Have Brexit ultras forgotten? We tried their approach, it just didn’t work

Hardline Leavers are wrong to claim their ideas were not properly tested

September 19, 2018
From left: Marcus Fysh, Owen Paterson, Theresa Villiers and David Davis, who want a hard Brexit. Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire/PA Images
From left: Marcus Fysh, Owen Paterson, Theresa Villiers and David Davis, who want a hard Brexit. Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire/PA Images

Ever since the Chequers proposal was put forward, the Brexit ultras, including Jacob Rees-Mogg, Andrew Bridgen and Andrea Jenkyns, have been adamant that it represents a “betrayal” of the hard Brexit they advocate.

The trouble with that analysis is that the proposal arises not from some Machiavellian sell-out of hard Brexit but from the fact that the hard Brexit approach was tried and it fell at the first encounter with reality. As Bismarck observed, “politics is the art of the possible, of the attainable.” But that truism appears to have few adherents amongst the Brexiters.

For a while, from at least May’s Lancaster House speech, if not her 2016 conference speech, they were well-satisfied with what the government planned: no single market, no form of customs union, no ECJ, and the promise that “no deal is better than a bad deal.” But, in the months since Article 50 was invoked, that has unravelled and the government’s plan, for now at least, is the soggy no man’s land of Chequers.

That slow march from Lancaster House reflects the gradual realisation of the impossibility of hard Brexit. May’s sin is not one of betrayal but of having too readily and recklessly embraced what could not be attained—or at least not without doing a level of damage to the country that no responsible government, and certainly no government that could expect re-election, could entertain.

Thus what May found was that the promises of the hard Brexiters crumbled when she tried to put them into practice. They had promised the electorate that “within minutes of a vote to leave” the bosses of German industry would be on the phone to Angela Merkel, who would insist on a “have cake and eat it” deal. The calls never came. They were never going to.

“May’s sin is not one of betrayal but of having recklessly embraced what could not be attained”
Then, Article 50 was triggered and the hard Brexit plans began to be put to their first serious test, and began to flunk it. An early indication came when “the row of the summer” over the sequencing of the process ended on the first day of the negotiations. Then, all the huffing and puffing about how the EU could “go whistle” for the financial settlement came to nothing. It became undeniable when the implications of what no single market and no form of customs union meant for the Irish border emerged.

Whilst the ultras still continue to wish it away, this reality had to be recognised in the terms of the phase 1 deal last December. Boris Johnson may now repudiate what was agreed but when he was a member of the government he, too, was forced to accept it. It is only because he is now out of government that he can pretend that politics is not the art of the possible.

Similarly, May’s attempt at hard Brexit ran up against the practicalities of what it would mean for international trade and, especially, for the complexities of cross-border just-in-time supply chains. It is common knowledge that May’s partial softening of Brexit was partly the result of intense lobbying by the industries most affected by this. Had she stuck to the line the ultras continue to urge, she would have destroyed or severely damaged those industries. No “Canada style” free trade agreement, let alone “WTO terms,” could have prevented that damage, and with it the consequences for jobs and taxes.

Again, the ultras continue to deny this—routinely dismissing the warnings of industry bosses, unions, and experts as Project Fear. Instead, they propound distorted or simply false claims about how businesses and international trade rules actually operate. And, again, that’s possible and indeed easy when you’re not forced to engage with the practicalities.

The same pattern emerged with respect to the hard Brexit red line on ECJ jurisdiction. Having adopted it early on, May gradually realised that it had huge and unwelcome implications for continued UK participation in all sorts of EU agencies including those related to security. Thus, from her Munich speech onwards, she has gradually softened it. That is a pragmatism that eludes those who do not have to face realities and can instead fulminate about being “punished” by being excluded from the very institution that they want to leave.

May’s government is only slowly moving to a somewhat more pragmatic position—for example, the Chequers Proposal is extraordinary in envisaging that a services-based economy should willingly embrace poorer terms of trade in its biggest and nearest market. But that movement has arisen precisely because hard Brexit has proved politically and economically impossible. It is the ultras’ luxury, dangerously and irresponsibly exercised, to be free to continue to urge it. The comfort zone of the “betrayal” narrative enables them to avoid the uncomfortable fact that their approach to Brexit was tried—and it failed.