© Prospect

Who killed soft Brexit?

The mysterious story of how a split-down-the-middle nation killed off the chance to be half-in and half-out of Europe
November 9, 2020

Remember the referendum campaign? When we were told that leaving the European Union meant leaving its formal structures while maintaining a special trading relationship? When even Nigel Farage envisaged Brexit to mean a long period of continued membership of the single market? Or the months afterwards when ministers told us that the “easiest deal in human history” would mean the “exact same benefits” of frictionless trade as now, since we could “have our cake and eat it?”

Those days are long gone. After four years of unprecedented turbulence, marked by wrangling over everything from pet passports to fish, after two general elections and two changes of prime minister, the reality of Brexit is about to hit home when the transition finishes at the end of the year. And deal or no deal this autumn, the impact will be significant. We are facing what, by any measure, is a very hard Brexit.

There are no more wonky flowcharts mapping the course to Turkish, Swiss or Norwegian Brexit outcomes, different forms of special relationship with the EU that might have softened the exit. Those many shades of soft Brexit are anathema to the Johnson government, which puts autonomy and sovereignty first. The only argument now is between “Canada,” which has a trade deal with Europe but is in no way aligned with it, and what is (misleadingly) termed “Australia,” which doesn’t.

A deal would certainly be less damaging than no deal, a phrase whose implications we may have grown numb to because it was so ubiquitous during last year’s wrangling over the “divorce terms.” But even now, with a withdrawal agreement in place, the lack of a deal on the future relationship would imply crippling tariffs on agricultural and automotive exports, and also cast a long-term shadow over relations between London and its former European partners, making other forms of cooperation, not least on security or the battle against climate change, much harder. Yet if the deal now under negotiation is finally struck, the outcome would still be damaging to many sectors of the economy. A “Canada” tariff- and quota-free deal for goods will offer next to nothing for services (which constitute fully 80 per cent of the UK economy), while lumbering manufacturers with the prospect of significantly increased paperwork and delays, and hence costs.

Whatever deal does or doesn’t emerge in the coming weeks, whatever your view regarding the best form of Brexit, it is striking how the idea of a “soft Brexit”—of aligning the economy with Europe, maintaining trade and attempting to limit the dislocation—has, despite being the assumed destination in 2016, bitten the dust.

So how did soft Brexit die? And whodunnit?

Suspect one: the will of the people

Since the whole Brexit business was set in train by a majority public vote, it’s natural to start our inquiries by asking whether it was the people of Britain as a whole who killed off the idea of alignment.

But a split-down-the-middle referendum result was not an obvious collective demand for the sort of hard Brexit that looms. Moreover, the evolution of attitudes since 2016—on which Peter Kellner gives chapter and verse on p26—points, if anything, towards a gradual loss of faith. The sense that the public is not getting the Brexit it wanted is reinforced if we look at the “median voter,” the man or woman whose floating vote commands special attention because it swings elections. Just over a year ago, when feelings on Brexit were particularly polarised, the political scientist Will Jennings set out to find this elusive person. While acknowledging that a defining feature of the debate had been the absence of a clear majority for any single outcome, Jennings concluded that he or she would most likely support a soft Brexit. Leading pollster John Curtice, in new research soon to be published at whatukthinks.org, similarly finds that most people would trade some sovereignty over the promised end of free movement for economic advantages in terms of maintaining free trade. What emerged from a citizens’ assembly convened in September 2017 was a preference for a bespoke trade deal with a customs union, alongside the continuation of (more or less) free movement of people, subject to the kind of emergency brake that David Cameron negotiated.

The public, in other words, looks like one suspect that we can acquit. Far from killing soft Brexit, they seem on balance to favour a far softer Brexit than the government is pursuing. Yet, we have arrived at an outcome that reflects the views of a minority of the 2016 Conservative Party. After years of parliamentary stalemate and the related polarisation of opinion in the country at large, the European Research Group (ERG) of dedicated Brexiteers was, by last summer, able to precipitate the replacement of Theresa May by Boris Johnson and his government of Vote Leavers. Although Johnson had, in his own words, originally veered “all over the place like a shopping trolley” about whether to side with Leave or Remain, in office he has ruled as a fellow traveller of the long-term eurosceptics, the Bill Cashes and the Iain Duncan Smiths, who—if results are what count—have played a blinder and achieved the sort of Brexit they wanted, for Great Britain if not Northern Ireland.

