Everyone has their own bright Brexit ideas—for some it's old-fashioned bulbs

Brexit: The art of the impossible deal

Brits want very different things. May can't please them all
April 11, 2017

It’s been nine difficult months, but the government has finally delivered. On 29th March, at 12.28pm, Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, tweeted he had received a letter notifying him of Britain’s exit from the European Union. “What can I add to this?” he wrote, “we already miss you.” It will be two years before we see how Europe puts that sentiment into effect.

Addressing the Commons later that day, Theresa May—with trademark ice-maiden delivery—talked of a future of sunlit uplands. “We all want to see a Britain that is stronger than it is today,” she told MPs. “We all want a country that is fairer so that everyone has the chance to succeed. We all want a nation that is safe and secure for our children and grandchildren. We all want to live in a truly global Britain that gets out and builds relationships with old friends and new allies around the world.” Her aim, she said, is no less than a deal satisfying “every single person in this country”—“young and old, rich and poor, city, town, country, and all the villages and hamlets in between.”

Little chance of that. Leaving aside the 48 per cent of voters who did not want to part from the EU (and have since shown few signs of warming to the idea), and some 6 per cent of “Leave” voters who say they regret their choice, it will be surprising if Brexit satisfies anyone. Because even committed Leavers want very different things—and it’s not merely that they disagree with one another. What many of them would most like is for Britain to somehow duck the real-world choices that we now inescapably confront.

May’s main job in the next two years will be salvaging as many EU privileges as she can, while delivering the clamp-down on immigration she has promised. European officials insist she won’t get very far with that. And one thing, they say, is certain: Britain cannot trade freely with Europe while blocking its citizens at the border.

Yet voters count on her squaring this circle. A NatCen Social Research poll shows Leavers favour tougher limits on EU migrants, but also wanted EU privileges, such as free trade, clean seawater, and cheap mobile phone coverage. Perhaps most worrying for May, it is Tory voters who are the most conflicted on how these trade-offs should be resolved. When asked to prioritise them, 44 per cent would accept free movement to secure free trade, but 55 per cent went the other way. Where Brexit once pitted political tribes against each other, it now threatens to divide them against themselves.

Even if the prime minister does pull off the impossible, many will still be disappointed. Those campaigning for Brexit stressed it would hand Britain—if not quite a blank cheque—at least a clean sheet, and that encouraged Brits to develop ideas about what should be written on it, with many staring deep into the rear-view mirror for inspiration. A recent YouGov survey found over half of Leavers had the death penalty on their post-Brexit wish list, closely followed by dark blue passports and “traditional” light bulbs.

Others see the post-Brexit world differently. Labour MP Kelvin Hopkins, welcoming Article 50, rather optimistically declared that it would “make possible the socialist future I and others have worked for all our lives.” Well, Kelvin, we will soon see...

While lefty Brexiteers look forward to spurning the globalist elite in Brussels, still others cling to the idea, championed by Brexit cheerleaders such as Michael Gove and Daniel Hannan, that the UK will now become an ultra-modern sleek global player to rival Hong Kong, a sort of off-shore pleasure garden for corporations.

May has taken a wise, Stepford wife-cum-sphinx approach to resolving the many riddles here, but that has not stopped accusations she is playing both sides—speaking of a global Britain, while pandering to Little England. Her approval is already dropping among Leavers, even though her messages have almost all been devised with them in mind.

Meanwhile, other currents are pulling Britain into dicey waters, threatening to exacerbate the tendencies that prompted Brexit in the first place. The Institute for Public Policy Research points to the coming surge in the elderly population, with the over 65s up by a third by 2030, while the working population inches up a mere 2 per cent. This, the Institute said, will erode public finances: a structural deficit will emerge by the mid 2020s. A hard Brexit (looking likely) could plunge the Exchequer another £55bn into the red, with “growth lower, investment rates worse, and the public finances weaker.” The inequality gap will widen: wealthy households will see their income go up 11 times faster than poor ones.

Oh, and the country will get more crowded, too—with population growth outstripping that of France. Why? Because immigration post-Brexit will continue to climb. Migrants will account for almost half the overall population increase in the 2020s, and the non-white population will almost double.

All this looming disappointment spells trouble for the Tories. The Brexit vote was a treatment for a party divided over Europe (“The EU was ‘beginning to poison British politics,’ David Cameron said in December, adding, tellingly, ‘It was certainly poisoning politics in my own party.’”)

After a close and advisory referendum, going through with Brexit was not a necessity for the country, but for the survival of the Conservative Party. That is, however, enough to mean that it’s unlikely to be stopped. But now more thoughtful Tory MPs whisper that Brexit is not a cure for what ails Britain, but rather a symptom: the party must find a way to protect itself from what is to come.

The drive to manage expectations has already started. Even as May prepared to trigger Article 50, the Chancellor Philip Hammond was telling reporters, contra Boris Johnson, that Britain cannot after all have its cake and eat it. There is now talk of No 10 preparing a shiny “alternative offer” by the next election—an alternative, that is, to distract voters from the Brexit fallout.

Having sold the public a wealthier country with hard borders, it will be tricky to persuade them what they really wanted was a poorer one with more immigration. But this is May’s next task.