Monday 30 April 2018

Brexiters would have been much happier if they had lost

It may seem obvious to say that what the Referendum result meant for leavers was completely different to what it meant for remainers. Clearly, for the first it meant victory and delight whilst for the second it meant defeat and disaster. Of course, I’m talking about those who had – or after the vote found that they had - strong feelings and commitments on either side; we shouldn’t forget that for many voters on both sides it didn’t mean much at all. However, beyond these obvious truths lie some other, more complex, issues which are shaping, and will probably continue to shape, British political life for years to come.

The veteran Brexiter John Redwood tweeted today that “the issue of Brexit was settled almost two years ago by the people and their vote”. That, or a cruder version of it, has been the refrain of Brexiters ever since the Referendum: we won, get over it, it’s the will of the people. They seem genuinely surprised that the backlash from remainers has been so strong and enduring. If so, that is naïve.

Most obviously, it’s naïve because, as Nigel Farage, no less, said before the result, if it were 52-48 to remain “this would be unfinished business by a long way”, and other leading Brexiters (including Redwood) said similar things. Well the result was 52-48, but to leave. So by the same token it is ‘unfinished business’ for remain.

It’s not just, or even mainly, that, though. Had leavers lost they would have been stuck with the status quo. They wouldn’t have liked it, of course, but nothing would have changed and nothing would (from their point of view) have got worse. No one’s life would have been disrupted. Whereas for remainers, losing meant that everything changed, and changed for the worse; and many lives were (and are being) disrupted, and more.  A remain victory would have barely changed Britain; the leave victory has fundamentally transformed it. So of course the reaction is going to be different.

That has become all the more true since Brexit got interpreted to mean a non-consensual hard Brexit. A more consensual interpretation (i.e. soft Brexit) would undoubtedly have defused a lot of remainer opposition. It’s not a perfect analogy, but the way that the vote to leave has been interpreted to mean leaving the single market, any customs union and any body that has an ECJ role is as if a remain vote had been interpreted to mean joining the Euro and Schengen.

Thus the political and emotional charge of losing was, for remainers, incomparably greater than it would have been for leavers. Indeed, in a certain sense, losing would have kept leavers in their comfort zone of victimhood: ‘of course we have been done down by the global, liberal metropolitan elite’. Meanwhile, winning for remainers would have been no more than a passing pleasure, quickly forgotten as other issues took centre stage, whereas the leave victory ensured Brexit would be centre stage for years.

Beneath that lies a deeper issue. Leave was in essence a campaign movement; more specifically, a protest campaign. Thus for them winning the Referendum was an end point, as the Redwood quote above implies. Job done. What seems to have completely disconcerted them is that, in fact, it marked not the end but the beginning. The beginning of having to take responsibility for what they had won, the beginning of having to define what they had won, and the beginning of having to deliver on what they had won not just immediately but for years to come. All of that has proved impossible for them – as might be expected of a protest campaign, especially one that had not expected to win.

This has had extraordinary consequences. Most obviously, the total lack of any kind of idea about how to deliver Brexit in the sense of practical policies. Most ironically, the total dependence on people, especially in the Civil Service and business, who by and large think Brexit crazy, to find a way of doing so. But since what they want – especially in its hard form – is impossible to deliver without catastrophic damage they are able to stay in protest campaign mode, denouncing ‘the establishment’ for sabotaging Brexit, as if they were not, now, in charge.

It is this which accounts for the way that leavers, despite having won, still devote so much energy to attacking remainers. Screaming at your opponents to ‘suck it up’ is easy; engaging with, say, Cumulative Rules of Origin not so much. But it also accounts for something which is having a far more damaging effect on Britain and, could leavers but see it, Brexit itself. For it explains the at best sour and at worst aggressive way in which what is now a Brexit government has approached the EU negotiations On the face of it, you’d expect that approach to have been characterised by magnanimity and even joy: we’re leaving for a much better future! In those circumstances things like the ‘divorce bill’ would have been brushed aside: what are a few billion pounds, when so bright a future awaits us?