The ERG’s hand in plunging the knife into the softer form of Brexit is not disguised: its members are hardly “suspects,” since they proudly confess. What is equally clear, however, is that they could not have killed the idea on their own: the ERG never numbered many more than around 80 MPs, only around a quarter of all Tory MPs until last year, and only around an eighth of all MPs in that parliament. But there is a long list of unwitting accomplices.

Suspect two: Theresa May

The most obvious culprit is former prime minister Theresa May, the only Remainer with any profile to fight the post-Cameron leadership battle, who won it by default after the last Leaver standing, Andrea Leadsom, imploded in a disastrous interview and withdrew. Absent a full leadership campaign, her skills of persuasion were never put to the test (they might have given the party pause in that contest—and given May pause before her general election dash). More significantly, she also avoided being forced to define, defend and win party backing for her vision of Brexit. Instead, she could simply take refuge in clichés.

Having campaigned for Remain, Theresa May felt pressure from Brexit hardliners keenly© NIKLAS HALLE'N/AFP via Getty Images Having campaigned for Remain, Theresa May felt pressure from Brexit hardliners keenly© NIKLAS HALLE'N/AFP via Getty Images

Having campaigned for Remain, Theresa May felt pressure from Brexit hardliners keenly© NIKLAS HALLE'N/AFP via Getty Images

That got her safely into No 10, but devoid of any Brexit mandate from her party, in which anti-European forces were surging in strength and confidence. May felt the need to placate them from the start. Her initial forays were those of an overcompensating Remainer. Her first act was to set up the Department for International Trade, which institutionalised Britain’s intention to strike its own deals around the world, and thus signalled a departure from the EU customs union—though it’s not clear she realised this was what she was doing. Then, in her first leader’s conference speech that autumn, she laid down her red lines of ending free movement and the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, which made staying in the single market impossible. Instead of playing for time she committed to triggering the EU’s Article 50 process—which set a two-year clock ticking against Britain—by the end of March 2017. It was a pledge that came back to bite her as she embarked on negotiations without a clear plan. In January, in a set-piece at Lancaster House, she finally moved beyond her “Brexit means Brexit” tautology by pleading for a “bespoke deal.” Yet even as she pleaded, May let the “no deal is better than a bad deal” genie out of the bottle.

May was never prepared to force either the cabinet or the country to confront the trade-offs inherent in Brexit. Rather, aided by her civil servants, she preferred to try to draft her way out of the dilemma. Most damning of all, even after calling the election that squandered her majority and with it any possibility of being able to simply whip a deal through, she wanted the Conservative Party to own Brexit. In a hung parliament, in which both big parties were riven on the issue, she made no serious attempt to reach out beyond her benches until it was too late—even, it should be said, when trying to sell a Brexit that was much closer to the preferred outcome of those in other parties than her own troops. May’s party, and its extreme Brexit wing in particular, soon made a hostage of her, making it impossible for her to bridge the divide in the country.

Suspect three: the opposition

What, then, about those parties which May shunned, starting with Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition? After its shock outright defeat in 2015, Labour had supported holding the referendum, and campaigned on the basis that it was solemn and binding. Indeed, most of the parliamentary party went on to vote to trigger Article 50. Labour then fought the June 2017 election on a promise to preserve “the benefits of the single market and the customs union” via a close relationship with the EU. The May deal, prefigured in the cabinet’s “Chequers agreement” the following summer and then—despite the resignations of Johnson and David Davis—successfully brokered with Europe by the end of 2018, pretty well fulfilled Labour’s claimed objectives, with tariff-free access to the EU and the potential for broader alignment that made for an effective single market in goods. In retrospect, that deal achieved much that seemed out of reach, squaring UK demands, particularly over control of its borders, with a means to ensure relatively close trading relations.

