The Government’s plans for a ‘Vote Leave’ Brexit are far from derailed

The Government’s plans for a ‘Vote Leave’ Brexit are far from derailed

It’s no secret that I would have preferred a different general election outcome – my joint editorial with Jonathan made clear that my preference was for a majority Conservative administration.

But the voices now suggesting that the Government’s plans for Brexit have been derailed are, in my view, very wide of the mark.

For starters, this general election result does not change or override the result of the EU referendum which took place less than 12 months ago. One of the major reasons for holding a referendum is to settle a question or issue on which many of the political parties have internal divisions: in other words, a fundamental issue that cannot be regarded as standard manifesto fare.

So it was that last year’s referendum result was an instruction from the voters to our elected representatives (most of whom personally took a different position) that they wished to leave the EU and take back control of our money, our laws, our borders and our trade policy. On 23rd June last year, more people voted for the proposition of the successful Vote Leave campaign than had ever voted for anyone or anything in British electoral history. Indeed, more than 3.7 million more people voted Leave than voted Conservative last week, while Labour secured the support of more than 4.5 million fewer people than voted Leave.

As it happens, both the Tories and Labour – as well as UKIP, of course – went into this general election standing on a platform of accepting the referendum result. These Pro-Brexit parties got more than 85% of the vote last week.

And yet some of the usual suspects have popped up over the weekend to claim now that the result of the general election is somehow a mandate for a so-called “soft Brexit” – that propaganda term favoured by continuity Remainers to denote remaining party to virtually all of the trappings of the EU, like the single market and customs union. This is a proposition which would be more aptly described as “non-Brexit” and Martin Howe QC’s piece yesterday nailing the myth of “soft Brexit” is essential reading if you haven’t read it already.

But this so-called “soft Brexit” is simply not on the table. Forget for a moment that the Lib Dems, (whose USP at this election was campaigning to remain in the single market) actually won a lower voteshare at this election than they did in 2015. And forget that the white paper published by the Conservative Government earlier this year and on which the impending negotiations will be based made it clear that remaining in the single market or customs union was a non-starter.

Let’s consider the position of the Labour Party, which obviously now has an extra thirty MPs sitting on the Opposition benches after its gains last week. Just yesterday the Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell, confirmed on Peston on Sunday that he believed that continued membership of the single market would be “not respecting that referendum” of last June.

Moreover, while the Labour Party’s manifesto may have committed the party to “negotiating priorities that have a strong emphasis on retaining the benefits of the Single Market and the Customs Union” (but, crucially, not membership thereof), it also explicitly accepted that free movement must end. That again underlines Labour’s commitment to the UK being outside of the single market, since it is one of the four freedoms which are ‘indivisible’ and sacrosanct as far the upper echelons of the European Union are concerned.

The Labour Party manifesto also talked about the UK retaking its seat at the World Trade Organisation and the nature of future free trade agreements – meaning that the party accepted that the UK will still have a Department for International Trade negotiating trade deals around the world – something which would be rendered impossible if we remained a member of the customs union.

This acceptance of the result and a desire to deliver on the expressed wish of the British people clearly reassured numerous Leave voters that the Labour Party could be trusted with their vote.

So there’s actually far more of a consensus between the two major parties in Parliament than that vocal set of Brexit-deniers are willing to acknowledge – and all of this is without mentioning shared commitments across the party divides to continued co-operation on international security, science, research and education programmes.

Furthermore, the terms of Brexit are not the UK’s decision alone. It is not even primarily the UK’s decision now – it’s about the position that the European Union settles upon. And again yesterday, there was a very positive vibe coming from Dutch MEP and key ally of Guy Verhofstadt, Sophie in ‘t Veld, who made clear to Andrew Marr that Brexit is indeed happening, a good outcome of the Brexit negotiations is in the EU’s interest and that the UK will not be “enemies” post-Brexit.

The Brexit process is also driven by the legal procedures of the EU, not whether or not commentators at The Guardian or Open Britain think the British Prime Minister has a mandate.

So I am optimistic that we are still on course for the Brexit that we campaigned for at Vote Leave.

And, dare I say it, any attempt by members of the Westminster political class now to reverse or roll back on taking back control would surely be electoral suicide. Larger swings between elections appear to be becoming the new normal. Politicians cannot take their voters for granted election after election.  And I could certainly see a failure to honour the referendum result causing a future electoral backlash that would make some of the surprises of last week’s results seem modest by comparison.