But of course nothing like that has happened. From the start, the approach of Brexiters both within and outside of government has been confrontational, defensive and angry, often, as I have written before, acting as if Britain were being expelled from the EU rather than choosing to leave. Whenever any consequence of leaving emerges – the possibility of a charge for visas being a recent trivial example; the need for a border in Ireland being an ongoing important one – they cry punishment. Even, as with Gibraltar, they talk of war. None of that would make sense if Brexiters were confident, happy winners of a great prize; all of it makes sense if they are a protest movement, in love with a sense of put-upon victimhood, fearful of – to coin a phrase – taking back control.

In the light of all this, the meaning of the Referendum result looks rather different. Certainly it was a disaster for remainers. But, actually, it was also a disaster for leavers. Which would be a pleasing irony and a cute debating point but for one thing. In less than a year, Britain will (almost certainly) be a third country to the EU. That will have huge consequences – economic, cultural, geo-political, strategic – affecting everything from mobile roaming charges to national security. Every single one of those consequences will be negative for almost every person in Britain.

It is small comfort that Brexiters will suffer the additional consequence of having to take responsibility for that; none at all, in fact, since they will certainly not do so, but will try to blame everyone but themselves for what they have inflicted on us. Few will feel sympathy for the fact that they would have been far happier had they lost.

Friday 27 April 2018

Brexit and the corridors of power

Students of politics can learn much from the now almost forgotten novels of C.P Snow, including that which gave us the evocative phrase ‘corridors of power’.

One thing they would learn is that, for all that politics is a complex business, it sometimes comes down to something quite simple: parliamentary arithmetic. And it is becoming increasingly clear that the arithmetic for seeking to negotiate a comprehensive customs union with the EU is not in the Government’s favour. Thursday’s House of Commons debate did not end in a formal vote, which would anyway have had no legal force. But what was striking was that a number of Tory backbenchers who were not amongst the Withdrawal Bill’s Amendment 7 ‘mutineers’ nor amongst the ten (Tory) signatories to the customs union amendment to the Trade Bill spoke in favour of a customs union. These included substantial figures such as Ed Vaizey and George Freeman.

This suggests that at least 17 Tory backbenchers might potentially defy the Government in substantive votes when they arise – and there may well be others, since there is no doubt that a greater number do not support, at least, Brexit in the hardline form that it is being pursued. Of course it remains an unanswered question how many of them will be willing to go the whole hog and defy the party whip on such votes.

Equally, the Government itself is in disarray, with reports of some Cabinet ministers pushing against any form of ‘customs partnership’ whilst others apparently favour staying in (sic) the customs unions. So who knows if the issue will be conceded before any vote occurs? It’s worth saying in passing that, although we are now inured to it, it really is quite extraordinary that, so far into the Brexit process it triggered, the Government is still not in agreement about the most basic features of what they want to do.

Readers of C.P. Snow would also learn of the symbolism of Parliamentary politics. Motions, questions and phraseology can have a significance well beyond their ostensible meaning. The very fact of Thursday’s debate was significant in that it arose from the combined actions of Select Committee Chairs, and these committees have done an extraordinary amount of work to probe into the practical, complex details of Brexit in a way that the Government appears not to have done.

More to the point, both this debate and the customs amendments to the Trade Bill and the EU Withdrawal are both meaningless and meaningful. They are meaningless in that a customs union is really not the burning issue of Brexit. The key economic issue, and the key political issue as regards the Irish border, is not a customs union but the single market. However, the customs unions votes are meaningful because they serve as both a symbol and a harbinger.

As a symbol, they say that Parliament asserts that it, rather than the Government, can legitimately at least shape Brexit (as discussed in my previous post). As a harbinger, defying the Government on a customs union is the logical prelude to defying it on the far more substantive issue of single market membership and, conceivably, on Brexit itself or on another Referendum. The logic, there, lies both in the fact that the single market is more important in and of itself and in the politics of Jeremy Corbyn (and therefore the Labour stance). For whilst he is, it seems, ideologically opposed to the single market he is, apparently, also committed to an open Irish border. If, as is said, he shifted ground on a customs union for that reason then there would be even better reason for him to shift on the single market since only the two can resolve the border conundrum.