But Jeremy Corbyn was never going to support a withdrawal agreement negotiated by a Conservative prime minister, despite having few if any substantive objections to it. Instead, he formed an unholy alliance with Tory hardliners who obsessed about the “backstop,” which committed the UK as a whole to follow EU customs rules (that is to say a softer Brexit), so as to prevent the need for a border on the island of Ireland.

The day after the EU referendum Jeremy Corbyn said Britain must get on and leave, but still imagined a close partnership deal © Rob Stothard/Getty Images The day after the EU referendum Jeremy Corbyn said Britain must get on and leave, but still imagined a close partnership deal © Rob Stothard/Getty Images

The day after the EU referendum Jeremy Corbyn said Britain must get on and leave, but still imagined a close partnership deal © Rob Stothard/Getty Images

One might still have thought that the several dozen Labour MPs who had campaigned for Remain but now accepted the need to leave as a democratic necessity would have been the natural standard bearers for a soft Brexit. Especially considering many of them hailed from heavily Leave-voting seats—like Lisa Nandy in Wigan and her now-former colleague Gareth Snell in Stoke-on-Trent Central. They talked about compromise, but failed to deliver on it until the Brexit they wanted was lying dead on the floor—at which point they voted to accept Johnson’s exit deal. Back when it mattered the previous spring, they proved to be good opposition MPs first and soft Brexiteers only second. After Corbyn’s unholy alliance landed May’s government with the greatest Commons defeat in history in January 2019, no Labour MP wanted to be seen to hand the Prime Minister a lifeline. Barring Caroline Flint and four others who did eventually back the May deal, the proclaimed intention to “respect the result” succumbed to the impulse to damage the government.

And Labour was of course divided. While some at least talked about compromise, others hoped stalemate would reopen the door for Remain. The People’s Vote campaign was able, by March 2019, to organise a huge protest through central London as well as a petition signed by six million people—displaying a passion for EU membership never before seen in Britain. The hope of many who took to the streets was that this could be converted into a mandate to end the Brexit process. Yet to achieve this, it was as important for the People’s Vote crowd as it was for the ERG Brexit ultras to kill off the idea of a soft Brexit. Unreconciled Labour Remainers like David Lammy and Ben Bradshaw (together with Conservatives like Dominic Grieve, and also the Liberal Democrats) played their part in ensuring that, when parliament held “indicative votes” to test which options might carry support, various soft Brexit compromises went down to defeat. Sadly for them, so too did the proposal for another referendum. All British politicians could agree on, it seemed, was to agree on nothing. Ultimately Keir Starmer, then Labour’s Brexit spokesman, used the paralysis to wear Corbyn down until he accepted a People’s Vote as the Labour platform—hoping that the cul-de-sac would turn into an exit route from Brexit. It was a high-stakes, winner-takes-all gamble—and they lost, with a softer Brexit being the collateral damage.

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Suspect four: the smaller parties

Of course, the Lib Dems were the original party of the People’s Vote. They were a deeply diminished force after the end of the coalition in 2015, but nonetheless played a critical role in shaping the course of Brexit. In spring 2019, with the May government rudderless and the European question stuck, Vince Cable notched up the party’s best performance in years, taking a fifth of the vote and second place in the UK’s final European elections, with a manifesto initially emblazoned with “Bollocks to Brexit” on the cover. His successor, Jo Swinson, was still floating on that euphoria, and failed to clock the change of mood among the once hopelessly divided Brexiteers that accompanied Johnson’s displacement of May in No 10. Despite Corbyn’s embrace of the referendum, she was convinced there was no majority for any sort of unity government under him, and in any event was personally averse to the thought. Swinson moved instead to differentiate the Lib Dems as the party of committed Remainers, by shifting to a policy of simply “Revoking” Brexit without a referendum. She optimistically imagined an election as the last chance to stop Brexit on No 10’s terms, and so backed the Prime Minister’s request for a dissolution of parliament, tumbling into No 10’s trap on Johnson’s timetable and on his terms. She was aided and abetted by the Scottish National Party which, with Alex Salmond’s trial looming, had its own reasons for favouring an early poll, but did at least—unlike the Lib Dems—win extra seats in the election which would finally bury not only Remain but also any prospect of a soft Brexit.

