How the “hard Brexit” goalposts shifted

The phrase has come to denote a “no deal” outcome, reflecting the fact that Brexit ultras are unappeasable

September 05, 2018
Arch-Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg. Jonathan Brady/PA Wire/PA Images
Arch-Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg. Jonathan Brady/PA Wire/PA Images

During the referendum, a more or less standard language emerged to describe Brexit: it could be either “soft” or “hard.” The core of soft Brexit was remaining in the single market, generally referred to as the Norway model. The core of hard Brexit was leaving the single market and seeking a Free Trade Agreement with the European Union, generally denoted as the Canada model. A few people were already talking about a WTO Brexit, and geeks identified scores of other models and varieties. Still, for most of us it was soft or hard, although during the campaign the differences were often obscured by ambiguous references to “single market access.”

In the months which followed the result, as Theresa May deployed the widely mocked “Brexit means Brexit” slogan, an intense political battle took place within the Tory Party and the government over what Brexit should actually mean. Many expected that soft Brexit would emerge as a pragmatic, fairly consensual, way of delivering on the vote without poleaxing the economy.

Instead, the outcome, formally announced in the January 2017 Lancaster House speech, was hard Brexit (albeit that the trade arrangement envisaged went well beyond the Canada model). Moreover, the ECJ red line precluded not just membership of the single market but of multiple EU agencies, few of which had even been mentioned in the campaign. Continued participation in all of these would need to be agreed.

Since then, however, a very significant and insidious shift has occurred. As talk of a WTO or “no deal” Brexit has gained momentum, it has been re-badged as hard Brexit. In the process, the government’s stance has therefore been re-positioned as soft Brexit despite the fact that—even with the softer approach of the Chequers Proposal as compared with the Lancaster House speech—it entails leaving the single market.

This shift reflects the fact that the most hardcore Brexiters are—as successive Tory leaders have found—unappeasable. In the past, many of them explicitly wanted only soft Brexit. But once that was in prospect they insisted on hard Brexit. As soon as that was offered they demanded a WTO, no deal Brexit. Thus they have persistently dragged the terms of debate in an ever more extreme direction, so that it is now not just these ultras but mainstream commentators who routinely talk of no deal Brexit as hard Brexit and the government position as soft Brexit.

The significance of this goes well beyond the changing meaning of labels. Rather, it has achieved two things.

First, it has delegitimised soft Brexit. When “no deal” became “hard,” and “hard” became “soft,” “soft” became configured as not being Brexit at all. Yet it is undeniable that some, probably many, Leave voters thought that Brexit meant, precisely, the soft Brexit or Norway model. It is certainly the case that some Leavers campaigned for that. And it is certainly not the case that leaving the single market was an automatic consequence of the vote: if it were, there would not have been the seven month hiatus between the referendum and the Lancaster House speech.

The second achievement, by contrast, is to have legitimised no deal Brexit by bringing it into the ambit of the familiar language of soft and hard (or, even, “real” or “clean”) Brexit. Yet what no deal involves—not just for trade but for all the other agencies and agreements—is completely different to anything that was remotely suggested during the referendum.

On the contrary, it was a persistent and central claim not just that there would be a deal, but that there would be a good, quick, and easy deal. This was the repeated promise: such a deal was assured because the UK is the fifth largest economy, has a trade deficit with the EU27, is needed by German car makers and so on. A deal would be done in days, if not—as some said—minutes. It was even claimed that a deal would be done before Article 50 was triggered, ensuring no disruption. Thus a no deal Brexit has no democratic legitimacy at all.

The sledgehammer mantra of the Brexiters is that it’s “the will of the people.” To sustain that in support of no deal Brexit requires suppressing the fact that many voted for a soft Brexit and that virtually no one voted for no deal Brexit. That is achieved when soft Brexit is rendered as not Brexit and no deal Brexit is domesticated as hard Brexit.

Words and controlling the terms of debate are central to politics, and this sleight of hand transformation of the terms of the Brexit debate matters. Better to call no deal Brexit what it is. There are various alternatives but kamikaze, catastrophic or crazy Brexit all have a good claim to accuracy.