THE UK’s reputation is in “tatters”, Confederation of British Industry director-general Carolyn Fairbairn warned this week, as business leaders heaped caveats on their somewhat exasperated and extremely measured welcoming of Theresa May’s long-overdue move to find a Brexit compromise.

For sure, the UK is a real laughing stock on the international stage, with its major self-inflicted economic and societal damage and the prospect of more to come. To recap, there was no reason for a referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union. The 2016 referendum had its genesis in the bitter divisions within the Conservative Party over Europe, not in any popular discontent.

Only former prime minister David Cameron will know for sure whether he was trying to heal this longstanding Tory split with the Brexit vote. What is for sure, however, is that the Tories’ internal strife over Europe is much worse than it was, and that is saying something. This saga must have been like picking at a scab for them.

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It remains utterly exasperating that there are a lot of Leave supporters in areas with huge economic challenges who somehow seem to continue to believe that the European Union is responsible for their woes.

In this regard, they have been tricked by the right wing of the Conservative Party. This is not always a popular view but it is correct. Such a view is often challenged by those who declare that to advance it is to say Leave voters are somehow lacking intelligence. That is not what this view implies at all. These people have been subjected to an onslaught of propaganda from arch-Brexiters and right-wing media.

In many cases, the arch-Brexiters are the same individuals who tend to be so excited about the type of savage austerity that has been heaped upon those on the lowest incomes by the Conservatives. This unfair austerity has blighted the struggling settlements in which there were big Leave votes.

It is precisely because of what the Conservatives have done to those communities which are now so economically challenged, with many people devoid of hope, that these places have become a fertile hunting ground for right-wingers who would lead the UK over the cliff and into Brexitland. Many of these communities, across the UK, have still not, and probably will never, recover from Margaret Thatcher’s economic and social policies. And the economic and social problems of these areas have been made much worse by nearly a decade of awful Tory austerity, which has seen benefits cut savagely for both the unemployed and the working poor.

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We have had former foreign secretary Boris Johnson declare this week that a deal between the Prime Minister and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn would leave voters feeling “short-changed”. This would be a laughable suggestion, if the situation were not so grave. What will actually hit household finances is Brexit in any form. The harder the Brexit, the greater the cost. It is a matter of arithmetic. The UK Government’s own forecasts show that.

Oh, and let us not forget the bill racked up already by the UK’s Brexit folly. Investment bank Goldman Sachs has estimated Brexit has cost the UK economy around £600 million per week since the 2016 vote.

British Chambers of Commerce’s latest survey this week revealed key indicators of the UK’s economic health, such as investment intentions, exports and cash-flow, weakened significantly in the first quarter, amid “anxiety” over Brexit.

The Chartered Institute of Procurement & Supply reported that UK manufacturers stockpiled finished products and inputs at a record pace in March amid Brexit uncertainty. UK construction activity fell for a second straight month, according to CIPS. And the UK’s key services sector recorded its first monthly fall in activity for more than two-and-a-half years in March.

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Chris Williamson, chief business economist at CIPS survey compiler IHS Markit, flagged signs that the UK economy “stalled in the first quarter and is at risk of sliding into a deepening downturn in coming months”.

You get the sense of a view among some in the business community that, because they have spent time and money planning for Brexit, it might as well go ahead. That is nonsense. The time and money spent represent sunk costs. The key consideration is what outcome is actually best for the UK economy and for people’s living standards and, by extension, for businesses at large (albeit perhaps not for those which make money from the financial woes of individuals or companies).

It has been a tortuous journey but patience is crucial here. If the UK is moving towards giving its citizens the option of staying in the EU, through a second referendum, or otherwise remaining in the single market, or if it comes up with another coherent softer Brexit plan, the EU will almost certainly agree to an Article 50 extension. If that extension has to be long, so be it.

Uncertainty over Brexit has undoubtedly been very damaging for businesses as well as individuals but any consensus in Parliament over a Brexit approach would presumably be around a far-less-hard option than Mrs May’s proposed deal, so this would hopefully provide some reassurance meantime. Especially if it can also be shown that a no-deal Brexit is dead.

What we must guard against at all costs is some kind of exasperated complacency that the UK just needs to get on with something and that a no-deal Brexit might provide relief from the indecision. A no-deal Brexit would blight the lives of tens of millions of people, likely triggering deep recession and surely hammering living standards which have already been hit so hard by miserable Tory austerity. Labour MP Yvette Cooper deserves credit for her sterling efforts this week to endeavour to stop a no-deal Brexit through legislation.

The UK economy is in a mess. And it would be impossible to take issue with Ms Fairbairn’s assertion that the UK’s reputation is in “tatters”, with business confidence “slumping”.

However, at times like these, it is crucial to see the big picture. Yes, the UK’s reputation has been damaged spectacularly by the Tory Brexit crusade. But if this whole sorry fiasco somehow results ultimately in Brexit not happening, or at least in the UK remaining in the single market with continuing free movement of people to and from EU member states, the country’s mortification will have been a price worth paying.