A Government U-turn on its fundamental Brexit commitments would be a disastrous mistake

A Government U-turn on its fundamental Brexit commitments would be a disastrous mistake

The UK’s decision on what it actually wants from the Brexit negotiations is a bit like the end of the rainbow – always tantalisingly close, but whenever you think you’re about to see it, it turns out that there’s one more summit in the way.

Countless ‘crunch’ Cabinet summits have already receded into the mists of time, with key decisions fudged or deferred and the UK’s blueprint still remaining elusive. However, this week’s Chequers summit may finally break this pattern. The long-awaited Government White Paper on the future relationship is already scheduled for publication the following week, putting a much harder deadline on the need for decisions to be taken.

Unfortunately for Brexiteers, the realisation is starting to dawn on them that the White Paper may bear less resemblance to the proverbial crock of gold they were expecting than to something rather less pleasant altogether. The noises emanating from Whitehall in recent weeks suggest that the Government’s preferred plan is no longer to leave the Single Market and Customs Union as it pledged to do so, but in fact to remain in the Single Market and Customs Union for goods.

The Remain establishment was dealt a severe shock by the Brexit vote, but ultimately it has not gone anywhere. There have been no Brexiteers with any direct input at the top of the Brexit negotiations since Olly Robbins secured his move away from the oversight of David Davis at DExEU last September and carved out his own little fiefdom in Downing Street, reporting directly to May and Sir Jeremy Heywood. The failure of most of the UK’s published position papers to date to entertain any serious options other than a repackaging of the status quo is indicative of a civil service which has broadly been unable to come to terms with the fact that Brexit means change.

Meanwhile, Remainers have been successfully coordinating between themselves to take control of the media narrative. The hyperbolic threats from Airbus, BMW, the CBI and other lobby groups over the past fortnight have been deliberately timed to give Philip Hammond and other Cabinet Remainers the ammunition needed to try to spook May and crush Brexiteer resistance to a so-called ‘soft Brexit’ once and for all.

As The Times reported at the time, Hammond and his ideological comrade Greg Clark, the Business Secretary, were understood to have been directly encouraging businesses to intervene in the political debate ahead of the Cabinet summit themselves.

While there is nothing remarkable in itself about businesses giving their view on the economy, what is remarkable is for the Treasury officials to be actively encouraging businesses to launch direct attacks on Government policy, as was suggested last week. Further politicised interventions of this kind are likely to be pencilled into the diary already to put maximum pressure on Brexiteers before this Friday.

Clark has been more aggressive in public towards his Brexiteer colleagues than any of his colleagues on the Leave side have been about Remainers and openly called for a “very soft Brexit” in a speech last week. Significantly, he appears to have the Prime Minister’s backing in doing so.

Brexiteers have already issued pre-emptive warnings to May not try to ‘bounce’ them into major concessions by only presenting civil service papers at the last minute as a fait accompli, giving them no time to analyse – or indeed organise any necessary opposition to – any proposals they are being asked to sign up to.

There will be additional grounds for suspicion after the reports of Michael Gove being presented with a civil service document purporting to summarise his and Liam Fox’s views on May’s customs partnership proposal, only to find it completely whitewashing their opposition to the plan and presenting entirely different conclusions to what they had recommended themselves.

Downing Street’s Brechtian decision to deliberately bypass the ‘Brexit War Cabinet’ – with its finely balanced Leave-Remain arithmetic having yielded a 6-5 majority against May’s previous attempts to ‘soften’ Brexit – and go directly to the far more Remain-dominated full Cabinet is another major warning signal of the Government’s intent.

The direction of travel has been clear for months, even if Brexiteers have been slow to wake up to it. ‘Crunch’ decisions in the past have only gone in one direction – towards a ‘softer’ Brexit. On the occasions where Brexiteer resistance has been strong enough to prevent this, decisions are simply deferred – the Cabinet is told that it must take more time to think about it.

Never does the Government’s position actually move towards what Brexiteers have been calling for. Only the ‘softer’ Brexit position is ever intended to be accepted, however long it takes for the Brexiteers to give in. Delay has become a deliberate tactic to suffocate Brexiteer resistance.