Then there are Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionists. Arlene Foster was right when she told May that the face-saving formula for Northern Ireland agreed in the December 2017 Joint Report—a stock take which allowed the EU to judge there had been “sufficient progress” to advance the talks—was a heap of incoherent fudge. No drafting could cover up the logical absurdity of the claim that the UK could at one and the same time be completely outside of the single market and customs union, and yet also avoid any meaningful frontier with them, with both checks between Great Britain and Northern Ireland and a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic supposedly ruled out.

In fact, concerns about Northern Ireland increasingly dictated May’s approach—Chequers was a fragile construction designed to deliver enough Brexit for the Conservatives, while maintaining the union and avoiding that hard Irish border. But bend as she might, it was never quite enough for the party that likes to say no. Foster denounced the agreement as a betrayal of Brexit, but the DUP could never explain how it thought Brexit—which it had backed in 2016—should work in Northern Ireland. Members of the May team believe they came within inches of persuading the DUP to getting on board in the third and final vote on her deal. This might, in turn, have offered the cover for wavering Tory hold outs and “respect the result” Labour MPs to push it over the line. Instead, the DUP refused to cooperate, and ended up with a Brexit that, remarkably, is equally disliked by all of Northern Ireland’s squabbling factions, one that implies the need for a border between the province and Great Britain and brings a united Ireland closer than ever before.

Suspect five: inadequate institutions

It is not just people or even parties that are in the dock, but the very institutions of the British polity.

Under the superintendence of Speaker John Bercow, parliament proved amenable to a number of creative, and on occasion precedent-defying, measures to make the government’s life difficult. It had its moments. It forced the Attorney General to go public with his advice that there was no “unilateral exit mechanism” in the May deal, or in plainer parlance, that a supposedly sovereign Britain could be locked into the backstop permanently. And it again prevailed upon him to give an uncomfortable statement admitting the government had failed to change this position. But while strong enough to embarrass the government and sink its plans, parliament proved unequal to the task of finding a way forward. Having embraced the novelty of indicative votes, MPs then failed to follow through by adopting procedures such as run-offs that might have produced a positive outcome. Ingenious tactics, to enable the Commons to seize control of the parliamentary timetable and potentially the UK negotiating position from the government, were devised to avoid a no-deal divorce—which the Prime Minister was wont to threaten, but keen to avoid. But by removing the PM’s nuclear threat (the Fixed-term Parliaments Act already having removed the threat of defeat leading to an inevitable election) the effect was, ironically, to make it harder to corral MPs behind any compromise.

“Barnier got stuck on his ‘staircase,’ not grasping that pleas for a ‘bespoke relationship’ were an offer, not a threat”

The civil service only seemed to wake up to what Brexit really meant when confronted with the massive task of unravelling a 45-year relationship. Its complicity in helping the Cameron government campaign for Remain proved ill-judged. Pre-referendum, the Treasury published its analysis of the probable short-term impact of a vote to Leave. On the day of publication, the front page of its website declared that such a vote would “tip Britain’s economy into a year-long recession,” with at least 500,000 jobs lost and GDP around 3.6 per cent lower than it would otherwise have been. This misrepresented the underlying analysis, and was also an inappropriately partisan use of official resources in the context of the campaign. The damage wrought by these claims persisted long after the referendum itself, fuelling later disdain on the part of many Brexiteers for experts in general, and also suggestions that “Remainer” civil servants were manoeuvring a divided government toward a softer Brexit. But the civil service has no independent mind—it serves the government of the day. More at fault is a lax constitution that allows a nonchalant prime minister casually to embark on a referendum with profound implications for the way we are governed with inadequate preparation, and a breezy presumption that he’ll win because he always does.

The press, by contrast, is supposed to think for itself. But it used its voice successively to promote Brexit, to rubbish May’s attempts to find a compromise, and then to laud the Johnson divorce deal, which the Prime Minister himself now finds so irredeemably flawed that it could justify the government breaking the law. The root problem is the decades-old conspiracy between the press and successive governments (of both parties) to present Britain’s embroilment with Brussels as a constant battle of plucky Brits gamely fighting back against a European monster.

