The first chapter of Britain’s Brexit story ends tonight. For some, that’s something to celebrate. For others it means sadness. For most of us, I suspect, emotions are mixed: a bit of relief at the sense of clarity that underpins politics; a bit of optimism that we might all learn from the psychodrama/culture war of 2016-2019; a bit of foreboding about the Brexit dramas still to come.
I voted Remain. I believed that despite its flaws (and I know them well: I covered more than 50 EU summits as a reporter, and projects including birth of the euro, the stability and growth pact and the European Constitution) Britain’s long-term interests lay in accepting the trade-offs entailed by membership of the EU. I still think it would probably (not certainly) have been better to have stayed in. But we could not do so, because we voted to leave. That vote means we have to leave.
From the minute the referendum result was declared to the moment I type these words, I have believed – and argued – that Britain must leave the EU, because that is what we voted for. Because I think it is essential that the vote is implemented, I suppose it is accurate to say that I want the UK to leave tonight. I voted Remain and now I am, in a narrow sense, happy that we are leaving. Leaving means that the system – people vote for stuff, that stuff happens – still works.
But this is not the whole story, not by a long way. There are many ways to skin a cat, and more ways for an advanced economy to alter its relationship with its international partners. We had to leave, but there was nothing inevitable about the manner of our exit.
And while I am content with the fact of our departure from the EU, I cannot celebrate the form of it. We’re getting a much harder Brexit than we could and should have had. We will be poorer for it, at least in the sense that our economy will not grow as fast as it would have done in other scenarios that still ended our membership.
There is almost no point now recalling that the form Brexit has taken is far harsher than any of its advocates foretold or even wanted. Before and even in the early days after the referendum, many leading Brexiteers considered continued participation in the Single Market to be possible and desirable. Some people think that the current Prime Minister was one such advocate of a Norwegian variant of Brexit, or at least a potential advocate. I’ve come to the conclusion that if he’d got the job in 2016, we’d have left by now and be heading for something much more Norwegian than the Brexit we’re actually getting.
Today, Norway and its variants are barely a memory. Tonight we set out for a much sharper break with the EU than pretty much anyone thought likely or desirable in the summer of 2016. This was not inevitable. Brexit did not have to take this form.
There are many reasons we have ended up here. Some are obvious: many Brexiteers couldn’t take yes for an answer and repeatedly shifted their demands to seek ever starker forms of exit.
Theresa May is a big figure in this history, but a complicated one. Her decision in the autumn of 2016 to make ending freedom of movement — and thus making the single market all but impossible — was probably the most consequential act of her premiership. But after the 2017 election, she accepted that the Brexit whose foundations she laid would jeopardise the Union, so she set about mitigating her own error.
That her deal — which I argued for here and elsewhere — died is not just down to her own failings as a politician. It was also killed by Labour MPs who knew their constituents wanted Brexit but who could not bring themselves to vote for it. Some of them have since shown honour and courage by admitting that their actions led us to a worse form of Brexit.
Smart people such as my former colleague Stephen Bush don’t agree with this. They argue, very cogently, that the nature of the Conservative party after 2016 and — especially — after the 2017 general election result meant that nothing but a hard-edged Brexit would ever be possible.
In this view, Labour votes to deliver the May deal would not have changed the history of Brexit, though it might have altered electoral history. I can see the merit of the argument and it’s one of the reasons I don’t criticise those Labour MPs too harshly.
Besides, there are others more deserving of criticism. Among the authors of today’s hard Brexit are all those who demanded ‘a People’s Vote’, a second vote they hoped would reverse the first. These days we hear a lot less from Andrew Adonis and AC Grayling and Alastair Campbell but that can’t change the fact that tonight’s Brexit is their work too.
Some of that is down to tactics. Time and again the Remain purists attacked any attempt at Brexit compromise that accepted the ineluctable fact that we had to leave because we voted to leave. The Common Market 2.0 proposed by Nick Boles wasn’t perfect (there is no such thing) but it should have been given a fair hearing. It might have produced a Brexit that better reflected a 52:48 vote than the one we’ve got – or than the No Brexit outcome the PV camp wanted. But the Boles plan was strangled by people who should have been backing it. Without the support of enough Remainers, it could not hope to gain traction with Leavers. Remainers who said they feared the impact of Brexit helped kill an attempt to limit the impact of Brexit.
It wasn’t just by the demolition of compromise options that the FBPE mob gave us a harder Brexit. It was a consequence of strategy too. By challenging the legitimacy of the first vote, by questioning the rationality of the electorate and the integrity of the referendum process, they made it necessary and probably inevitable that the issue would have to be put back to the people for a clarifying vote.
They didn’t get their second referendum. They got the 2019 election instead, but the outcome was the same as the one they’d have got in a ‘People’s Vote’: the resounding rejection by the electorate for anything that didn’t abide by the instruction given in June 2016.
The People’s Vote campaign was always a fool’s errand. The same forces that won in 2016 and gave Johnson his majority last month would have smashed Remain in any second referendum. By forcing a decision where those forces could be marshalled and deployed again, the Stop Brexit campaigners gave Britain a harsher form of Brexit than we might have had.
Some of the revokers and remainers and people’s voters will be noisily weeping tonight, lamenting what is about to be lost. Instead, they should be apologising, for this is their Brexit too.