David Herdson: Hard Brexit is the only option for Theresa May
The mantle of the party of the people is there for the taking by the Tories.
Brexit means Brexit. So Theresa May has said since before she became prime minister, to the confusion of those who see the maxim as little more than a vacuous inanity. That confusion need never have existed; it should always have been clear what she meant and, consequently, where the withdrawal talks will go.
Not for the first time, the political class – practitioners and commentators alike – have frequently got too close to the details and the process to see the big picture. While the PM might have made several errors in her handling of Brexit so far (not taking parliament along with her on the terms of exit being one that could have serious consequences down the line), missing the profound democratic revolution that the Brexit vote represents isn’t one of them.
The electorate gave the ruling class a good kicking on June 23, reminding them who is ultimately boss. Despite that, the more fervent Remainers continue to fight a deluded rear-guard action. They hoped initially that the referendum could be ignored as ‘advisory’ and when that failed, argued to delay the invocation of Article 50 by votes in parliament.
Now, they hope that Brexit won’t mean Brexit. Keeping the UK within the Single Market sounds on the face of it more acceptable than their earlier blatant attempts to frustrate the referendum result being enacted. In reality, it would be much the same.
The referendum was largely won on three points: control of immigration, a return of sovereignty and an end to the EU subscription fee. Remaining within the Single Market would deliver on none of them.
The EU has been perfectly clear that freedom of movement cannot be divorced from membership of the Single Market. Consequently, control of immigration would be undeliverable.
Likewise, a Single Market can only operate with central institutions regulating it. Membership by definition means being subject to the authority of an international Court and Commission, and an inability to sign trade agreements with countries outside the Market.
Nor would access come for free. Norway pays over €850m a year to the EU’s various programmes as part of its membership of the EEA. Scaled up, Britain would be handing over billions of pounds a year; not much different from now.
If it walks, looks and quacks like a duck, it’s reasonable to assume that it is a duck. Similarly, if the UK is subject to EU rules and authority, and is paying a membership fee, the public will conclude that it is still for all practical purposes a member of the EU, irrespective of whatever the legalities might be.
Damaging though a Brexit-that-means-Brexit might be to the economy, it would be nothing compared to the politically and socially corrosive, disillusioning effect that a Brexit-that-didn’t-mean-Brexit would have. Theresa May undoubtedly gets this. That’s why she talks about “maximum possible access” to the European market but only within the context of controlling borders. The key word there is ‘possible’: what is possible is contingent on the higher priorities, and full Single Market membership is not possible given those priorities.
Quite why the financial markets have taken so long to suss this out is anyone’s guess. Perhaps it’s because there have been – and still are – so many politicians willing to go against the spirit of the vote (though it should be noted that these are almost exclusively on the opposition benches). Alternatively, perhaps they believed that when it came down to it, the economics would be decisive.
In fact, the politics, both public and within the Conservative Party, will be decisive and have always pointed the other way. UKIP has won a war and lost a purpose, leaving plenty of voters for the Conservatives to appeal to. A hard Brexit might not be ideal for the Tories’ reputation as the party of business but as long as Labour is led by Jeremy Corbyn there’ll be no competition for the mantle.
The mantle of the party of the people, on the other hand, is there to be fought over and if a hard Brexit is what the public wants then there’ll be value in delivering it – again, all the more so if Labour and the Lib Dems opt to set up camp alongside the Eurocrats.
That value may dwindle to nothing or less if the Brexit process is badly mishandled or if the economic consequences become severe and the government takes the blame but those are risks that May presumably feels she has to run – and which are in any case no more than the risks of a soft (or ‘fake’) Brexit given the intense scrutiny many Tory MPs will give the choices made.
As such, the battle for membership of the Single Market is nothing more than gesture politics and posturing. The decision has been made, not just by the government but by the public. It will be implemented.