Thursday, 6 October 2016

Conservative conference: inching towards hard Brexit?

Theresa May has used the annual Conservative Party conference to give a somewhat clearer sense of where the UK is heading post-Brexit. The strong implication was that she is seeking a hard Brexit – exiting the single market – given that she prioritised control of immigration and exit from the European Court of Justice, which oversees the single market. A strong implication, but she did not quite say it in terms, and there is some tiny degree of wriggle room still for her to enact a soft Brexit. She also disowned the terms soft and hard Brexit as a false and outdated polarity. But if that means that she still has some idea that there is an intermediate position between being inside and outside the single market then it is likely that she will be disappointed. In any case, the market reaction that followed, which saw the pound again fall sharply against both the dollar and the euro suggested that hard Brexit was how they read it.

More definitive was her pronouncement that all EU law would be written into UK law and then there would be a gradual process of repeal of those which were redundant post-Brexit. That played well with Tory Eurosceptics, but it is really only a fancier way of saying ‘Brexit means Brexit’, in that it is a move which is consistent with either soft or hard Brexit and so, in itself, does not betoken either. It is, however, in its own way a remarkable statement since the parliamentary time which it would require to strike go through each piece of legislation and revoke or continue with it will be enormous, and is likely to be the work of decades.

Also eye-catching was the announcement that Lisbon 50 will be triggered by the end of next March. But, again, this was not really news as that was the approximate timeframe that had long been trailed. Still it did, somehow, make more concrete that Brexit is going to happen, and carried the possible consequence that the final exit will fall on April Fools’ Day 2019. What also became clear was that her desire to engage in negotiations in advance of Lisbon 50 notification will not be countenanced by the EU27. Opinion seems to hardening amongst the other countries that the UK will seek hard Brexit and will get no favours, with a significant statement from Angela Merkel today.

The more diffuse, but politically important, message that May gave was one of nationalism, and a decisive rejection of the cosmopolitanism associated with remainers: “if you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere”. Much of her speech staked out the Tory party as that of the ‘local leavers’, in line with my own analysis that cosmopolitans and locals will be the defining post-Brexit political axis. There are dangers and ironies in that, though, as much of Tory support and funding comes from committed globalists, and none are more committed to that than her Brexit ministers. Her comments have attracted considerable derision, both at home and abroad. The issue now, perhaps, is whether those who feel themselves to be citizens of the world can find a way of articulating themselves politically.

Despite that fact that there is still not absolute clarity on the issue of single market membership, it does seem from what May said – and also the hardline anti-immigration policy announced by the new Home Secretary – that a hard Brexit is now the most likely option. This will obviously do incalculable damage to the UK economy, and especially to its service exports, and to the UK itself both as regards Scottish independence and the Northern Ireland border. She seems to have decided that despite the fact that the referendum did not mandate any particular form of Brexit, it was unequivocally a vote for hard Brexit. So, unless she is playing a very deep and subtle game, it seems that May is not the pragmatist that she seemed when she came to power.

It would still be foolish to predict how things will play out. May’s position is by no means unassailable given her small parliamentary majority and the splits in her own party. Moreover, there is not a majority either in parliament or in the country for hard Brexit. Most or all of those who voted remain, and at least some of those who voted to leave, would prefer a soft to a hard Brexit, so the support for soft Brexit must be at least as high as the 52% who voted leave. Much now depends on whether the necessarily dispirited remnants of the remain campaign can galvanise themselves to oppose the hard Brexit that May appears to be inching towards.

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