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You will have seen those Russian dolls that open up one inside another. They offer a way of thinking about Brexit for this new Government and Parliament.
The first and biggest doll is the manifesto commitments of the two largest parties in the Commons. As Christopher Howarth pointed out recently on this site, both the Conservative and Labour documents endorsed last June’s referendum result. The first said: “The United Kingdom is leaving the European Union”. The second said: “Labour accepts the referendum result”. Add the DUP and the minor parties, and “over 85 per cent of the electorate voted to leave the EU” earlier this month, as Christopher put it.
None the less, it is a matter of fact that no party has a working majority, and the Government’s manifesto commitments have thus not been endorsed – a point that the the Lords will duly note. It can therefore be argued that while the Commons won’t challenge the principle of Brexit, it will force a say on the practice. There is a head of media steam up for staying in the Single Market and Customs Union as members. George Osborne’s Evening Standard has been pushing this position; today’s Mail on Sunday has commissioned a supportive poll; the CBI is knocking at the door. This is the second doll.
It opens up to reveal a third. One can be a Single Market member and not an EU member, as Norway and the other EEA members are. And one can be a Customs Union member and not an EU member – like Turkey, for example. But there is a solid case for asserting that both options are wide of what the British people voted for a year ago. The Remain and Leave campaigns alike insisted that a Leave vote would mean departing the Single Market. It follows that, since the British people voted to “take back control”, Single Market membership is incompatible with the referendum result, since it offers no proper means of controlling immigration.
Backbench MPs are therefore very unlikely to swing behind Single Market membership. Nigel Farage presently lies dead with a stake driven through his heart. Do Conservative MPs really want to pluck it out, and bring him back from the dead, by giving up on controlling EU migration? Do Labour ones, come to think of it? Lord Ashcroft’s research suggests that immigration was the second-biggest driver of the referendum vote, and Leave polled very well indeed in what were once Labour’s impregnable fastnesses.
Mention of Labour brings us to Jeremy Corbyn. To believe that he will suddenly tear up Labour’s present approach to Brexit is to misunderstand his entire political career, his character – and his recent record on Brexit. Corbyn is an old-time Eurosceptic who leads a markedly pro-EU party. He pays lip-service to its consensus, but without much action to follow it up. With the assistance of John McDonnell, Seumas Milne and Andrew Fisher, he played a stonewalling blinder during the referendum campaign. As we have pointed out previously, Milne used “every trick in the bureaucratic book, and then some, to stop Corbyn upping the ante for Remain. Speeches were watered down, e-mails queried, press releases blocked or delayed, meetings rearranged or cancelled – or simply not turned up to”. In effect, Labour’s leader and his cabal sabotaged the cause that he was nominally signed up to.
Roll the clock forward a year, and nothing much has changed. There is no gain for Corbyn in making waves within his party by backing Single Market membership – to which he is in any event reflexively hostile, since its state aid and competition rules are contrary to his commitments on nationalisation and borrowing. Indeed, there is nothing in it for him in proposing a positive policy at all. He is set up to be the John Smith of our time, doing to the Conservatives over Brexit what Smith did to them over Maastricht. He will carp. He will criticise. He will table emergency questions. He will demand debates. He will spring ambushes. He will say that the Conservatives are all washed up, divided, discredited and incapable of conducting negotiations effectively. In short, you will scarcely be able to guess from his opposition to everything that the Government says and does over Brexit that the Opposition’s position is actually much the same.
As for the Conservatives, they are unlikely to replace Theresa May – this morning’s papers pullulate with talk of a leadership challenge – with a Remain sympathiser. Conservative MPs were narrowly for staying in the EU during the referendum. Like lots of former Remain voters, most have now come round to Leave. In any event, there is no consensus on a replacement for May, so there is unlikely to be a “coronation” of a single candidate – thus circumventing the leadership election rules, which give the final say to all party members (as they should). The membership supports taking back control – and leaving the Single Market.
All in all, then, the tiniest doll looks much like the largest, as is the case with those Russian originals. Theresa May’s new Government is weaker and smaller than her old one. But her Brexit policy, and that of the other main parties, is little different.
However, there are four important provisos.
The first is the most easily dismissed. Philip Hammond appears to be pushing a subtle variant of Customs Union membership. He is reported to want associate membership of the union, an option that the Prime Minister herself floated in January. The Chancellor apparently supports preserving the status quo on goods, and allowing negotiation for deals with the EU27 on services. We may find out more when he appears on Marr this morning.
However, what he and May mean by associate membership seems to be significantly different. Deals with EU countries on services would doubtless mean agreeing practices incompatible with deals on services with other countries. Furthermore, those other countries would be likely also to want deals on manufacturing, and would be unlikely to agree one without the other.
And seeking such deals worldwide is an integral part of the Tory manifesto. Hammond pushed a new Customs Union arrangement in Cabinet committee last week. He was backed by Amber Rudd, and opposed by May, David Davis and Boris Johnson. ConservativeHome is told that Damian Green stayed loyal to his boss, for all the pro-EU instincts that he must still feel strongly.
The Chancellor lacks a big band of supporters in Cabinet. And there is no sign that he has many on the backbenches, where his reputation took a big hit over the NICs debacle. His allies are telling the media that he is in “street-fighting mode”, but at the moment he lacks a knock-out punch.
Second, there is the coming Great Repeal Bill. This seeks to give business stability by temporarily preserving the corpus of EU law. That won’t stop hardline Remainers, the Opposition and perhaps some Brexiteers seeking to kick lumps out of it. This will undermine the Government’s already precarious position (assuming it survives).
Third, expect the Prime Minister’s leitmotif of “no deal is better than a bad deal” to be downgraded. It still reflects her bottom line. But her failure to win a majority leaves her with less room for manoeuvre.
Finally, given the Government’s weakness, it is possible, even likely, that what Ministers like to call the “implementation period” – that’s to say, the transition period while EU arrangements remain in place – is longer than it would have been had May won that majority.
In summary, Brexit will happen. The clock ticks on towards March 31, 2019. But the Prime Minister’s bungled election has raised the odds of it being disorderly.