In the last month there have been a few signs that hard Brexiters’ moment might be passing.
They’re in a much weaker position than they were six months ago. Six months ago the government was in the middle of an almighty scrap over Brexit.
On one side you had Phillip Hammond types whose main priority was minimising harm to the economy. They wanted to keep access to the single market first and foremost.
On the other you had Liam Fox, Boris Johnson and their gang who wanted “to have their cake and eat it”. Meaning, they wanted out of the free movement of people but not out of the single market. And if pushed, they’d leave the single market before they’d give up control over immigration.
The hard Brexit crowd were winning the debate. No wonder: 73% of Conservative voters in the 2017 election had voted leave. In that election they displaced UKIP as the party of Brexit.
The other thing that happened in the 2017 election, of course, is that the Conservatives got a shoeing. Expecting a huge majority at the outset, Theresa May limped over the line with the help of the DUP.
Now on the face of it, you might think a weakened Theresa May would be good for the hard Brexit crew. A weakened leader hasn’t much space to deviate from the wishes of her party. And her party is robustly opposed to the free movement of people.
Conservative party backbenchers and members are a huge headache for Theresa May. But she has others.
Square this circle
As I wrote two weeks ago, the Irish border is a rotten problem for Theresa May. Basically (for various reasons which I discussed here), its impossible to have an “invisible” Irish border and to leave the single market.
The Conservative Party wants to end free movement of people. You can’t end free movement of people without leaving the single market. And you can’t leave the single market without creating an Irish border of some kind.
What’s so bad about creating a harder Irish border? Well, the Good Friday Agreement (the 1997 accord which ended the violence in Northern Ireland) is predicated on the idea of an invisible border. The idea is that any citizen of the North can choose to be a citizen of the Republic if they so wish, so that it doesn’t really matter what side of the border you come from. A hard border puts the Good Friday Agreement at risk.
Second, a hard border puts the Northern Ireland economy at risk. There are 110 million crossings per year. The Northern and Southern economies are highly integrated.
Then you have the DUP factor. Theresa May relies on 10 DUP MPs to support her government. Like everyone else they’re still working out their exact position. But it’s safe to say that when push comes to shove, they won’t stand for a hard border.
Finally, you have the Republic of Ireland and the EU’s position. It looks as though Ireland has successfully pushed this issue to the top of the queue when it comes to Brexit negotiations. It’s one of the three issues the EU wants sorted before negotiations can begin. And in a recent position paper on the border, the EU basically said it wants to keep the status quo.
Still with me?
So May’s being pushed towards hard Brexit by her party. But the EU and DUP are pushing hard against an Irish border, which is incompatible with hard Brexit.
Then you’ve got the fact that a hard Brexit works against basically every special interest group in Britain. Any exporters, all farmers, most industries benefit strongly from the single market. Service industries, the only industries Britain excels at, would be particularly badly hit. And they’re all in Theresa May’s ear.
So why do I think Brexit is looking less likely?
Well, as I’ve shown here May is in an impossible bind at the moment. There’s no way to keep everyone happy. A hard Brexit keeps the Conservatives happy but it means a hard border, which the EU looks like it won’t accept, and which the DUP likely won’t accept. And it makes life very tough for British industry.
A soft Brexit will please the special interests, and the likes of Phillip Hammond, but not the rank and file. Talk of a soft Brexit right now would surely cost Theresa May her job.
How is she solving the problem? She isn’t solving it, of course. She’s kicking to touch. In her big Florence speech last week, she said that there’d be an “implementation period” of “around two years” after Brexit when Britain would continue to basically stay in the EU.
She’s accepting that there’s no way to square the circle as things stand. But in “around two years” the politics of Brexit could look very different.
There are a lot of tough practical issues preventing a hard Brexit. But the forces preventing a soft Brexit – or no Brexit at all – is a gang of MPs from within a party with 318 seats in parliament.
Right now the MPs are in charge. But a lot can change in “around” two years.
How to profit from Brexit
I know what some of you are thinking – “what does this mean for the severance cheques?”
The Brexit severance cheques continue to flow, week-in and week-out. There’s no chance they’ll be stopping any time soon.
If you haven’t gotten a chance to learn about them yet, you need to catch up.