Theresa in Wonderland

A few weeks ago I wrote about the utter foolishness of Theresa May’s mantra, oft repeated by her cabinet colleagues, that ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’ when it comes to negotiating a new relationship with the EU. Since then, the phrase has appeared on page 36 of the Conservative manifesto, meaning that, should her party win on June 8th, she will no doubt claim a mandate for this ludicrous position.

As we enter the final full week of campaigning, May is returning to the issue of Brexit – not surprisingly, given her shambolic performances on school cuts, police cuts and her partial U-turn on the dementia tax, not to mention her fear of actually debating issues with other party leaders. And Brexit was, after all, her initial justification for calling this snap election, falsely claiming ‘Every vote for me and my team on 8 June will strengthen my hand in those negotiations’.

Speaking on Tuesday, May again claimed that she was prepared to walk away with no deal. This time several commentators have pointed out the fallacy of her position. Ben Chu, economics editor for The Independent, puts it succinctly:

It’s a delusion; a perilous mis-framing of the situation Britain faces going into in these negotiations. No deal might indeed be better than a bad deal if we were trying to negotiate a fresh trade arrangement with China or America, which, for example, involves us dismantling our product safety regulations or granting corporations unwarranted powers to veto legitimate political choices. We could walk away from that proposition having wasted time and energy in the negotiations but without additional harm. But remember where we stand with the EU commercially. Like Siamese twins, we are deeply economically intertwined already.”

He is not alone.  Ian DuntRafael Behr in The Guardian, and Stephen Bush in The New Statesman all wrote pieces in response to her Brexit relaunch, pointing out just how ridiculous and meaningless this phrase is.

Open Britain have this week posed five questions that need to be answered by Theresa May if her claim is to be substantiated, but the first one alone clearly demonstrate the blatant  lack of logic: ‘If economic security depends on getting a deal, why is ‘no deal’ acceptable?


“No NHS is better than a bad NHS.”

“No housing is better than bad housing”

“No education is better than a bad education.”

“No social care is better than bad social care.”

It’s ludicrous!

She isn’t saying that the perfect is the enemy of the good, she is claiming that nothing is better than something, anything.

‘Ah ha!’ say the no-dealers, ‘but we can always fall back on World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules.’

But there is no empty seat for the UK waiting at the WTO table. Not without negotiations. If we want to take our place as a single nation within the WTO we will need the agreement of not just 27 EU member states, but with 132 separate nations or trading blocs.

And WTO rules don’t do us any favours. Not only would they mean immediate tariffs on our exports to the EU, by far our largest export market, but also a major setback for our trade with the rest of the world.  We currently secure the terms on which we trade with the rest of the world via our EU membership, often getting better deals thanks to the clout of the EU as the world’s largest market.

Taking trade and other areas, the Financial Times has estimated that there are 759 complex treaty negotiations that we would need just to maintain our current capacity to work internationally and with the rest of the world if we are outside of the EU with no deal. Lord Hannay, a former British Ambassador to the EU, has remarked:

The challenge of replacing them falls in the same category as Alice in Wonderland running furiously to stand in the same spot.”


It can’t be emphasised enough that ‘No deal’ is simply not an option. No matter how many times Theresa May contemplates it, walking away is walking over a cliff edge.

  • If we want to trade with Europe, we will need agreements on tariffs, quality standards, rules of origin.
  • If we want to fly to Europe we will need agreements on safety standards, air traffic control, allocation of airport slots.
  • If we want to work in Europe we will need agreements on visas, employment rights, health care.
  • If we want to employ European workers in our health service, care services or as temporary labourers on our farms will need agreements on rights and residency.
  • If we want to fish in ‘our waters’ – in itself a shaky concept – we will need agreements on quotas, where our catch can be landed and where it can be sold.
  • If we want to avoid a “hard” border with Ireland, we will need agreement on how to minimise customs controls and border checks.
  • If we want our farmers to continue to export across Europe, we will need agreement on terms, including subsidy levels.
  • If we want our financial sector to continue to passport their services across Europe, we will need agreement on that too.

The list goes on. And on. Without a deal, it is hard to see how many key economic sectors can avoid catastrophic consequences twenty four hours beyond the Article 50 deadline of 29th March 2019.


It is difficult to know what May would consider a ‘good’ deal because she and her team have been vague about what they are seeking, other than repeating David Davis optimistic claim that we will secure ‘the exact same benefits as we currently have as members of the Single Market and Customs Union’.

Compared with the clear negotiating guidelines laid out by the EU, the government’s strategy seems to owe much to Lewis Carroll, when the White Queen urged Alice to try to believe in something ridiculous, claiming ‘Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.’


  1. I am in full agreement with everything written here. It sounds good to say that “no deal is better than a bad deal”, but it’s basically tautologous. Of course a “bad deal” is bad by definition – if it’s bad, it’s bad. But this completely ignores the important question of what would – or could – be a “bad deal”. No deal would certainly be very, very bad, if not completely disastrous. It’s just another symptom of the stupidity and dishonesty of the Brexiteers to say that “no deal is better than a bad deal”.

    There is only one way out of the current mess that is Brexit, which is to stop the whole process immediately. It has already caused significant harm to the UK, and things can only get worse.

    It is not without significance that Nigel Farage has been named a person of interest in the US investigation of Russian interference in the presidential election and of Trump’s links with Russia. A great deal more has been going on under the surface than the great majority of people realise. Russia has been supporting and subsidising right-wing, anti-EU parties throughout Europe. Brexit is, in fact, the result of a Russian plot. Wittingly or not, the Brexiteers have betrayed the UK and are dancing to Putin’s music.

  2. You are correct to criticise T May on her position on the negotiation but I wouldn’t let the EU leaders off the hook. The negotiation guidelines are at best muddled. It is possible they have persuaded themselves that their position is rational but it could be signs of a tricky strategy.

  3. Thank you. You make it sound so clear. What we all have to do is keep working to get this message out to people & how important it all is in influencing domestic policy too, even just from the sheer cost of the thing, for example on NHS funding.

    Too many people still seeing the EU as a thing apart, & not deeply embedded in every aspect of our lives.

  4. And if we want to continue justice and security collaboration such as the European Arrest Warrant and access to the Europol database on terrorist suspects then we’ll have to accept the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice and the European Public Prosecutor which have supervisory roles in these areas. May wants to ‘continue security collaboration’ with the EU but imagines it can be done entirely within the UK legal system. Another delusion

  5. The premise is the same as the “fog rolls in, continent isolated” idea. A great many, largely older Brits, have exaggerated notions of the UK’s global clout. They genuinely believe that the EU will be begging the UK for a deal on the UK’s terms.

  6. Do not vote Conservative whatever you think your local candidate can achieve. Theresa May will make the future very bad for us

  7. 759 complex treaties negotiations to undertake simply in order to stand still & David Davis wants us to be impressed that after 12 months, his department has a 100 page document.

    Were I not so furious, I would despair.

  8. What worries is me is that Brexiters are also known by the EU to be dissemblers.
    One EU leader has publicly called Boris Johnson a liar.
    The deceptions used by the Brexiters to win the vote to leave the EU makes democracy almost worthless.
    The trades description act should apply to politicians and if it did then Boris and colleagues might now be in jail

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