It’s been a little while, but I’m afraid this is another Brexit post. However, it’s not going to go in the direction you might think. I want to run through a couple of inter-related thought experiments. I’m going to run through some events and it’s going to be clear who I am talking about, but I want you to ignore any pre-conceptions you may have and go with it.
So first up I want to rewind to the pre-referendum time, back when your pound was still worth something on the global stage.
Now, imagine you’re a relatively senior member of the Government and you back Remain. You back it wholeheartedly. You expect Remain to win. You can see Cameron and Osborne campaigning and don’t think they’re doing an especially good job, but you’re still reasonably confident. However, you know there’s a chance of losing the vote.
Either because you know something or because you have read your boss well, you think that should Leave win then the Prime Minister will resign, leaving a gap at the top which will most likely be hotly contested by those on the Leave side. They would have won the vote and see that as a mandate to take control of the Party and the country. You believe these people to be, let’s be diplomatic, ass-hats, and can’t stomach the idea of them taking charge and destroying the country because it appears they know nothing about what they’re doing.
You believe, rightly or wrongly, that being an outspoken Remainer will not win any more votes over to the Remain side, but more importantly, you know that if you are on the frontline then you basically rule yourself out as the next Prime Minister. With all that in mind, you decide to keep quiet in the lead up to the vote. Some could see this as wanting to make a grab for power, but that’s not necessarily the case. You want what’s best for the country and, looking around, all the other options are bad. Should the unthinkable happen and Leave wins, you view yourself as the only steady, reliable hand. The only person who would have a chance of being Prime Minister who would have a chance of getting the country out of the mess it’s in.
Is that why Theresa May did what she did in the run up the referendum? Who knows, but it’s a compelling narrative. But does it also chime with what has come since? That leads me on to my second thought experiment.
So, all that was laid out in the first half of this post has come to be and you are Prime Minister. You are tasked with taking the Uk out of the EU, something you think is an unholy mistake. You think it will lay to waste so many aspects of the country, it is a disaster of unparalleled proportions. How do you go about it?
You have a mandate from the country that you feel you have to follow through on. It is an unwinnable situation. Whatever deal you come away with at the end of negotiations will be a bad one. The ones that do the best for the UK – the soft Brexit options – will be seen as a copout by the electorate. They will involve us still paying into the EU and will probably do nothing (or, at most, very little) to get back our sovereignty, stop immigration, free us to cut our own trade deals – the things people were misguidedly voting for. If you manage to do one of those things you won’t be satisfying everyone who voted Leave. At best a soft Brexit probably meets the requirements for maybe 40% of Leave voters while the rest will feel screwed over because they didn’t get what they want.
On the other hand, if you go for the hard Brexit option you give those people what they want, but also a whole load of what they didn’t want. Added to which, the ramifications for the country will be catastrophic. And again, you’ll probably only please maybe 40% of the Leave voters. People will say “I only wanted to stop immigration, I didn’t want businesses to leave the country, we needed to stay in the single market”, etc and so on.
Basically, you have inherited a no-win situation. There’s nothing you can do that will please the country (and remember, 48% of the country didn’t vote for any of these options, and you didn’t want them either). So what do you do? How do you fix this mess?
First of all, you need to maximise the time you have to get the result you need while also making people think we’re moving forward. The initial Brexit discussions were about when Article 50 would be invoked. European elections meant we couldn’t delay for ever, but equally we needed a plan before we started negotiations. Sometime in the new year seemed a fair compromise. Arguably March 2017 is about as long as it could be left. Announcing that at the Tory Party conference gives a 6 month window to come up with a plan.
The next thing is to build a case for either the softest of Brexits or not having one at all in your 6 month window. How do you do that? Well, if you announce that we’re aiming for total removal from the EU, that the UK will go it alone, it’s likely that people will freak out. The pound will dive. Businesses will get scared and start openly talking about how they plan to leave the UK. Foreign investment will dry up. Fewer jobs will be created. The cost of living will start to rise as the UK imports far more than it exports and even the things produced at home are often produced using foreign parts, so all these things will become more expensive to the regular consumer. In the run up to Christmas this would be a nightmare. Wallets will feel the pinch. People won’t be able to afford to go abroad.
Many of those who voted to Leave fall into two categories – the older generation and the poorer households. Many of the older generation rely on state pensions which now won’t go as far. Some winter abroad and now will find that more expensive. Poorer households will struggle to make ends meet.
Suddenly the reality of what Brexit might mean will hit home. The discussion will shift to “And this is all happening before we’ve even left – things will only get worse”. People will panic. Then it becomes possible to raise the prospect of not going through with it. Whether or not that can be followed through is a different matter, but at least it brings the conversation out in the open. It gives us a chance of staying.
I think it’s notable that the policies regarding Brexit that caused the most fuss at the Tory Party conference came from remainers – Theresa May, Jeremy Hunt and Amber Rudd. Their speeches sparked debate about how we treated people from other countries, and how much we rely on them. The NHS can’t be truly self-sufficient in terms of medical staff. It’s outrageous and impractical for all businesses to publish the number of foreign workers they have (this has, of course, since been taken back and was “never an official policy”).
Of course, the three Brexiteers will continue to talk their guff. Guff which isn’t aligned with each other. And guff which is rapidly dismissed by various EU politicians. But it all plays a part.
I wouldn’t be surprised to see further announcements and proclamations which spark debate and outrage around the country in the coming weeks and months, and the debate starting to take a different shape in the new year. Now, whether that debate will be enough to prevent Brexit from actually happening is a different matter, and there are questions as to whether a soft Brexit is even possible (European Council President Donald Tusk certainly seems to have ruled it out). To be fair, it’s difficult to see any deal that gets signed off by all 27 states and the EU Council, so the options probably are limited. Shaping the debate to all-or-nothing might be beneficial.
Of course, this is all speculation. I have no idea. Maybe Theresa May really is moving the Conservatives into the UKIP space in a bid to appeal to the modern xenophobe. Maybe she doesn’t care about the shape of the country and her legacy. But right now, her moves are the same as those I would make if I were trying to shift the debate and keep the UK in the EU.