Sunday 1 January 2017

Will Theresa May deliver on her New Year message?

Theresa May’s New Year broadcast, calling for unity after the divisions of the Referendum, appears to strike a conciliatory note towards those who voted remain, including the passage:

"So when I sit around the negotiating table in Europe this year, it will be with that in mind - the knowledge that I am there to get the right deal - not just for those who voted to leave - but for every single person in this country” (emphasis added).

Although the notion of something that satisfies ‘every single person’ is chimerical, a way of giving some people all that they want and all people some of what they want from Brexit is remarkably easy to envisage. Soft Brexit, where we leave the EU but remain in EFTA/EEA, would fulfil it. It would honour the vote to leave the EU, and would be exactly the form of leaving that some Brexit campaigners and voters favoured.

It would give all Brexiters at least some of what they want: withdrawal from the common agricultural and fisheries policies, exemption from many EU endeavours including those relating to foreign and defence policy, exit from ECJ jurisdiction at least in a formal sense, and the ability to make trade deals with third party countries. For remainers it would give all of them at least some of what they want, in terms of single market membership, continued free movement rights, and participation in European science, education and security programmes.

Of course it would not give many people all that they wanted, on either side of the debate. But it seems likely that it would have the support of the majority of voters judging by recent opinion polls. It also seems likely (given the positions that they took in the campaign) that it would have the support of the majority of MPs. Moreover, it would considerably reduce the massive administrative complexity associated with hard Brexit, end the uncertainty for EU people living in the UK and vice versa, and markedly reduce the problems that Brexit poses for Scotland and Northern Ireland. That is not to say it would be easy, nor that it would automatically be on offer from either the EU or from EFTA/EEA. But it is feasible.

What is striking is that is so blindingly obvious. Popular democracy, parliamentary sovereignty and administrative simplicity would all be satisfied, and most of the economic and some of the geo-political damage of Brexit would be avoided. There is only one reason for not pursuing it: the sizeable minority of her MPs who will accept no compromise whatsoever and want the hardest of Brexits, with complete exit from the single market and all other institutions. If they do not get this, they will announce a betrayal, probably put up a leadership candidate and possibly split the Tory party permanently.

Thus the entire fate of the country is held to ransom by this small group of people and their vociferous supporters in much of the press. The referendum itself was an attempt by David Cameron to deal with the demands of this group (and to head off possible electoral challenge from UKIP, but that challenge never really amounted to very much given the nature of the electoral system). Again and again he conceded to them – first by promising a referendum and then, though it now largely forgotten, on the nature of the question and the framing of the answer as being ‘leave or remain’ rather than ‘no or yes’ (as Brexiters thought ‘no’ would paint them in a negative light), on the right of 16 and 17 year olds to vote, and on the right of long-term expatriates to vote. Each concession gave rise to demands for a new one, because this group of MPs would never be satisfied.

And so it continues now. The referendum has done nothing to mend the divisions in the Tory Party, with the battle line between Eurosceptics and Europhiles just having moved to that between hard versus soft Brexiters. And some of the original Tory Eurosceptics who before the referendum were perfectly content with soft Brexit now insist that only hard Brexit will do. Theresa May in the first months of her prime ministership seems to have sided with them, but she has always left room for ambiguity. Perhaps her new year speech is a coded message of a shift towards soft Brexit – that is how the Daily Mail are reporting it – but she has given so many mixed messages that decoding them now seems impossible. Has she simply been shoring up her support from the Brexiters (given she did not campaign for Brexit) and is now skilfully preparing the ground for a more pragmatic policy? Or is she determined on a hard Brexit and trying to soft soap the country with a seasonal message of national unity? Or does she simply not know how to proceed?

Very soon now, code and ambiguity will no longer be enough. It has already been costly in terms of squandering any goodwill from the EU partners with whom she must negotiate, and in terms of the economic uncertainty it has created. Theresa May is going to have to decide whether she wants to take the only solution that will deliver what she stated in her New Year broadcast as her aim, and if so she is going to have the very tough task of facing down the hard Brexiters in her own party and the press. Or she is going to have to accept that the country will remain bitterly divided, as well as all the economic and political consequences of hard Brexit, and her broadcast will have been no more than warm words with no practical meaning.

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