Last night I spoke at an event where Sir Nick Clegg was the main speaker, and in a very forceful and impressive speech he made the point that it is really only Parliament that can now make a difference to what happens with Brexit. Opinion polls are not likely to shift much, and campaigns and marches are unlikely to have enough cut through, at least in time for March 2019. After which, as Clegg rightly said, and the Brexit Ultras clearly know, it will be too late.

Britain’s democracy is old, complex, and weird with many strange by-ways some of which – most obviously the House of Lords – are not democratic at all. Whereas referenda are relatively new in our system, simple and blunt. It’s still – just about – possible that the Byzantine workings of the corridors of power will manage to avert the catastrophe it is daily becoming clearer that Brexit will be. The crunch points will come over the next few months.

That said, no one should fall into the trap of thinking about Brexit just in terms of British politics. What happens to the Government’s Brexit plans (if that is not too generous a term) will depend just as much, if not more, on the EU as on Parliament. Here, the crunch point may also come in the next few months, perhaps early in those months, if, as Ireland’s EU Commissioner Phil Hogan suggested this week, the EU push the Government to resolve the Irish border issue in June. (My view, for what little it is worth, is still that it will end up being deferred to the transition period, because the UK will say that it can only be resolved via the trade talks [leaving option A in play] whilst the EU and Ireland will accept this so long as the backstop [Option C] is written into the Withdrawal Agreement).

That aside, though, suppose that, at the eleventh hour Britain pulls back from the brink? What would that mean from an EU perspective? Perhaps it might still be possible to agree a soft Brexit fairly easily, but would it really make sense to take what would undoubtedly be a still bitterly divided country, which might at any point have another Brexit spasm, back into the fold? The biggest irony of the Brexit mantra of ‘taking back control’ is that our fate will be decided not simply, and perhaps not even primarily, in Westminster’s corridors of power, but in those of Brussels.

Friday 20 April 2018

Will MPs use their power now?

The most intriguing and potentially significant aspect of the domestic politics of Brexit has always been the fact that the majority of MPs do not support it. Of course, that did not prevent them using the vote that the Miller case forced the government to hold to support the triggering of Article 50. But the justification for that (bogus in my view), that to do otherwise would have been illegitimate in the face of the Referendum result, does not apply when it comes to determining the manner in which Brexit is undertaken.

Many Brexiters, of course, claim otherwise, insisting that the vote to leave the EU was also a vote to leave the single market and any form of customs union. This is manifestly nonsense. They may point to this or that statement during the campaign that equated voting to leave with this manner of leaving, but the campaign overall was ambiguous and contradictory about what leaving meant.

This is easily demonstrated. If Brexit, by definition, meant what the Ultras say it does then there would not have been the seven month gap between the Referendum and the Lancaster House speech – a gap in which the various meanings of Brexit were heavily contested before that speech announced that Brexit meant hard Brexit. The only sense in which the Brexiters are right (and many remainers wrong) is that it is true that leaving the EU means leaving the Customs Union, because only EU members can belong to that. Britain cannot ‘stay in the Customs Union’. But Brexit does not preclude creating a customs union that replicates some, many or all of the features of the Customs Union.

In any case, since Article 50 was triggered there has been a General Election in which Theresa May called for a mandate for hard Brexit. She failed to get it, with implications both for the legitimacy of MPs now opposing this form of Brexit and for the parliamentary arithmetic of successfully doing so. The issue since then has therefore been whether MPs will make use of this situation, which requires both that the Labour Party and a sufficient number of Tory rebels do so. If those stars align – as they did with the passing of Amendment 7 to the EU Withdrawal Bill last December – then they can win.

As I wrote at the time, the main significance of that amendment lay not so much in the fact that it was passed but in the fact that it was not defeated. That is to say, had it been defeated that would effectively have represented the moment at which MPs had decided to have no substantive involvement in Brexit. It would also have signalled that there was no point at which the putative Tory rebels would act. And having done so may embolden them and others to rebel again – in a sense, having taken the flak once they have less to lose from future rebellions, whilst having won means that other potential rebels can believe there would be some point in sacrificing their careers.

