THE BLOG
10/30/2016 10:11 am ET Updated Oct 31, 2017

BRITS AND BREXIT : DON'T DO STUPID S***

Nissan's welcome decision to build next-generation cars at its world-beating Sunderland plant in the North East of England, and better-than-expected growth figures for the 3rd Quarter, are strengthening the conviction of those who voted for Brexit that the country made the right call in the 23 June referendum.

But it remains a polarising issue. There are as many - perhaps more - brilliant observers of the national scene who think we Brits committed collective national suicide on 23 June as there are those who believe passionately that we struck a blow for sovereignty, independence and prosperity.

One thing unites us in an admirably British way - our common determination, whatever we think of the result of the referendum, to make the best of it for our country. As one senior official who voted Remain told me recently, "we're all Brexiteers now".

The early economic indicators have not borne out the fears of those who thought the sky would fall in - though I am not alone in finding it odd that wiping almost 20% off the value of the national currency is regarded as a brilliant achievement. The pound in our pockets may not have lost much value yet. But it soon will.

There are clearly rapids ahead. The debate continues as to whether or not it was wise, or necessary, to signal this far in advance that the UK would be activating Article 50 by the end of March. The risk of course is that the other side run out the two-year clock prescribed by that part of the treaty if they don't find the negotiations going as they would like.

Some argue that to mitigate that risk Britain needs a transitional deal which allows us more time to get the right outcome - if the other member states will give us one. Others say that simply delays delivering on the popular verdict and we should instead go for a clean break, allowing us to get on with controlling immigration and negotiating our own free trade agreements.

The U.K. can't, of course, do that as long as it remains part of the EU single market or of the Customs Union. But if we leave, those businesses which continue to trade with the EU will face horrendous bureaucratic and IT obstacles as HM Customs struggle to cope with the additional demand.

Practical issues aside, British Government Ministers continue to argue over the right balance between retaining strong access to the single market and 'taking back control' of immigration.

Our immigration problems in the UK are, in fact, largely of our own making. When 10 new member states joined the EU in 2004, we declined to join others already in the EU in exercising our right to limit for seven years the ability of the newcomers to come and work in the UK. And we refuse to admit that today the real pressures on our social services and National Health Service come from immigrants from outside the EU - the flow of which we can control if we wish to.

Immigrants from within the EU make a net contribution to the exchequer while playing an invaluable role in keeping our economy growing and our services functioning. Incomprehensibly, and despite the urging of many Ministers, the government still won't guarantee the right of those already settled in the UK to stay after Brexit. Foreigners who have lived in the UK for years are beginning to feel unwelcome and in some cases threatened.

The Government's determination to put control of immigration ahead of retaining access to the single market is the biggest single reason why so many financial services businesses are preparing to move operations and people out of the U.K. This will only exacerbate the Treasury's existing concerns about falling tax receipts.

Even passionate Brexiteers are now beginning to see the risks and to suggest sector-specific exemptions to whatever new system of work permits we apply in place of free movement. But our EU partners are already warning firmly against 'cherry-picking'. A lot of nonsense is talked about 'punishing' Britain for exercising its right to leave the EU - that is no more in the interest of our EU partners than it is in ours. But we have to accept that it is not in their interest either to make leaving too easy.

For these and plenty of other reasons, Brexit negotiations are going to be lengthy and difficult. No-one knows how they will end (we don't even know how they will start).

Prime MinisterTheresa May says there is no suggestion of a 'hard' exit, and that she is determined to get the best possible deal for Britain. But gloomier commentators are increasingly convinced that there is no outcome short of hard, complete Brexit that will allow her to keep the Conservative Party together.

The national interest may require something different. Anyone who suggests as much today risks being accused of being elitist, unpatriotic, anti-democratic, and worse. But if the economy begins to sustain serious damage, or if the best deal UK Ministers can negotiate is demonstrably less good for Britain than the status quo, or requires the kind of compromise which Ministers currently rule out, there could be a case for thinking again.

A referendum result as clear as we saw on 23 June can only be overturned by another referendum. In present circumstances it is inconceivable that this Parliament, or this Prime Minister, would decide to hold one.

But the government could, if those circumstances change, call a general election - which in any case has to take place by May 2020 - on a platform of asking the British people, in a fresh referendum, which if any of the alternatives to EU membership they want. On 23 June voters said they wanted to leave. But they weren't told what they would be getting in its place and the government doesn't yet know.

Politicians have lost the habit of putting country before party. This might be an occasion when they should. They might even find that the interests of the two are the same. As former Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg likes to say, the referendum was not a vote for economic self-harm. Whisper it quietly but Tony Blair is right: we must keep our options open.

The author is a former British ambassador to the United States, France and Turkey and currently Distinguished Ambassadorial Fellow at the Atlantic Council