History will be kinder to May's Brexit deal when Johnson's version is done

Asking what would have happened had MPs swallowed the “backstop” takes you into a labyrinth of counterfactuals—but most roads lead to regret

September 18, 2020
Photo:  Zhang Cheng/Xinhua News Agency/PA Images
Photo: Zhang Cheng/Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

It is hard to pinpoint a precise moment when the pro-European cause in Britain was lost. Even after the referendum it was not a foregone conclusion that the result would be implemented in terms dictated by the most hardline anti-Brussels faction. There were plenty of junctions along the road from 2016 to the present predicament. But moderate Eurosceptics and ardent Remainers could not agree on an alternative destination.

Last summer, a pro-European cabinet minister in Theresa May's government described the problem memorably in terms of a mountaineering expedition. Parliamentary supporters of a second referendum had not initially expected to get anywhere near as far as they had. They were surprised by their own success. And now, just beyond the clouds, they could see the summit. They thought it was near enough to reach. But they did not have the political oxygen for the last bit of the climb. Their dreams would expire and they would end up with the hardest of all Brexits, he said. They should have taken May's deal.

The reasons why that version of Brexit failed are too many to all be listed here. Each of the 432 MPs who opposed it in January 2019 had their own combination of motives. Some changed their minds in the following months, but May’s deal never got to a majority. How many of them now wish they had chosen differently? Some say they do in private. Few have been as candid as Gloria de Piero, former Labour MP for Ashfield, who earlier this month tweeted: “I hold my hands up. I was an idiot for not voting for May’s deal.”

Would Britain be in better shape today if parliament had taken that first exit on the Brexit roundabout? The question leads into a labyrinth of counterfactuals. The hardliners would never have been satisfied. The implacable Ukip tendency would have cried betrayal ever louder, disrupting politics and savaging Tory unity as they had done for the preceding decade. And May would still not have had a majority in the Commons. So perhaps more chaos would have been unleashed.

But rage among Leave voters would have been diminished by the prospect of Brexit actually being done. There would no longer have been such visceral potency to the claim that the 52 per cent were being overruled by arrogant Westminster Remainers. The Faragist ultras would still bang on about vassalage to Brussels and the tyranny of the common external tariff lurking in the “backstop.” But that was never their most resonant argument. The rallying cry that really mobilised masses of the electorate was the perceived denial of democracy, not deregulation or fish quotas.

The Remain side had a response to that, amounting in essence to the plea for a second opinion, based on facts not myths. But they needed a tidal change in minds for that to catch on as an argument. Millions of people supported the idea of a “people's vote,” but not enough of them were repentant Leavers. Was there a way to win a second referendum for Remain? That is another whole network of twisting byways in the counterfactual maze. Even many passionate advocates of the idea worried in private that the whole thing looked too much like an ancien regime agitating for the restoration of lost privilege.

In the parallel universe where May's deal becomes the basis for a new UK-EU relationship, the government achieves two important goals. It fulfils the instruction on the 2016 referendum ballot paper and does so in a way that allows for much greater control of Britain's border regime.

Anti-immigration sentiment was one of the biggest engines driving the Leave vote (although a certain type of pseudo-liberal Brexiteer still tries to deny the xenophobic core to their campaign victories). Once the bar for political acceptability of a deal was set at ending free movement, membership of the single market was ruled out. Most “soft Brexit” models fell off the table.

Working within that constraint, May clawed back a quite remarkable level of access to EU markets. One of the abiding ironies of the whole process is that the notorious backstop that Tory backbenchers despised as a trap set by Brussels was, in fact, the result of a concession by the European Commission to Britain. Michel Barnier had not originally liked the idea, suspecting that it represented a devious way for the UK to retain open-ended trading privileges without a definitive enough set of equivalent obligations. But, taken alongside the “political declaration,” it locked the two sides onto a trajectory of regulatory alignment, so the deal was done.

In the negotiating jargon of the time, that was the “all-UK backstop” and it was May's biggest victory. The alternative had been a “Northern Ireland-only backstop,” which she rejected as a constitutional monstrosity that no self-respecting British prime minister could possibly accept. A year later, Boris Johnson signed up to it. The brilliant new deal he boasted of last year was, in reality, a cut-and-paste reworking of something fished from May's waste paper bin.

The underlying problem with Brexit is that there was never a way to express the rhetorical claims of the referendum campaign in a legal treaty that also preserves sensible foundations for the UK's trade and diplomatic relations with Europe. That is why the “soft” Brexit concept failed. It always ended up admitting economic and political reality into the model somewhere. Once the goal was set as maximising the national interest in terms of access, influence and strategic parity with the European project, the logic led inevitably towards Remain. Yet anything other than the deal we had as full members was too obviously a downgrade.

And when that logical pathway was shut down, the force of argument had unending momentum in the opposite direction, away from the European project; the further the better. But that was always a delusion. As Johnson is now discovering, bingeing on sovereignty bloats the nationalist ego, but it doesn't actually make the UK more powerful or influential in the world. On the contrary, it leads to diplomatic isolation. In trade talks, the lone sovereign nation ends up taking dictation from continental blocs. The freedom that Johnson's Brexit model buys is illusory.

There was no cost-free way to leave the EU. The hardline Brexiteers never forgave May for recognising that reality. Her deal failed because it refused to follow the strategic logic of a moderate position all the way back towards Europe, while lacking the sugar rush of pure Euroscepticism. It wasn't nutritious enough for Remainers, nor was it comfort food for Leavers.

Johnson still has not conceded that the more severe the rupture in European relations, the higher the subsequent bill for repair. May recognised that calculus and tried to find a middle way. She never discovered a formula by which Britain could have its cake and eat it, but of the various models for exiting the EU that were actually available, hers was the one that offered the biggest portion of control taken back at the lowest price. It was a Brexit bargain compared to the ruinous bill Britain now faces.