We are now about to find out whether this is true, with votes on the specific issue of seeking an equivalent customs union with the EU after Brexit. On the one hand, the heavy defeat for the government in the House of Lords on the EU Withdrawal Bill gives the Commons a chance to do the same. On the other hand, there will be similar opportunities for the Commons to amend the Taxation (Cross-border Trade) Bill and the Trade Bill and, next week, to vote in the debate on a customs union initiated by the Commons Liaison Committee. Government defeats in the Commons on these votes are now possible because in February Labour changed its position on a customs union. Such defeats would, politically if not legally, put a major hole in the government’s approach to Brexit with consequences which are unpredictable, but could force the collapse of the government and another General Election (there are, admittedly, many complexities in that not least because of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act; still, we can say that there would be a political crisis).

Of course, it’s possible that the government might shift policy on a customs union in the face of such defeats (or, even, in anticipation of them) and seek to negotiate this with the EU (it is clearly not a given that the EU would agree, although most people believe that it is quite likely that they would*). That would require a major U-turn from Theresa May. It would also require the Tory Ultras both in Cabinet and on the backbenches to swallow very hard indeed, since an equivalent customs union would also, in practice, entail being bound by the EU’s Common Commercial Policy. That would mean no independent trade deals.

In any sensible political environment this would be of no consequence. There is little if any benefit in an independent trade policy. This is because such independence would require, first, re-negotiating all of the existing EU trade deals, with no guarantee they would be on as good terms and, even if they were, all that would have been achieved would be to restore the pre-Brexit status quo. As for new deals, the government’s own analysis shows that the benefits would be trivial, and far outweighed by the loss of EU trade. Despite all this, for the Ultras an independent trade policy has become a key symbol of Brexit. It has no rational basis, but then nor do blue passports. (No doubt some would say that it is rational if one puts a value on independence from rules set by others. If so, they miss the fact that making trade deals requires acting in accordance with rules set by the WTO).

Say, though, that the Ultras did accept this situation (calculating, perhaps, that once Brexit day has passed they might somehow, some time, claw back what had been conceded and/or that not doing so might precipitate a Labour government). It is not clear that anything very significant would have been achieved. A customs union would not, in itself, solve the Irish border riddle and it would mitigate only some of the economic damage, most notably to cross-border supply chains in goods manufacturing, of Brexit (it would do nothing to help services trade). To deal with both of these requires single market membership as well as (and, actually, more than) a customs union.

On the other hand, there is a real danger for remainers or even soft Brexiters if a customs union were created. Because it would not prevent the damage of Brexit, the Ultras would then be able to argue that this damage was caused not by Brexit but by not doing Brexit ‘properly’. They are going to make that claim anyway, no doubt, but will be able to do so the more vociferously (and, to some voters, plausibly) if they can point to having been prevented by ‘saboteurs’ from having an independent trade policy.

From this point of view, it might be said that the only way to completely discredit Brexit is to allow the Brexiters to have their head so that the full crash and burn effect of what they are advocating becomes undeniable. Against that, however, is the near inevitability that whatever happens they will always deny it and – more importantly – that all our lives and livelihoods will be strapped to the wreckage as it plummets to the ground. Which is a pretty unappealing prospect.

So perhaps there is a more optimistic scenario. A defeat for the government on a customs union might be a first step towards further defeats – on the single market, most obviously, on Brexit itself, conceivably. At some point on that road the Ultras would certainly rebel and, once again, we get all the unpredictability of governmental collapse, perhaps an election, perhaps another Referendum.

Or perhaps this will all turn out to be academic and the Tory rebels will not rebel after all. As I argued last March when the draft Withdrawal Agreement was published, the likelihood of agreement on a transition period seems to me to make such rebellion less likely. Writing in the Guardian this week Rafael Behr makes a similar point, seeing the possibility of the transition as having taken the time pressure of the government and opening up a scenario in which the Ultras “sleepwalk” us to Brexit. But as he concludes, and as what I have written here suggests, Britain’s fate lies firmly in the hands of parliamentarians. We will soon find out whether they, and most notably the Tory rebels, will use that power.


