Wednesday, 6 December 2017
Hard Brexit has reached a dead end
I am now of the view that David Davis is merely coasting along in his role at Brexit Secretary. He knows that any deviation into a softer and more pragmatic negotiating position will earn him scorn from various cabinet colleagues and national newspapers. He also knows that continuing on his current path of ignoring economic and constitutional alarm bells risks widespread business walkouts and the undermining of the Good Friday Agreement.
We talk a lot about Theresa May's untenable position as Prime Minister and her complete lack of options, but it seems a hard Brexit has forced almost everybody in positions of power into situations of unforgiving impossibility. Every which way you look, there appears no way forward with the current government. If they attempt the only workable Brexit, namely the EFTA solution, they will succumb to visceral attacks and a revolt from the ultras within.
I don't often agree with Rafael Behr, but he is correct in his Guardian column today to say that the "great fear of exposing the government’s hand flows from the relative weakness of the cards it holds." It is not because they are Tories, it is because they have always been stoic in two mistaken beliefs: first, that they needed us more than we needed them, and second, that it is in the EU's interest to give Britain preferential trading terms. These assertions, as we have discussed, are fatally flawed.
The real truth is that the Single Market is absolutely central to delivering a stable Brexit and there is no way of cobbling together anything remotely comparable. It protects both our constitutional integrity and our supply chains, provides firms, workers and immigrants with stability and all the while remains a flexible system which will accommodate a range of our interests, including on free movement. The EEA, after all, is simultaneously configured yet configurable.
There is no more political fuel that can be added to the vehicle driving a hard Brexit. The cards are now on the table and Philip Hammond's admission that no discussions over an eventual Brexit destination have taken place more or less confirm this. Even the government knows we are headed nowhere. This, on top of a growing realisation that the Single Market is crucial right across British industry, might be one of the reasons why they have not bothered to produce any sectoral impact assessments.
What is more, the drive towards a Single Market exit is completely artificial. There was nothing inevitable about equating the referendum mandate with leaving the EEA. Vote Leave had a non-position on the Single Market, though I accept that Boris and Michael Gove claimed we would be leaving it. My view on this has always been that the Remain campaign forced this stance upon us in order to massage a narrative that leaving would be a leap in the dark.
Many Leavers also support retaining EEA membership, with a vast array of polls demonstrating an expectation that we would be more like Norway and that our place in the Single Market would not be compromised. Roland Smith has produced a very useful compendium of these opinion polls at his blog. Figures tend to show that about a quarter of Leavers favour staying in it. They are important: they illustrate just how far from the centre the rest of the Brexit club has slid post-referendum (or perhaps during it).
There is a reason I refer mainly to the Single Market. I consider the Customs Union to have only minor importance. It smooths out a rules of origin hurdle and the Common External Tariff will, irrespective of EEA membership, hit agricultural exports. We leave it when we leave the EU; the only alternative is a bespoke Customs Union agreement. The main issue remains where the customs formalities and physical checks take place. Leaving the Customs Union also has no relevance to market authorisation for domestically-produced chemicals and pharmaceuticals, or to vehicle type approvals outlined by European car manufacturing legislation.
Chris Grey is right when he says: "Hard Brexit may not quite have died this week, but it was mortally wounded. Some diplomatic manoeuvrings may enable it to stagger on for a bit longer but the real choices that Brexit poses for Britain will have to be faced." I too predict a General Election in 2018. Some time, perhaps, around March's European Council meeting. It now seems plausible that British governance can be revitalised by Keir Starmer, who is beginning to mobilise very effectively on the Norway option, which solves a great deal of our problems.
Though nobody is publicly admitting it, we are now at a dead end. The only way is to go back and redress the meaning of Brexit. We need to find a new way of balancing the mandate with efforts to protect our economy and constitutional integrity. Labour does not have so many issues with Brexit headbangers. There are no John Redwoods or Iain Duncan Smiths ready to pounce on what is called 'backsliding'. The Tories have tried their version of Brexit (note: not the version) and it has slammed forcefully into a brick wall. It now seems obvious to me that the only people that can save them from themselves are the electorate.