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It was the best of decisions, it was the worst of decisions. It was the season of light, it was the season of darkness … the hope of spring, the winter of despair. Dickens had Brexit about right. It is Britain’s French revolution. No one, absolutely no one, has a clue how it will turn out.
London’s new inward investor, the former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, has no such doubt. Yesterday he spoke for the liberal consensus when he said that Brexit was “the stupidest thing any country has ever done,” at least “until America Trumped it”. He did not mention the millions who voted for one or the other. But then liberals are a bit down on democracy these days. It keeps giving them wrong answers.
What is crashingly obvious is that Britain is going to leave the European Union in 18 months. It is going to leave, however much remainers abuse leavers. It is going to leave however much the titans of industry and the snowflakes of academia wail and gnash their teeth. It could be the worst of decisions, or it could turn out not as bad as many fear. But it is going to happen.
Just as leavers are in cloud cuckoo land over transitions and quotas and third-party deals, remainers seem happy to keep virtue signalling so long as one day they can say, “we told you so”. The leavers at least have a strategy, which is to let the clock tick until we fall over the cliff edge. Remainers have no strategy at all, except to cry woe. There is no sign of a concerted lobby behind any of the so-called soft Brexit options.
The British constitution has no problem with soft Brexit. The referendum vote said simply “leave the EU”. It did not say hard or soft Brexit; just to leave the formal EU treaty framework. How to do so was not on the ballot paper. By default, this was delegated to parliament, which can thus choose for itself how to interpret and implement Brexit. It must decide how Britain should trade with Europe, albeit not by remaining in the EU. If the electorate dislikes what it decides, tough. It must await the next election.
Every single opinion poll since the referendum, every tally of MPs, every industrial lobby and every economic pressure group is clear. A majority favours keeping free trade and mostly open borders within the EU. An Economist poll shows a quarter of leavers wanting to continue with single market membership, immigration and all. A YouGov poll has three quarters of leavers worried over immigration, but half of these would be content with controls on welfare benefits for newcomers, like those already operating in other EU states. A Kings College/Rand poll had a similar finding.
There is not a whisper of a majority for hard Brexit. No one wants nurses to be sent packing, care homes to close, trucks to pile up at Dover or the hospitality industry to collapse. The leave thesis – that the nation will rise up in fury if Brexit is soft – is leave’s own project fear. It is rubbish.
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Anarchic compromises, a below-the-radar Norway, a mafia-ridden Ulster, a Monaco on stilts. This is where we are heading
At present Brexit has the best tunes, or at least the best headlines, with its reckless, roller-coaster revival of British jingoism. It can justly portray the Brussels negotiators as unelected bureaucratic thugs, caring only for budgetary self-aggrandisement. But the reality is that the outcome of this bizarre affair would always come down to a choice between a “messy” or a clean form of soft Brexit.
At present we are heading for a messy one: a collapse in border controls, imports and exports going haywire, a foreign tourist boycott and foreign workers vanishing from hotels and building sites overnight. After that will come a spate of anarchic compromises, a below the radar Norway, a mafia-ridden Ulster, a Monaco on stilts.
This is where we are heading if soft Brexiters fail to come up with “clean” options, either transitional or permanent. They may embrace the European economic area (EEA), Norway, Switzerland or various customs unions. But every mention of them in the media focuses on their disadvantages, on the continued payments to the EU, the submission to EU trade laws and the feared “lack of influence”. These objections pale against the negatives of cliff-edge departure.
‘No Norwegian of my acquaintance actually wants to leave the EEA.’ Princess Mette-Marit and greets children in Hokksund, Norway.Photograph: Bendiksby, Terje/PA
Talk to Norwegians, and they will moan about the EU and its irritating regulations. But if Britain had never joined the EU and stayed in the European free trade area, it would also be paying some such price. It is the cost of the benefits of free trade. Besides, no Norwegian of my acquaintance actually wants to leave the EEA.
The majority of MPs who oppose hard Brexit must urgently form a working Commons coalition. Yesterday’s taunting of the chancellor, Philip Hammond, by Labour’s John McDonnell was fair enough. McDonnell was right to tell Hammond to “face down his opponents in the cabinet” and confront the no-dealers. But McDonnell himself must go much further. Soft Brexiters in every political party must confront hard Brexiters and show them to be the view of an eccentric minority. There must be a political alliance similar to those behind the Corn Laws repeal and Irish home rule in the 19th century.
Such an alliance has been mooted by Liberal Democrats and Labour’s Brexit shadow, Keir Starmer. But many Tories are too afraid of their constituency backwoodsmen to stand up and be counted. Hence the need for emphatic leadership from Hammond, and indeed from Theresa May, even if it means getting into bed with Jeremy Corbyn. Parliament must insist on soft Brexit – and say what it means by it. Those who dislike it must be shown the door.
This involves the soft Brexit “party” challenging David Davis’s view, expressed today that parliament may not get a final decision on the Brexit deal. It must give such an unmistakable steer that it expects to see its negotiators honour the freedoms intrinsic to a frictionless, open Europe outside the EU. This means some version of the Norway model, which has the vast advantage of being “off the shelf”.
Ever since the Romans left Britain in the fifth century its dealings with the European mainland have been semi-detached. This is hardly the first rupture in relations, and Britain and Europe will both survive it. The Norway option is not cost-free, but it is the price we must pay for our 44-year membership of the EU. It is the least worst outcome of the referendum. Otherwise, madness will the rule the day.