The unfolding events are very difficult to read, and any reading is likely to be out of date even before it is written. This post is about where I think we are currently.
[Before starting, it may be useful to clarify key terms, since their meaning is shifting. By soft Brexit I mean remaining in the single market and customs union. By hard Brexit I mean leaving both of these and seeking a free trade agreement with the EU. By ultra Brexit I mean leaving the EU with no trade agreement and possibly no agreements on anything].
The failure of the Tory party to win the election clearly places their hard Brexit plan in jeopardy in that it was not endorsed by the electorate. The consequence has been to open the debate that Theresa May refused to have after the Referendum about what sort of Brexit that vote meant, itself a consequence of the abject failure of the Leave campaign to specify what form of Brexit those who voted to leave were voting for. That latter point is crucial, because it means that the ‘will of the people’ argument (flawed as it is in general) is irrelevant to the question of how Brexit should be enacted.
What this now means is that the Tory civil war on the EU which has ripped it apart since the Maastricht rebellions of the early 1990s, and which the referendum was supposed to solve, is now raging again. In fact, it never stopped: but in the months after May’s anointment it was stifled by her embrace of hard Brexit. It is worth constantly reminding ourselves what a massive price the UK’s economy, cultural cohesion and geo-political standing is being forced to pay for this internal party factionalism, driven by perhaps no more than 70 Tory MPs.
As to how the current battle in that war is going, it’s difficult to say. There are many signs of an emerging soft Brexit ascendancy: the appointments of Gavin Barwell as May’s Chief of Staff and Damian Green as de facto deputy Prime Minister being prime examples of this, since both are (or at least were) strongly for remain. The newly elected group of Scottish Tory MPs and the Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson would also seem to be pushing the government in a soft Brexit direction.
The need for DUP support, likely to be predicated upon a ‘soft border’, is being reported to imply staying in the customs union (and, if so, that means no independent trade deals, a major plank of the hard and ultra Brexit positions). But I think that in reality a soft border is only possible if the UK is also in the single market. Consider: if there is free movement of people into the Republic of Ireland from the rest of the EU, but no free movement into Northern Ireland as part of the UK, then how can passport controls at the border be avoided? What else would stop a Bulgarian, say, entering the Republic with no restriction and then entering the UK? It is no good talking about the Common Travel Area as a model here: it derives from a situation which pre-dates the existence of the single market.
All this, plus renewed and intense business lobbying to stay in the single market and customs union, pushes the Tories to soft Brexit. But other signs point in the opposite direction. Michael Gove’s appointment to DEFRA is one; and it will be interesting to see how he squares his new role with promises to farmers during the leave campaign that Brexit would not affect their subsidies. More specifically, Brexit Secretary David Davis has indicated in a series of interviews today that hard Brexit is non-negotiable. That may well shift, but if it does then nothing will be resolved as it would almost certainly lead to a leadership challenge from the monomaniac, dogmatic Tory hard Brexiters and, if that challenge was successful, almost certainly a second election.
So the Tories are in a horrible mess. Labour are in an equally confused state, although being out of government it presents less pressing problems. Their absurd manifesto position of wanting the benefits of the single market and customs union but without membership of either and excluding freedom of movement may have helped them to secure the votes of both remainers and ex-UKIPpers, but as a serious policy position it is meaningless. The official position of seeking ‘tariff free access’ to the single market shows a pitiful ignorance of the (inter-related) issues of single market membership (cf. ‘access’) and non-tariffs (cf. ‘tariffs’). It doesn’t even make sense in terms of their other stated position of wanting any Brexit deal to deliver exactly the same benefits as EU membership. Meanwhile other influential voices within the Labour Party are speaking of single market membership as their preferred option. They need to agree on that, and very quickly, if hard Brexit is to be avoided.
A curious and very unfortunate consequences of the splits within each party is that they produced manifestos which were similar with respect to Brexit. This allows the ludicrous claim currently being made by Brexiters that, although neither party won, there is a consensus view amongst the electorate in favour of hard Brexit. The reality is almost certainly the exact opposite: if there is still a majority in the country for Brexit at all, it is for soft Brexit and the same is true amongst MPs.