Suspect six: a defensive EU

Of course, soft Brexit was not in the sole gift of the UK state to deliver. After its initial surprise that the referendum was not followed by a phone call from London seeking help in reversing the vote, the EU dug in, preferring short-term unity and protection of the single market to strategic thinking about how to build a long-term relationship with an important trade and security partner on its doorstep. Michel Barnier got stuck on his “staircase” diagram, which rigidly portrayed the options as Britain “stepping up” towards Norwegian integration or down towards Canadian isolation, but failed to realise that Brexity Brits would incline more naturally to Canada than Norway—and that maybe May’s desire for a “bespoke relationship” and repeated pleas for creativity should thus be seen as an offer, not a threat.

That of course would have required a different, more grown up, approach from both sides: a prime minister who saw her task as reuniting her country as opposed to merely her party, and one willing to confront it honestly with the consequences of its choice; and the EU to recognise the potency of some of the concerns that drove the vote—concerns that are not uniquely British. A less defensive EU approach, motivated less by fear of other members emulating the UK (never a serious threat), could have opened the way to joint exploration of middle-ground possibilities, rather than a confrontational grudge match. As it was, brittle personalities and narrow preoccupations on both sides made that dialogue impossible.

The verdict

Reviewing the powerful case against so many suspects, the courtroom may have reason to be thankful for “joint enterprise” laws which allow for a host of them to be convicted for the death of soft Brexit at once. Whodunnit? They all done it. In that sense, this is Murder on the Orient Express. But the Mysterious Affair of Soft Brexit contains one additional twist: the need to consider a verdict of death by natural causes.

For all the various culprits that conspired to kill it off, it may be that soft Brexit always carried within it the seeds of its own destruction. At least some of those around the top table feared that it was in fact not the obvious compromise, but instead the “worst of all worlds,” where you are locked out of the room but still locked into most of the rules. Soft Brexit was something, in other words, that all sides could agree to disagree with. Perhaps it is a just-about-sustainable balance for a Norway or a Switzerland that has few illusions about itself as anything but a bit-player. But it could never have provided a stable landing zone for a still-significant international player with a grand past and a large economy—and especially not one that had voted to take back control of its borders, money and laws. More particularly, could a political mindset that prizes adversarialism over collaboration ever buy the inherently unsatisfactory compromise of a soft Brexit? May herself said she thought that the UK could never, in the long run, accept being a rule taker, even though she eventually proposed just that. She might have been right the first time.

London calling—Boris Johnson's engagement with European leaders is remote in more than one sense© Xinhua/Shutterstock London calling—Boris Johnson's engagement with European leaders is remote in more than one sense© Xinhua/Shutterstock

London calling—Boris Johnson's engagement with European leaders is remote in more than one sense© Xinhua/Shutterstock

Herein, perhaps, lies the real explanation of our mystery. The Johnson government is now offering the Brexit of the ERG’s dreams to an electorate that increasingly fears the whole thing is a mistake: we are in for a very British way of resolving the dilemma, where we get what we appeared to ask for, but end up quite dissatisfied with it.

Brexit, however, is not a slightly misjudged Christmas present that can be quietly returned or exchanged when it turns out not to fit properly or live up to the picture on the box. The UK will long live with the consequences not just of the choice that the people made in June 2016, but the many choices our political leaders have made over the subsequent 54 months. At a time when national prosperity is already subject to the hurricane of the pandemic, hard Brexit will change our economy—and the way we live. Some changes will be what at least some of us wanted; very few people will ever have realised they signed up for some of the others.

And it would be foolhardy to think that Brexit will finally be “done,” even on 1st January. The EU will still loom large in our dealings. We will have to keep a wary eye on what is going on there, and at some point, the option of a closer relationship may rise from the dead. Meanwhile, the fallout from Brexit will continue—on the island of Ireland, where it re-orientates the old North-South economic dynamic towards an East-West divide down the sea with Britain, and where the political logic may follow. In Scotland, Brexit and Covid-19 are combining to make it pertinent to ask, as Philip Rycroft does here, whether independence is inevitable.

The survival of the United Kingdom itself, then, could soon be at stake, to say nothing of many political careers. After the death of soft Brexit, it may not be long before the body count rises again.