*Most notably because such a scenario would mean that, finally, the old Brexiter saws about the ‘German car industry’ and about the UK trade deficit with the EU would come into play, albeit not in the way Brexiters anticipated. A customs union would be helpful to EU-27 (and British) goods manufacturers. It would do nothing for services trade. The UK trade deficit with the EU-27 comprises a large services trade surplus offset by a massive goods trade deficit. For this and other reasons a customs union would be attractive to the EU-27 on economic grounds, and would not entail the politically unacceptable cherrypicking (of aspects of the single market) which Brexiters imagined would be over-ridden by EU-27 industrialists.

Tuesday 17 April 2018

How the Windrush scandal connects with Brexit

The Windrush scandal is disgraceful and disgusting in its own right. It is also connected in multiple ways to Brexit. First, in the most generic way, the “hostile environment” created by immigration policy grew out of the same political and cultural soil as the central, anti-immigration, plank of the Leave campaign. Both are expressions of the same hysteria of ‘uncontrolled’ borders, of health tourism, of jobs and public services supposedly taken by immigrants and of crimes supposedly committed by them. It is a hysteria whipped up by the tabloid press and the far right and, at the very least, pandered to by politicians of the two main parties. Without this political culture, neither the Windrush scandal nor – whatever the protestations now of ‘liberal leavers’ - the Brexit vote would have happened.

More specifically, what has happened to the Windrush victims, who – to spell it out - had a perfect legal right to reside permanently in Britain, has a direct relevance to the situation of EU nationals living in Britain will face post-Brexit when they, too, have that right. The, still provisional, guarantee of settled status (itself, by the way, a significant diminution of the rights of free movement, as discussed in a previous post) will require, precisely, that the British immigration authorities do not make the same kind of errors they have made in relation to Windrush.

And it is hardly as if these errors are an isolated event. They form part of a longstanding pattern of failure at the Home Office. Indeed, some EU nationals who have sought to clarify their status since the Brexit vote have already been caught in the vortex of incompetence and encultured, bureaucratised suspicion of the Home Office. For example, last August it emerged that the Home Office accidentally sent at least a hundred letters wrongly threatening EU nationals with deportation.

It’s important to understand that – as with the Windrush victims – when things like this happen it creates a life-wrecking situation. It isn’t just a matter of some onerous bureaucracy: people’s relationships, jobs and indeed their whole lives are in danger of being ripped up. Even if the situation is resolved, it leaves an ongoing trauma for the people affected, and this ripples out to those who might come to be affected.

With Brexit, EU nationals will become vulnerable not just in the immediate aftermath but for years to come. As Windrush shows, the dead hand of Home Office incompetence can reach out over the decades to knock on your door when you are old, or in need of healthcare. The already questionable proposition that EU citizens have nothing to fear from Brexit has taken a further, massive knock as a result of Windrush. Small wonder that the EU want independent oversight of the arrangements for their citizens’ rights. Windrush will cement the case for that, and probably for a longer period of ECJ oversight.

Moreover, at a less personal level, the scandal has pointed up very sharply issues around the fantasy of Global Britain and, especially, of the role that the Commonwealth might play in Britain’s post-Brexit trade relationships. As George Eaton, writing in the New Statesman, points out, the timing of the Windrush scandal breaking as the Commonwealth summit opens in London could hardly be less auspicious.

But in any case, the ‘Empire 2.0’ idea is misguided in every respect. Its first step is to exit the trade agreements that Britain as an EU member has or is currently negotiating with Commonwealth countries. These cover the vast majority of those countries, including those which are the major trading economies. Of particular note in the Windrush context are the agreements with Caribbean countries. So all those will have to be re-negotiated on a bi-lateral basis (the idea floated by some of a pan-Commonwealth trade agreement or even trade area is a fantasy within a fantasy: the Commonwealth is, avowedly, not a trade bloc or trade negotiating entity in its own right).

Beyond that, Empire 2.0 is apparently blind to the very particular political context of the Commonwealth. In brief, few if any of its members aspire to re-enact imperial preference in order to dig Britain out of its Brexit hole, and even if they did they have not stood still since 1973. They are part of their own regional trade agglomerations and neither economically nor culturally do they participate in some misty-eyed reverence for ‘the mother country’. And beyond that, whether Commonwealth countries or not, trade with places far away is never going to compensate for lost trade on the European doorstep.

