Tuesday 12 September 2017

Can the Brexit ultras be defeated?

It has become a truism that Brexit cuts across traditional ideological (left-right) and party (Labour-Conservative) lines. One way of describing this new politics, which I’ve favoured, is between cosmopolitans and locals – more often rendered as globalists and nativists – and in terms of the big picture that’s accurate enough. But within the narrower terms of UK politics there’s a different way of characterising things: as a division between pragmatists and purists, or perhaps more crudely between the grown-ups and the juveniles.

This is evident in a series of recent interventions. On the grown up side, there have been statements by former politicians of both parties (such as Peter Mandelson and Michael Heseltine) and current politicians of both parties (such as Nicky Morgan and Keir Starmer) urging softenings of Brexit. On the juvenile side there are things like the letter from the ‘European Research Group’ insisting on a Brexit even harder than that proposed by the government, or John Redwood’s ludicrous assertion that there is no ‘cliff edge’. And we shouldn’t kid ourselves: it is the latter side which is in the ascendant and which is most effectively framing the politics of Brexit.

The contrast here is not solely between pro and anti-Brexit in the way that it was during the Referendum campaign. It’s between ways of doing Brexit, and so it has opened up significant new divisions between what might be called ultra Brexiters, hard Brexiters, soft Brexiters, soft remainers and hard remainers (and even amongst these categories it is possible to find further shades of opinion). In turn, this has created complicated new dynamics in the Brexit debate.

Of course the soft versus hard Brexit division (the meanings shift but I mean, principally, single market membership or not) is not a new one. During the campaign it was hidden by ambiguous or contradictory formulations of what Brexit meant, which enabled a broad coalition of leavers to be held together. From that has flowed the interminable debate about what the vote to leave actually meant, with hard Brexiters insisting, mendaciously, that there had never been any question but that it meant leaving the single market.

The hard Brexiters have won that battle to the extent that hard Brexit is now government policy, but this has opened up a new schism, with the ultra Brexiters now opposed even to that policy. At the same time another shift is occurring, with soft Brexiters and soft remainers beginning to find common cause. This can be seen in the way that blogs like Leave HQ and EU Referendum are mounting devastating critiques of how Brexit is being pursued, and accordingly are being referred to with approval by many remainers. It’s most obvious in the blog of Oliver Norgrove, a former hard Brexiter, who is becoming an increasingly influential advocate of soft Brexit and who almost uniquely is trying to build bridges between soft Brexiters and soft remainers.

It’s certainly possible to criticise some soft Brexiters for political naivety: they got into bed with the ultras and probably wouldn’t have won the Referendum without them, and the outcome of that was always unlikely to be their version of Brexit. But they can’t be faulted for having an intellectually coherent and extremely well-evidenced position. That manifestly isn’t the case for the ERG ultras.

But if the soft Brexiters’ position is an uncomfortable one, so too is that of the hard remainers - I’m thinking here of people like the philosopher A.C. Grayling – who want simply to revert to the pre-Referendum status quo ante. I’d prefer that, too, but it isn’t practical politics, at least at the present time. Many hard remainers believe that the growing chaos of Brexit means that keeping up the pressure will see it relegated to history. But how would that work? For sure, the referendum was flawed in almost every way, including its legal status. But the result is a ‘political fact’ and won’t – barring some dramatic event – cease to be so. Just as it is grotesque that the government have pursued a hard Brexit in contempt of remain voters, so too would it be grotesque to pursue hard remain in contempt of leave voters. Like it or not, and for whatever reason, the country is deeply split and whatever happens now needs to accept and address that.

That isn’t just a matter of UK politics but of EU politics. Just as hard Brexiters have rightly been accused of treating Brexit as a domestic matter, so too do hard remainers. Because the EU has moved on in the year or so since the Referendum and the idea of the UK simply staying in, whilst so internally divided that a move out again would always be on the cards, has few attractions, as Anand Menon has argued. That could have been different in the immediate aftermath of the vote, but the way that the British government has conducted itself since makes it so: there is very little goodwill now. The EU has effectively ‘priced in’ Brexit and, whilst it will surely wish to minimise the disruption for the EU-27, is now in a politically and economically more confident situation than in June 2016.