Underneath all the complexities and uncertainties it’s that last thing we should hold on to. If we must use the dire phrase ‘the will of the people’ then it is not – either in terms of direct or representative democracy – a will for hard Brexit, and may not even any more be for any Brexit. It is now vital that our political institutions align with that.
The window to do so is very small indeed. Because of May’s grotesque irresponsibility in triggering Article 50 before embarking on the election, Britain has now used up almost 3 months of the 24 month A50 period – that’s one day out of eight -and in that time has not just done nothing to progress negotiations but has plunged itself into a new debate about what those negotiations are even about. In the meantime, businesses are relocating, investments are on hold or going elsewhere, staffing of public services is falling apart, the economy is on a knife edge, and the lives of millions (both in the UK and the EU) are in a turmoil of uncertainty.
Some of that damage will never be undone, including that to the UK’s reputation, but it could at least be staunched by a rapid commitment to soft Brexit. It’s extraordinary that an obvious solution to most of the Brexit problems facing the UK is still, even after this election, no more than a possibility. That election has given the UK a final chance but it is time-limited. Unless some way can be conjured up to pause the A50 process then we have perhaps a couple of weeks left to avoid disaster.
Update (14 June 2017): The situation described above persists and has, if anything, intensified. Thus on the one hand we have reports that Philip Hammond is seeking to soften the previous Brexit plans at least to the extent of seeking to remain in the customs union; whilst on the other hand one of the hardest of Brexiters, Steve Baker, who leads the ERG Group, has been appointed as minister in the DExEU (amidst reports of chaos within that department). May has also appointed several ‘soft Brexiters’ to various positions, and yet maintains that the White Paper hard Brexit remains the plan. It may be that there is Machiavellian intent in all this, but if so it is hard to decipher and it seems more likely she is simply so weakened that she has to try to keep everyone ‘on board’ for now. It is hard to see how that can survive contact with the reality of the opening of negotiations, which she insists will go ahead as planned. Meanwhile, different people within Labour Party continue to indicate different positions on the single market and customs union. There is now a palpable sense of political crisis, ironically pointed up by the pomp and ceremony of yesterday’s opening of parliament which seem a brittle and hollow shell around chaos rather than a signifier of traditional certainties and continuities.
Many people are calling for a cross-party group to take Brexit forward but it is hard to see how this can make a difference, since the parties themselves do not have agreed positions. There is a strong argument to say that other parties should stay well clear: this is the (predominantly) Tory Brexiters’ mess and they should own it. Conversely, a cross-party group would inevitably led Brexiters to complain, as the disaster unfolds, that this disaster was due to the other parties rather than to the wholly unworkable policy of Brexit. The way out might end up being some kind of cross-party arrangement but, if so, it should be one which reflects the majority view amongst – it can reasonably be assumed – both MPs and the public that Brexit should be completely abandoned. That would of course entail massive political fallout, but there is no scenario anymore which does not entail that.
So we remain in an unholy mess: a statement which I suspect will not need updating for some years to come.
Update (16 June 2017): The basic situation on ‘soft versus hard’ remains unchanged, so I am not writing a new post. Philip Hammond did not give his Mansion House speech on a softer Brexit, citing the dreadful London tower fire as the reason for cancellation. However, it seem hard to resist connecting the cancellation to the report, shortly before the cancellation, that the DUP support May’s rather than Hammond’s versions (I cannot bring myself to call them visions) of Brexit. At the same time, it seems difficult to reconcile the DUP’s reported position with their apparent desire to avoid a hard border, and there continues to be a strong head of steam within the Tory Party against hard Brexit Labour’s position remains opaque, despite an article suggesting a possible (but unspecified) change of course in an article by Keir Starmer today.
Nevertheless, the government intends to proceed with opening negotiations with the EU on Monday on the basis of the White Paper hard Brexit position. It is difficult to overstate the absurdity, and indeed gross irresponsibility of this: there is currently no government in place, and no agreement as to what the government’s position will turn out to be. For a fantastic analysis of this situation, which I will not try to better, see Ian Dunt’s piece Brexit talks start on Monday and we have no idea what we are doing.