, as a vote to exit Brexit — which is not inconceivable — would estrange at least a third of British voters from their party for a generation. A general election would be no better: whatever the polls say now, Labour would sweep to victory when voters were asked to judge the woeful record of the May years.

The only option is therefore to play for time. This terrible agreement will be voted down in the Commons. The new prime minister can seek an extension in the wake of that. At the same time, the planning for a no-deal outcome must supersede all other business. The negotiation of AAFTA is the next item on the agenda. It would not hurt, at the same time, to revive once lively relations with the Chinese, whose substantial investments in the UK were another source of leverage spurned by May.


Henry VIII was famed for his ruthlessness. Ministers who failed King Henry were disposed of much like his wives. Yet his greatest talent was for playing the long game. “Leave” voters need to learn from his example. The prize for May’s successor is not trivial: “A success of British statecraft on a scale unseen since the Reformation.”

Niall Ferguson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.