The general election in June changed the politics of Brexit in ways that some pro-Leave commentators are desperately trying to ignore but which anyone actually doing politics has now accepted: ‘no deal’ is not an option, because there is not a Commons majority that would accept the steep drop out of the EU onto the rocks of the jagged WTO rules below.
There certainly isn’t a majority in the country for that option, and a PM who tried to sell a ‘no deal’ Brexit would be asking for removal and possibly an election the Tories could lose. There will be a deal, in the end, because the Conservative Party, despite its fondness for self-harm, always stops short of full-blown suicide. Anyone who tries to tell you otherwise is either deluded or trying to mislead you. Or both.
Further, there may not even be a Commons majority for leaving the Single Market; transition via the EEA, assuming the UK can reach an agreement with the 27 on its financial obligations. We will ‘take back control’ by accepting regulations over which we have no power.
This may need explaining a bit, given that so many people who write about politics are intent on keeping alive various pre-referendum and pre-election fantasies about Britain’s relative strength in negotiations, about the nature of German politics, and crucially, about British politics too.
Remember why Mrs May said she called the election? Some people need reminding. She did it to strengthen her hand in Brexit talks. Largely thanks to Sir Lynton Crosby, her entire election campaign was framed as a chance for people to have their say on her approach to Brexit.
So the result must be remembered as a comment on that Brexit stance. And while I don’t believe 40 per cent for Jeremy Corbyn’s Brexit-curious Labour is enough to negate or reverse the referendum result, nor can it be ignored since it counts as a hefty rejection of Mrs May’s ‘no deal’ nonsense. Ministers, Leavers included, know this too. Hence the post-election acceptance of compromise on the ECJ/EFTA court and, in due course, money. The EU27 know it too. Hence Michel Barnier cutting up rough last week.
The point is this: anyone who took Sir Lynton’s analysis and bet that Britain would unite behind a hardline Brexit stance was wrong. Mrs May will have to compromise on Brexit to survive. And her pro-Brexit colleagues will have to let her, because if they don’t, they risk outcomes that really might raise questions about whether we do leave. If their choice is soft Brexit or no Brexit, guess which they’ll choose?
Ultimately though, that election result said something else about Brexit: it’s not the most important thing in the world for many voters. The Crosby theory was that Brexit would be the dominant and defining feature of politics, that people would look beyond Left and Right, blue and red, and define themselves by their Brexit stance.
And while a lot of noisy people on Twitter do so, many voters don’t. The projected swing of working-class Labour-leaning Leavers to the Tories didn’t happen; nor did the Lib Dems surf a wave of self-defining Remainers to victory.
For all its colossal importance, many voters don’t, yet, see Brexit as the Number 1 issue in their daily lives. Real wages, housing, public services: the bread-and-butter issues remain. For many, sovereignty is less important than how the economy works (and doesn’t work) for them.
And that is why a plan, reported in the Times today, for Mrs May to return to her ‘burning injustices’ agenda of social and economic reform is a sensible one. Indeed, if she’d talked more about that agenda during the election campaign, given voters more of her Downing Street speech instead of Sir Lynton’s paint-by-numbers Brexit fixation, she might still have her majority.
So, Prime Minister, here’s some unsolicited advice as you prepare to address the Commons today and your party conference next month: ignore the EU-obsessives and remember there’s more to life than Brexit. Remember why you wanted the job in the first place, and use whatever time you have in it to do those things.
Will voters or your party thank you for it? Probably not, to be frank. But when the time comes for you to leave the job, do you want to look back and remember that you followed your own agenda, or danced to someone else’s tune?