Andrew Vine: Who’d bet on a smooth Brexit as storms gather?

Theresa May's reputation is on the line as Brexit talks begin.
Theresa May's reputation is on the line as Brexit talks begin.
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THE Queen’s Speech tomorrow should not detain her long from the second day of her beloved Royal Ascot.

A slimmed-down legislative programme of a Government already in trouble before the State Opening of Parliament will ensure that the speech is shorter than usual and Her Majesty is away in time to see most of the afternoon’s racing.

And if she has a flutter, whichever horses she backs will be safer bets than predicting what will happen with the issue at the heart of the Queen’s Speech – Brexit.

Yesterday’s start of talks with the EU marked a step into the unknown for a Government only one political crisis away from collapse. As if that prospect was not daunting enough, the negotiations begin against the least promising backdrop possible.

A weakened Prime Minister in an uneasy alliance with Ulster unionists. Her own party fighting like rats in a sack over a hard or soft Brexit. A newly-energised Opposition.

And equally serious, an economic outlook far less rosy than a year ago when the vote to leave the EU produced encouragingly few signs of trouble ahead.

But since then, the picture has changed. Britain’s is not an economy in peak condition, ready to outrun everyone in Europe. It looks more like an economy that will get out of breath trying to climb a flight of stairs.

Six months ago, we were the fastest-growing economy in the G7. Now we’re at the bottom of the table, lagging behind everyone else, growing at just 0.2 per cent in the first quarter of the year, compared with the Eurozone’s 0.6 per cent.

The pound has collapsed in value and inflation is at a four-year high, which is stalling the consumer spending that kept the economy buoyant this time last year.

This starts to feel like elements of a perfect storm brewing, especially when the Government’s apparent lack of preparedness for the detailed work needed to unpick our relationship with the EU and forge new trading agreements is taken into consideration.

Last month, the National Audit Office said that Britain has recruited fewer than a third of the 1,000 new trade negotiators it set out to employ.

With 18 months to go, finding something like 600 high-calibre candidates and training them to a degree of competency looks like a very tall order.

Even if they can all be recruited, the scale of the task facing them is huge – about 750 existing EU trade agreements with 160 countries to be scrutinised, replicated and perhaps renegotiated.

There is also the small matter of a hardening of attitudes in the remaining 27 EU countries after months of confrontational rhetoric from Brexiteers.

How Theresa May must now regret pandering to them by pledging to be a “bloody difficult woman” in talks which her hubris led her to believe would be held with a commanding Commons majority at her back.

It will take a spirit of extraordinary magnanimity for other EU leaders not to throw that arrogance back at her.

When Mrs May attends next week’s European Council meeting in Brussels, she does so as a much diminished figure who potentially could be out of office before the 2019 deadline for Britain leaving the EU arrives.

She is so weakened compared to a few short weeks ago that she cannot even offer a definitive vision of what Britain wants from Brexit.

In or out of the single market? Membership of the customs union? The degree of immigration controls?

All are still up in the air as the various factions of the Tories jockey for supremacy and the delicate balance of the Commons makes setting a firm course difficult.

So does the prospect of another general election, perfectly possible within months, which would not only bring the negotiations to a halt, but might result in a different agenda for Brexit.

The easy certainties, half-truths, and even untruths peddled during the referendum campaign, particularly by the leave camp, look even worse now than they did at the time.

There isn’t an extra £350m a week for the NHS, and won’t be. Britain is not going to be able to tell the EU to take a running jump and blaze a glorious trail through world trade powered by a burgeoning economy, because it’s faltering and needs a favourable deal with European countries.

If the future looked uncertain on the morning the referendum result was declared, it’s nothing compared to now on the eve of a new Parliament trying to pick a course through uncharted territory in hazardous economic and political circumstances.

As to what the outcome will be, it currently looks as risky as sticking a pin in a Royal Ascot racecard and betting the house on it.