A full-on shift towards remaining in the Single Market for goods would almost certainly be a move too far for the vast majority of Brexiteers. It would leave May’s red lines in tatters, along with Brexiteers’ trust in her ability to deliver the Brexit she has repeatedly promised since becoming Prime Minister.

A large proportion of our laws would continue to be made not in the UK, but faxed over directly from Brussels. The European Court of Justice’s direct jurisdiction over the UK in those areas would be an inevitable condition of such a deal, while any meaningful changes to freedom of movement would be off the table.

The narrative has already started up amongst the more technically-minded members of the commentariat that this is in fact entirely justified because May dropped a number of hints to this effect if one reads between the lines of the Mansion House speech. This is the wishful thinking of the technocrat, who dreams of a world where decisions are made by an ivory-towered ruling class far from the prying eyes of the public (Brussels of course being the closest earthly embodiment of this idealised system of government for the elites, by the elites).

In a democracy, however, the notion that a government U-turn on its headline policy commitments would be somehow legitimised because they have been dropping subtle hints in speeches and policy papers is precisely why people don’t trust politicians.

What reaction does May think she’s going to get from the country if she says “well, actually I didn’t deliver the key pledges that I set out in black and white to you but it’s fine because I technically gave you a few months warning in a few speeches I made”?

Such a move would be highly corrosive for the credibility of the Government, May herself, and indeed politicians as a whole.

The question now is what – if anything – can Brexiteers do about it?

Several dozen Tory MPs delivered a letter to May last Friday laying out eight key areas where compromise would be unacceptable, while Jacob Rees-Mogg is even more explicit in this morning’s Telegraph, warning that Theresa May must stick to the Brexit she herself has promised or “risk being overthrown by Tory MPs”.

May herself is bullish about her chances of seeing off a potential rebellion on a ‘soft Brexit’ switch. Even if the required 48 MPs submit letters of no confidence to the 1922 Committee to trigger a vote of no confidence, May’s team are reportedly working to the assumption that they would still command the support from enough Tory MPs as a whole to survive the vote. May would subsequently cling on as Prime Minister, despite the drastic damage to her authority even holding a vote would entail.

Alternatively, May could seek to avert a rebellion in the short-term using her well-honed techniques of superficially leaving multiple options on the table, even when the Government is only making serious plans to pursue one. As Gary Gibbon reported last week, the previews Olly Robbins has been giving ministers of the Brexit White Paper suggests that it may do just that. Looser options favoured by Brexiteers would be nominally kept open, in the hope that Brexiteers would not realise they were decoys until it was too late. Meanwhile gleeful pro-Remain officials would be gloating to the press about how Brexiteers had been “bamboozled” once again.

But even if May succeeded in U-turning on her position without triggering a domestic political crisis, she would still be putting down a proposal on the table with very little probability of success at all. Michel Barnier has made clear that the EU would not accept this option – which involves ‘cherry-picking’ to a far greater degree than anything discussed so far – and his likely response would simply be to keep saying “non” – in the expectation that some opportunity would inevitably arise sooner or later to force the UK to capitulate entirely.

Having committed to a ‘soft Brexit’ position, the UK would be very unlikely to have made sufficient preparations to move onto WTO-terms or even a Canada-style Free Trade Agreement, should the negotiations reach a crisis point. Barnier would subsequently be able to issue a ‘take it or leave it’ ultimatum for the UK to stay in the Single Market and Customs Union in full – his preferred outcome all along because it negates Brexit in any meaningful sense – or leave with nothing at all. If past form is anything to go by, May and Robbins would simply roll over and accept this.

However it is spun, any outcome which resulted in the UK staying in substantial parts of the Single Market and Customs Union would represent a drastic failure of policy-making on the Government’s part – judged against the targets May clearly and explicitly set herself. Nor is it something that would go unnoticed by voters. Adopting this as the Government’s position before the trade negotiations have even begun would be a disastrous mistake.