The spectre of Brexit haunted last weekend’s annual Venice seminar hosted by the Italian government, but we had to wait for the return home for comparisons with Dante’s Inferno.
The president of the European Council has received a lot of flak for his outburst – which, in case you missed it, was: “I have been wondering what that special place in hell looks like for those who promoted Brexit without even a sketch of a plan to carry it out safely.”
I sympathise with Mr Tusk in his frustration – and, indeed, with all his European colleagues, not least Michel Barnier, who have had to put up with the Brexiter fantasists who are supposed to represent the interests of this country.
The fact is that our counterparts in the European Union – to which we still belong, just – can hardly believe the self-harming tendencies in this country, and in most cases have, like your correspondent, been hoping for a change of heart.
Tusk’s less-noted remark was: “The facts are unmistakable. Today there is no political force and no effective leadership for Remain. At the moment, the pro-Brexit stance of the UK prime minister and the leader of the opposition rules out this question.”
Theresa May’s game of “my deal or no deal – take it or leave it” is rightly regarded by most people I meet as a cynical manoeuvre to frighten the horses and guarantee that, in understandable horror at the thought of no deal, her own deeply unsatisfactory deal triumphs.
Unsatisfactory? Yes, very. Do not forget that this is a red-line proposal that involves leaving the customs union and the single market, with vague arrangements for future association. Most industrialists and businesspeople are close to despair, and every day brings more news of important companies such as Nissan voting with their feet.
It continues to amaze me that the soi-disant Thatcherite Brexiters such as Jacob Rees-Mogg seem blissfully unaware that her support for the single market was one of Thatcher’s greatest achievements. This was allied with the successful efforts of ministers such as Peter Walker and Lord Young to attract highly productive foreign investment to this country, not least from Japan. These investors now feel let down by “perfidious Albion”.
Which brings us to Brexiter Corbyn, the passion of whose hatred of the EU has apparently gone viral on social media (not my scene, but the news somehow gets through).
I upset some loyal (at least up to now) readers with my criticism of Corbyn a few weeks ago. I am sorry to have done so: they are lifelong Labour supporters who felt let down. But I am unrepentant. On the biggest issue facing this country Corbyn has also let people down. Unaccustomed as I am to quoting the egregious Nigel Farage (still drawing money from the European parliament?), I cannot resist the following from Farage on Corbyn: “He is a real Eurosceptic.” Nor can I resist reminding readers that Sir Edward Heath, who in 1973 took us into what is now the EU, would refer to the diehards as “Euroseptics”.
Given the chaos with which we are confronted, it is imperative that implementation of article 50 be postponed beyond 29 March. Indeed, the legislative timetable indicates that there may be no alternative. But our “Euroseptic” leader of the opposition evidently had a hand in blocking the recent attempt by Yvette Cooper and Nick Boles to guarantee a formal delay, notwithstanding that more than four-fifths of Labour supporters are Remainers.
It seems that in their own fantasy world the Corbyn circle wants Brexit because it thinks the EU would be a barrier to its plans for nationalisation, state subsidies and fiscal expansion.
They should consult my old friend Charles Enoch, a distinguished economist who has worked for the Bank of England, where one of the junior staff who reported to him was the young Theresa May (then Brasier). Enoch points out that there are plenty of nationalised concerns within the EU, and that state aid is by no means ruled out – what else rescued the banks in the wake of the financial crisis? As for fiscal expansion, the depressed condition of the European economy indicates that the whole question is up for grabs. Moreover, we are not constrained by the rules of the eurozone. And EU membership has hardly stopped nationalised French and German companies taking over UK utilities.
Now, to my mind there is little doubt that after a prolonged period of damaging austerity this country needs an Attlee-style government – and shadow chancellor John McDonnell is well aware of this. But, as Enoch points out, every version of Brexit guarantees that the country will be made poorer and the tax base will suffer. In order to carry out its ambitious programme, Labour would need a growing economy. The last thing it needs is Brexit.