We haven’t even reached the end of the beginning

As REM once sang: It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine. After the thunderbolt of the Brexit vote, things feel curiously normal. The sky hasn’t fallen in, life is going on, and Trump v Hilary looks like an altogether bigger deal.

We are still wondering what the impact of Brexit will be. Most economists have retreated from forecasts of outright recession, though the outlook seems somewhat disconnected from some of the headlines: “Britain’s Brexit Bounce” and “Booming Brexit Britain”. Reality will bite, but slowly. Perhaps it’s because Brexit will be a success. Or perhaps things are only carrying on smoothly because, for now, we are still in the EU.

Remainers have had to admit that some of the more apocalyptic warnings of “Project Fear” haven’t come to pass. But fiscal hawks, who would have spontaneously combusted had George Osborne abandoned his deficit crusade, could hardly make a fuss when Philip Hammond quietly shelved this political lodestone because of Brexit.

The summer months have seen an orgy of speculation about what (apart from Brexit) Brexit actually means. Questions abound, but there are precious few answers. That much has been painfully apparent in the first public outings of the ministers concerned.

Reading the British press during the summer silly season, you sometimes got the impression that Brexit will be negotiated between the “Three Brexiteers”: Boris Johnson, David Davis and Liam Fox.

In the months ahead, we will be reminded that there are 27 other parties in this negotiation, not to mention other interested parties like Japan (whose views were set out in sobering detail last week). Most of the hard talking, by the way, will take place in rooms without any of the Brexiteer trio present. Heads of Government negotiate with their peers.

The reality is that we have barely taken the first steps on this road. It is so far a phoney war. For all the declarations being made, very little has been agreed or decided. The most we can say is that the combatants are taking up their places on the starting lines.

In Brussels, the appointments of Michel Barnier and Guy Verhofstadt say more about inter-institutional jostling than the shape of the final deal – though neither is warmly inclined towards Britain.

In Whitehall, Cabinet Secretary Jeremy Heywood sensibly declined to pretend to incoming Prime Minister Theresa May that serious analysis of Britain’s negotiating priorities could be done in days. Instead, Departments are continuing to work with DexEU to hack through this forest of detail.

Article 50 will not be triggered until 2017, and the really crunchy negotiations cannot possibly be until after the French and German elections. So this will be a very long haul. In the meanwhile, the lobbying and arguing about competing priorities begins.

In Churchillian terms, we haven’t even reached the end of the beginning.

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