And beyond even all that is the fact that any such trade deals will usually require preferential immigration treatment, as India has already spelt out. Indeed, it is British opposition to this which to a large extent explains why an EU-India trade deal has not yet been finalised.  Which brings us full circle to the prevailing anti-immigration political culture in Britain which makes such deals difficult (how to reconcile them with an immigration cap in the tens of thousands?) and also rather unattractive to the non-British party (who wants their nationals to be exposed to so hostile an atmosphere?). This is yet another version of the contradiction in Brexit whereby a vote which mobilised nativism is being used to endorse a policy of (a certain sort of) globalism.

The Windrush scandal and Brexit both disclose what happens when, as Ian Dunt describes it “a country completely loses its mind about immigration”. Even if Brexit does not go ahead, there is an urgent need for the country as a whole, and the political class in particular, to regain its senses. A part of that would be to think about the benefits of immigration in more than the narrow, transactional, economic terms which are about the only ones that even pro-immigration arguments get made. If Brexit does go ahead, then that task will arguably be even more urgent.

Thursday 12 April 2018

Business gets vocal about Brexit

One of the many remarkable consequences of the Brexit vote is the extent which it has fractured the traditional closeness of the Conservative Party and the business community. For the Ultras, in particular, it has become commonplace to treat bodies like the CBI and the IoD, and the City in toto, as being part of the assorted horde of saboteurs and enemies of the people stretching from universities to the judiciary.

This seems to have spread to the government more widely. Following the Referendum, there were repeated complaints that neither the Prime Minister nor DExEU would engage with businesses unless they express positivity about Brexit. Since few businesses see anything positive in Brexit this inevitably eroded business influence on the Brexit process. That is said to have changed somewhat since the General Election, admittedly, and the government’s acquiescence to a standstill transition period on EU terms is widely understood to reflect this.

But even with a transition period agreement in prospect, at least, the concerns of business are only very temporarily met. Hence there is now a growing public clamour to mitigate the worst effects of Brexit. A high profile example this week came from the CEO of Airbus, which directly employs 15,000 people in the UK and indirectly perhaps another 100,000. Moreover, many of these are highly skilled jobs. For Airbus, the main issues are the customs union and EASA membership (which entails a role for the ECJ). In passing, I once heard Jacob Rees-Mogg loftily opining that since (as is true) there are no tariffs on aerospace parts the industry had nothing to fear from Brexit. A small example of the way that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. At all events, lack of clear and realistic plans on the part of the government, Airbus warned, threatened long-term investment and time is running out fast to develop such plans.

Aerospace was one of multiple sectors covered in a CBI report entitled ‘Smooth Operations’ published this week, setting out the views of its members on regulatory issues post-Brexit. This report deserves high marks for recognizing some things which the Brexit business debate has often missed (although both have been discussed on this blog). First, that very often goods and services cannot be separated out, for example where companies provide repair and customer support services for their products, or where software forms part of the product. Second, that business sectors can’t be neatly and discretely packaged up: they interact, as does their regulation. This did, however, make it puzzling to then identify some sectors where divergence would be desired; a reprise of Theresa May’s ‘three baskets’ approach, with all its attendant problems which I’ve discussed elsewhere.

The overall thrust of the report was that British business should for the most part stay closely or completely aligned with EU regulations (thus, of the three baskets, two are virtually empty). The problem, though, is the clear implication of this is that Britain should remain in the single market. Since the CBI were not willing to argue that (they have done in the past, but presumably now see that political horse as having bolted) it becomes unclear what ‘alignment’ actually means. Presumably it means always adopting EU rules as they arise or change and some body, which can really only be the ECJ (or, perhaps, the EFTA Court), to enforce them. On these matters – which go to the heart of the entire debate about Brexit, soft Brexit and hard Brexit – the report only speaks in vague terms of the need to develop “mechanisms for influence and enforcement that benefit both sides”. It may have been politically astute of the CBI to avoid re-engaging with the debate on single market membership, but it leaves a big hole in their analysis and, more importantly, has the potential for adverse consequences for Britain, and for business, further down the line.