So, as ever, politics is the art of the possible. However we got into this mess – primarily, the internal politics of the Tory Party - how do we get out of it? The only real answer, politically and economically, is a soft Brexit. There’s a majority in parliament for that and a majority in the country for it. It is – to coin the horrible phrase – the will of the people. But achieving it will be very far from easy and we are currently a long way from doing so. It’s possible but it’s also – because of our party and parliamentary systems – just out of grasp.

That it is out of grasp is largely down to a fairly small number – perhaps between 40 and 80 - of extremist Tory MPs who, because of the Prime Minister’s weakness, are currently driving policy. The question facing Britain now is whether its entire future is to be determined by them. Perhaps the only viable way of preventing this is to coalesce support in the country and of course parliament around soft Brexit; a soft Brexiter and soft remainer coalition. Like all coalitions it would have tensions but, as that during the Referendum between the soft and hard Brexiters showed, they can be effective for short periods of time.

There is of course an attraction in the idea of leaving it to the hard and ultra Brexiters to continue to drive us to disaster. Let the planes stop flying and the food start rotting at the ports. Only then will they finally learn their lesson and the country come to its senses. I’ve argued that case in the past. The problem with it is that I don’t think they will ever learn their lesson. However bad things get, they will blame someone else – the EU, the remainers, the saboteurs – rather than accept that they themselves were at fault. Moreover, the damage done to our country will be huge, and it certainly won’t discriminate greatly in its effects between those who voted leave and those who voted remain. In any case, by the time we get to calamity it will probably be too late to go back.

It’s also arguable, at least, that a soft Brexit outcome would put Britain and the EU in a relationship more comfortable for both. For the EU, losing a perennially awkward member might be no bad thing. Regrettably in my view Britain has never wholeheartedly endorsed, and perhaps has not even understood, the nature of the EU project. For Britain, EEA membership would be closer to the transactional approach to Europe that has characterised our EU membership. At all events it looks like the least-worst outcome of the Brexit fiasco. But even to achieve that limited goal requires that the ultra Brexiters be defeated. Whether it is possible is the most important political question in British politics today. We don't have much time to answer it.

Addendum (12/09/17): (this in response to a question on Twitter from @KatePardoe: “A second ref on final deal with Remain v Brexit (hard or soft) would deal with your concerns about legitimacy of Remain, surely?”)
This obviously has some appeal, although I am not sure that any British government will ever again embark on the gamble of an EU Referendum. That aside, the main problems with it are, first, the fact that there is no legal clarity on whether the Article 50 notification is revocable. If it is not, then there could be no ‘remain’ option. Second, suppose the government had negotiated some kind of hard Brexit: then, the soft Brexiters would have no option that reflected their desires. Likewise if (as seems unlikely) a soft Brexit has been negotiated then the hard Brexiters would have no option that reflected their desires. So we would come out of the Referendum perhaps with another close vote and, anyway, still in a state of disarray and the whole thing would continue to fester. Third, it seems highly possible that by then the atmosphere will have become so poisonous (with talk of EU punishment etc) that a rational debate and decision would be even harder than in the 2016 vote (and, equally, that even if the result was ‘remain’ too much damage would have been done to our relations with the rest of the EU, so that even if it was legally possible to revoke A50 it might not be politically realistic). Fourth, it seems highly likely that by the time we reached that point large and irreparable damage would have been done to the UK economy e.g. in terms of company relocations. I think that the logical time for another Referendum would have been before the A50 trigger, when the government could have said ‘OK, you voted to leave the EU, now we want to ask you whether or not you want to leave the single market’. It is now too late for that. Some of all this also applies to leaving it to a final parliamentary vote on any deal. So for all of these reasons I think a better course of action is to try to swing things toward a soft Brexit now (acknowledging that it is almost too late for that, and that in any case it can’t be assumed to be there for the taking).

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