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What kind of Brexit has Britain chosen? We need a general election to find out

10 July 2016

5:04 PM

10 July 2016

5:04 PM

Britain voted for Brexit so Brexit is going to have to happen. That’s the way it works and there’s no point in Remainers wishing otherwise. But if Britain evidently voted for Brexit it is far less clear what kind of Brexit it voted for. As with the death of old man Talleyrand, we are left to wonder what the British people meant by this.

Some things are becoming clearer, however and one of those things is that Andrea Leadsom does not actually need to win the Tory leadership battle to win the Brexit war. If Brexit trumps everything else, Leadsom may win even if Tory members choose Theresa May.

Theresa May may have been a super-reluctant Remainer but she is going to have to campaign as though she was a mildly-reluctant Leaver. Because, right now, it seems plausible that moderation in pursuit of the national interest is no virtue and extremism in defence of a dubious notion of freedom is no vice. We are, as matters stand, heading for a hard Brexit and to hell with the consequences of that.

Which is also why the country needs a general election in October. Not in 2020 and not even next spring but as soon as possible. The new Prime Minister will enjoy a mandate from the Conservative party but not from the country. This is not an ordinary, ‘peacetime’, transition of power and should not be treated as such. This is a new beginning in almost every way, an extraordinary moment that deserves to be tested and validated by a general election.


Because the country deserves a contest between the rival interpretations of Brexit. Both Mrs May and Mrs Leadsom appear to agree with the overwhelming majority of Leave voters that regaining control of Britain’s borders is more important than remaining a part of the single market. If that’s what it takes to win the Tory leadership then so be it. But the national interest is not the same as the Conservative party’s interest and the country deserves to have at least the chance to consider other Brexit options.

With any luck, one of those options would be a definition of Brexit which prioritises the single market over frontier ‘control’. Equally, if the Tory party is determined to plunge Britain into a deep recession then its proposal to do so deserves to be tested in an election. It will be a recession of choice, not an accident or simply the inevitable turn of the economic cycle and that too is something that voters have the right to judge for themselves.

It is also, it should be said, in the Conservative party’s own interest to have an election now rather than in 2020. Labour, at present, is in no state to take part in a pillow fight far less face the country in a general election. But who knows what kind of state it might be in by 2020? It is hard to imagine how it could avoid being in a healthier position then than now. And besides, do Conservatives really want to fight an election after, as it dispiritingly possible, presiding over three years of economic contraction?

Now you may say that the risk of that contraction is over-blown. Well perhaps it is but do you want to take that chance? Do you really? Because everyone except the cock-eyed Panglossians in the Brexit bunker thinks a grim recession is likely, one that will be exacerbated, not minimised, by leaving the single market. That’s what a hard Brexit will mean, however. And that’s something that the people have a right to consider before the new government, of whatever stripe it may be, takes us down that path.

Brexit? Yes. But what kind of Brexit? That matters. Absent a new election, the new government has no mandate to negotiate any particular kind of Brexit deal. We’ve heard a lot of talk, most of it rubbish, about ‘democracy’ in recent weeks but if that’s to actually mean anything then we need a fresh election so that the new Prime Minister at least has a mandate to drive the country onto the rocks and, before doing so, a requirement to warn the passengers of what is coming.

A shipwreck looms but there are different types of shipwreck and the country has the right to choose which kind it prefers.


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