Protestors against Brexit—but could it be stopped? Photo: PA

Now is the time to fight against a destructive Brexit

Even as negotiations begin, Brexit could still be mitigated—or even stopped completely
June 19, 2017

The hung parliament has created much uncertainty. But for those of us who want to stop a destructive Brexit, there are more reasons for hope than fear. To start off with, the chance of crashing out of the EU with no deal has dropped sharply. Theresa May, or whoever replaces her, cannot now seriously repeat her “no deal is better than a bad deal” threat. The votes in parliament to carry out the threat aren’t there. Our European partners would think we were joking if we repeated it. This is good news because quitting without a deal would be the most chaotic form of Brexit, triggering instant tariffs on British goods, and probably causing a recession, while leading to the hardest of borders in Northern Ireland, and ripping up all our other agreements with our European partners including on fighting terrorism.

There is also now a slender chance of reversing Brexit completely. It’s hard to see how this could happen. But with politics suddenly mercurial, with new elections now entirely possible before we leave the EU, and with storm clouds gathering over the economy, everything’s up in the air.

Another reason for hope is that neither the Commons nor the Lords will any longer rubber stamp whatever emerges from Downing Street. And even before No 10’s plan is exposed to the light of day, it will now have to take account of the views of lots of people: pro-European ministers such as the newly-promoted Damian Green, now the “first secretary of state”; Ruth Davidson and her band of pro-European Scottish Tory MPs; and, backbench Tory pro-Europeans such as Nicky Morgan. The government will also have to listen to business, but won’t have to pay so much attention to the screaming hard-Brexit headlines of the Daily Mail. And it will have to navigate the predominantly pro-European House of Lords. If peers amend legislation—such as the ludicrously entitled “Great Repeal Bill,” which would give ministers sweeping powers to take EU regulations into UK law, and then repeal them—the government will struggle to overturn these amendments in the Commons.

May will also have to take account of the opposition, as her predecessor David Cameron has suggested, even if ideas for a formal cross-party commission on Brexit come to nothing. So Labour, the SNP and the small group of Lib Dem MPs will have a role. Select committees will be influential, and there will now almost certainly be a “meaningful” parliamentary vote to ratify the final deal—meaningful in the sense that if the vote goes against the government, the prime minister would be packed off back to Brussels to haggle for a better exit deal. Opposition MPs can come up with their own proposals too. Why not, for example, put forward a motion demanding unilateral guarantees for the rights of the three million citizens living here? There are enough Tory MPs—and even ministers—who agree with the idea that it might well pass.

The biggest question is what all this will mean for our economic relations with Europe. Will May’s pre-election plans to pull us out of the EU’s single market and its customs union survive? The customs union part of her plan looks decidedly wobbly. Not only is Philip Hammond lobbying against it; the Democratic Unionists, on whom the Tories must now rely, are determined to avoid creating a hard border across the Irish economy. That will be impossible if customs officers have to stop and inspect goods crossing into the Republic to calculate and collect tariffs. Whereas staying in the customs union would mean there would be no problem at the border of Northern Ireland.

Sticking in the Customs Union would also mean no need for such posts in Dover and Calais. So there would be little disruption in the trade of manufactured goods and agricultural produce between the UK and the EU. We’d also inherit the EU’s trade deals with 50 other countries around the world—and probably be able to piggyback on any new deals it did, including with Donald Trump’s America. We really would go back to the front of the queue. We would, of course, lose our freedom to cut our own trade deals. That would put Liam Fox, the international trade minister, out of a job. But some may think that’s no bad thing. It will be much trickier to reverse May’s single market policy. Business doesn’t want to quit, nor do the SNP, the Lib Dems, a few Tory backbenchers and some Labour MPs—not least because the single market is vital for our world-beating services industries. The snag is that remaining in the single market would involve crossing all of May’s red lines—notably free movement of people and jurisdiction of the EU’s courts.

Pro-Europeans shouldn’t expect immediate help from the Labour leadership on this score. Jeremy Corbyn’s manifesto committed the party to ending free movement. Many MPs in the Midlands and the north, in seats were Ukip were previously strong, are probably relieved that he did. But politics is more fluid than it has been for years, and if the economy shows more signs of Brexit weakness, the pro-European soul of the Labour party could reassert itself.

So there’s everything to fight for. Pro-Europeans should start by arguing that quitting the single market will damage the Tories’ very own “magic money tree.” Without untrammelled access to a market that accounts for half of our trade, we’ll lack the resources to pay for our NHS and schools. If Brexiters cry “project fear,” we should point out that the economy is already suffering. We grew only 0.2 per cent in the first quarter of this year (the lowest rate in the Group of Seven), inflation is at 2.9 per cent and, according to the latest data from Visa, consumer spending is now falling.

Finally, we should explode May’s fiction that we can negotiate both our divorce and a new trade deal with Europe in the 21 months we have left under the Article 50 process. We will need an interim agreement if we are not to fall off a cliff in March 2019. Even if the government can’t be persuaded openly to countenance staying in the single market forever, surely it could agree we should stay in it for the transitional period.

None of this is to suggest that everything will be OK. The clock is ticking rapidly. May wasted valuable months by calling an election not before but after she had triggered Article 50. Given the political mayhem, a concatenation of cock-ups could still lead to disaster. But possibilities that seemed shut only a week before the election have opened up. If pro-Europeans fight hard, we can achieve a lot in the coming months.