Wednesday, 18 October 2017

Talk of a 'no deal' Brexit is normalising hard Brexit

One noteworthy feature of the nomination race for the Republican Presidential candidate was that the candidates who might in other circumstances have been thought of as holding rather extreme views became seen as moderate. The reason, of course, was Donald Trump, compared to whom they were indeed relatively moderate. By moving the scale so far to the extreme what had hitherto been seen as extreme became normalised.

Something very similar is underway now with Brexit. The idea of a ‘no deal’ – or what might be better called kamikaze - Brexit was not even entertained during the Referendum campaign when, as noted in my previous post, leading Brexiters assured us that a deal would be quick and easy. But now no deal is being talked about quite blithely as not being too bad or, even, as being actually preferable to having a deal. And this comes not just from fringe figures on social media but from senior MPs like John Redwood and even cabinet ministers like Liam Fox.

Anyone who knows anything at all about it knows that the consequences of no deal would be catastrophic for the UK – not just in terms of trade but a wide range of the taken-for-granted amenities of modern life from air travel to affordable food to cancer treatments. No less significant is that such an outcome would shred Britain’s credibility as a trusted negotiating partner, with consequences for both trade and geo-political deal-making. Pretending otherwise does not hold water even as a ‘negotiating tactic’ since the EU knows all this just as much as anyone else. This is not, as some seem to imagine, a game of poker in which one player can bluff because each player already know what cards the other holds.

So no deal is not, and should not be regarded as, a serious possibility. But the consequence of talking about it as if it were certainly has serious consequences. It serves to normalise what is actually an extreme position, namely hard Brexit. Thus we are getting to a situation where it seems as if just avoiding the catastrophe of no deal would somehow be a sane, pragmatic and desirable outcome.

In fact, as those long months in which all we knew was that ‘Brexit means Brexit’ showed, in the initial period after the Referendum the spectrum of possibilities ran from soft Brexit – meaning single market membership and some form of customs union membership – to hard Brexit, meaning neither as well as exiting numerous bodies such as Euratom. It was not until May’s Lancaster House speech in January 2017 that we were told that Brexit must mean hard Brexit. Yet now, it is common to see no deal described as hard Brexit, and what used to be called hard Brexit depicted as a soft position. Thus Philip Hammond is eviscerated for his lack of faith for championing what was once seen as the extreme form of Brexit.

I’ve written elsewhere about how no matter what concessions are made to Brexiters they always want more. They have now succeeded in dragging the whole country with them. There is simply no way that most, or even many, leave voters could have thought that the no deal scenario was what they were voting for. But now that this scenario is being discussed as a real possibility many voters – whether they were for remain or leave in the Referendum – are highly likely conclude that, by comparison, hard Brexit is ‘not so bad as that’*. In this way, hard Brexit, which was never voted for by the British people, is becoming normalised.


*That claim is in no way undermined by the recent Sky News poll finding that 74% of people would prefer ‘no deal’ to ‘a bad deal’ because a question posed in that form would be bound to achieve such a result. A ‘bad deal’ sounds – of course – like something bad; whereas ‘no deal’ sounds neutral, as if nothing much would change (some respondents might even interpret it to mean remaining in the EU). But if a question were posed in terms of choosing between the realities of ‘no deal’ and those of hard Brexit the result would certainly be a preference for hard Brexit.

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