The Queen got it right – “it is difficult to escape a very sombre national mood”. This is a joyless period for the country. Grief, fear, anger, disillusionment and, today, a strong sense that the Government is embarking on the most important negotiation in half a century in a state of muddle, uncertainty and weakness.
When the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, sat down yesterday with David Davis, the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union – a title that coud be out of Gilbert and Sullivan – he may have learnt a little more than the British public knows at present. Quite what, we can only guess.
Why? Because the UK government’s formal public position has not changed since it issued its 12-point statement last January; or if it has, it has been to adopt an even harder position. In January it was clear the Government was intent on having its cake and eating it. It wanted access to but not membership of the single market plus bits of the customs union, as well as deals that looked after the interests of the City, the car industry, aerospace, and our universities. It didn’t want to pick cherries, it wanted to shovel them up.
But if its official position is publicly unchanged, its political brain must know that on 8th June the electorate killed a hard Brexit stone dead as a political objective. There would be no Parliamentary majority for it. It would be opposed by all the devolved administrations. It would endanger the union in Scotland and peace in Northern Ireland.
As we speak, we know nothing of any formal change in the Government’s objectives – despite the sharp rebuke from the electorate 10 days ago, and despite the angry mood in the wake of the Grenfell Tower disaster, that has also killed the prospect of a low tax, regulation-lite Britain of which the more crazed Brexiteers dream.
In the last few days the UK has suddenly backed away from its insistence on dealing with the costs of the divorce and the separate issue of the content of a new deal in parallel. Instead, it has indicated that it is prepared to deal with the two matters sequentially, as the EU had requested. This is not some kind of clever last minute tactical move, but rather an indication that – with half David Davis’s ministerial team having been sacked by Mrs May after the election – they have a desperate need for more time to agree on what sort of deal they want.
There has been a public assumption that the choice is between a hard or soft Brexit. The devolved administrations are all pushing in that direction – even the DUP in Northern Ireland. Scotland and Wales never accepted Mrs May’s original stance of prioritising the curbing of immigration over the interests of the economy. Neither did the bulk of British business. It wants jobs and the economy to be the top priority.
But we need to remember two things: first, that a soft Brexit – this bowl of cherries – is not in our gift and, second, that hard and soft Brexits are not the only options. There is a third option – no Brexit. This elephant is not yet in the room, but it is loitering on the garden path.
In the General election the country managed to derail the hard Brexit train. But there is no guarantee that we can lever a soft Brexit train onto the tracks. The assumption is that soft Brexit is an alternative option. That may be the case, but one cannot be confident of it.
The Brexit lobby will threaten mayhem if anything like the Norwegian option comes into view. Norway contributes cash to the EU, obeys its trading rules so getting full access to the EU market. It even allows free movement of people. But it gets no say in EU decisions.
The EU, even if it wants to strike a deal with the UK, will not agree terms that are equal to those we have as a full member. Countries have both economic and political objectives. That also applies to the EU.
At some point in the next eighteen months, the gap between the benefits of our current EU membership and any deal on offer will become clear and, perhaps for the first time, measurable. Or it will become clear that no deal is possible. If it becomes clear that a soft Brexit is unachievable or unsatisfactory and that a hard Brexit is still unacceptable, that will be the point at which the third option – no Brexit – will thrust itself forward.
Do not expect public opinion to be static in the next two years. British politics is in a precarious and febrile state. Although many in the Conservative party would dearly wish to keep yet another general election at bay, Theresa May’s hapless performance over the last week does not suggest that will be possible.
Labour may relish the prospect of power, but if that were to come about it is its own internal divisions on the European issue that will come to the fore.
Although shares in Corbyn have risen sharply, it should not be forgotten that the ambivalence of both Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell on the issue during the referendum was, arguably, of material and perhaps decisive help to the Leave cause. Pity Keir Starmer, Labour’s shadow spokesman on these matters.
Brexiteers, on the other hand, are advancing the completely specious argument that in the General Election 84 per cent of voters voted for two parties arguing to Leave. I say specious, because our ‘first-past-the-post’ electoral system, and the high prevalence of tactical voting means it is impossible to be categorical about the wishes of the electorate on a single issue.
Brexiteers also argue that half the Remain vote is now in favour of Leave. Again, that is far too simplistic. People have not so much changed their minds, they have just been worn down by poor and repetitive debate during three major campaigns in three years. They just want it all to stop. I’m afraid it’s not going to.