I will come back to what those consequences are, but before doing so it’s worth noting the response to the CBI report from Richard Tice, Vice Chair of Leave means Leave (which may perhaps be taken as representing the views of the Ultras more generally). He bemoaned it “as protecting the vested interests of the global multi-nationals at the expense of the approximately 90% of the British economy that does not export to the EU”. This short sentence embodies a series of misleading implications. Of course it is true that most of the British economy doesn’t export to the EU. Like all countries, most of the economy doesn’t export to anyone. But it makes no sense to have two sets of rules, one for the trading economy and one for the rest, which would be a recipe for red tape and would also permanently freeze the British economy into exactly the shape of its present pattern of trade activity.

However, the bigger implication is the populist one of Brexit as a battle with the “vested interests of global multi-nationals”. That is a nonsense given the kind of trade deals the Brexiters want to sign, anyway. It’s also a nonsense in terms of the way that all advanced economies – Britain’s, for better or worse, especially so – are globally embedded. Unless Britain wants to lose those firms, their jobs and their taxes then that needs to remain so. Brexit was never sold to the British public as a manifesto for economic autarky, and wouldn’t have been bought by them on that basis. And it’s nonsense because the CBI represents, and the issues it raises apply equally to, small and medium-sized businesses not just multi-nationals.

One of the most informative and saddening things I read this week was a blog post by Natalie Milton, the owner of small manufacturing company exporting mainly to the EU. In it, she details how leaving the single market and customs union will destroy the business she and her partner have built up over many years because of additional processes and costs. She explains precisely the nitty-gritty practicalities of Brexit for such a business (something few advocating Brexit seem to understand) and also how she and her family have built it from nothing so that losing it will devastate their whole lives. On her own account, these are ordinary people who don’t come from a privileged background but have created a successful business, earning foreign currency and providing jobs in their local community. It is crazy to think that destroying all this is a blow against “vested interests”. And, coming back to the point at the start of this post, it is striking how this person is almost the embodiment of what the Conservative Party used to claim to be the backbone, even the model, of what Britain was about. No longer, it seems.

How much influence business has on what happens with Brexit now remains to be seen. There are potentially heavy penalties for individual firms speaking out: as long ago as 2014 Brexit Ultra John Redwood threatened punishment for firms which spoke in favour of EU membership, and there are risks of adverse press coverage and lost government contracts. Still, as the government slowly come to appreciate that the fantasies of the Brexit Ultras cannot be put into practice, some degree of sanity may prevail. There is an irony in that, by the way, since what we see happening is the mirror image of that now rarely-heard piece of Brexiter scripture that the ‘German car industry’ would pressure the EU into delivering a cake and eat it Brexit deal.

It may be such business pressure that is leading to rumours that Theresa May will, after all, seek a form of customs union with the EU (something both the CBI and IoD have lobbied for and which recently became Labour Party policy). It may be that something like what the CBI are setting out in ‘Smooth Operations’ comes to pass. And that could, indeed, mitigate a lot of the economic damage of Brexit. However, even if so, there is a real danger ahead if the efforts of the business lobby are successful. The danger is of drifting into a kind of de facto soft Brexit when it has never been clearly articulated or framed as such, and doesn’t sit within a defined framework such as EFTA. I think there are many people in business and beyond who expect something like this drift or fudge to occur, and in a way it would be a rather British, make do and mend, kind of Brexit if it did.

But if that happens it will always be liable to future attack and unstitching by the Brexit Ultras, or for that matter by others. It won’t represent a clear, strategic decision by the UK but will rather be a patchwork of compromises and ad hoc solutions cobbled together in such a way as to slip it past not just the Ultras but everyone else, including the EU and including the British public. That won’t be particularly good for businesses – it means that investment in Britain will always have an additional risk factor – and it certainly won’t be good for Britain as whole. It will mean that far from Britain’s relationship with the EU being settled for a generation, that relationship will continue to be the running sore it has been for the last three decades with the added inflammation, of course, that Brexit has rubbed into that sore.