Having the referendum losers dictate the Government’s Brexit policy spells trouble

Having the referendum losers dictate the Government’s Brexit policy spells trouble

What is it that really bothers me about Theresa May’s approach to Brexit? The dither? Yes, of course. The deceit? That too, naturally. The lack of a genuine bottom line that would lead her to walk away on WTO terms? Totally.

But it hit me the other day that none of these deficiencies quite gets to the kernel of infuriation that observing the Prime Minister’s politically dishonest bungling of our EU departure engenders.

The biggest thing, the aspect that gets to the heart of the matter is as follows: that it is the agenda of those who were on the losing side in the referendum that is dictating the policy of Mrs May’s administration.

You hear it from her all the time – apparently we must have “frictionless” trade with the EU in order to secure the supply chains of multinationals and do the right thing by the economy.

Now, frictionless trade should clearly be ranked as a “nice to have” in our negotiating priorities. I am as concerned about the 12 per cent of UK economic output that is sold into EU markets as the next man.

But during the referendum, the Remain campaign spent almost its whole time arguing that leaving the EU would be an economic disaster because barriers to trade would be so damaging. Knowing that there was no widespread feeling of affection towards the project of European political integration, it spoke of little else besides the supposed crippling economic downsides of leaving. It even earned itself the moniker “Project Fear” in the process. And it was rejected by the British public in the great democratic event of 23rd June 2016.

Leavers, on the other hand, were quite clear that while frictionless trade was the preferred option, the UK could do just fine economically by trading with the EU on WTO terms – especially given the compensations of the right to do our own trade deals; the right to free the 88% of UK output not being sold into the Single Market from excessive regulation; the right to cut VAT rates; the potential tariff revenue that would be generated given our £70bn trade deficit with the EU; the right to have a more active regional policy; somewhat better insulation from the impact of a blow-up in one or more members of the eurozone; and much else besides.

The main ‘must have’ items set out by the victorious Leave campaign were as follows: control over our laws, borders – including maritime borders – trading regime and money.

But Mrs May has inverted the referendum. She is behaving as if the losing side won, while the winning side is only due the few baubles that can be squeezed out of the EU while keeping within the parameters set for her by the CBI and other big business lobby groups. So the ECJ is to have continuing legal sway in the UK, the EU will determine business regulations after we have left, we are to carry on paying large sums into the EU budget, the EU is to dictate the nature of the Irish border, EU trawlers will continue to be able to access UK fishing waters and there is likely to be a special immigration status for EU nationals.

All of this is offered in pursuit of a trading regime of zero tariffs, minimal checks and continued compliance with Single Market regulations.

Apparently, and this is an argument increasingly being taken up by her friends at the Daily Mail as they turn their backs on the sound instincts of Paul Dacre, we need to have post-EU arrangements with which the 16.1 million people who voted Remain will be content, as well as the 17.4 million people who voted Leave. This is not how binary choices are meant to work.

The British people are not daft. Had they treated the referendum as purely an economic matter, they would probably have voted to Remain. But they worked out that economic forecasting is – to say the least – a very inexact science, correctly figured that the economic downsides of leaving were being hugely exaggerated, factored in that there would also be economic upsides (set out above) and decided that it was perfectly doable.

This allowed them to go ahead and vote on what mattered most to them: a restoration of national democratic sovereignty, especially including control over which and how many people come into their country.

When Mrs May was installed as Prime Minister by Tory MPs, many people wondered how a Remainer could possibly negotiate Brexit. The answer, we have now learned, is that she couldn’t – or at least couldn’t with any degree of credibility such as would force the other side to take a reasonable and realistic attitude to the departure of its second biggest economy.

Despite the sabre-rattling of a few dozen Tory MPs who swear they have continuing affinity to a proper Brexit, I fear it is too late now for the Prime Minister to secure any deal that will abide by the spirit of the referendum result. The one substantial remaining hope is that we leave on “no deal” terms and then swiftly negotiate what Michael Gove correctly suggested during the referendum campaign itself would be an economic “bump in the road”.

But Conservatives as senior as Amber Rudd are suggesting that the Remain majority in the Commons will magically find a way to block leaving at all if the WTO option becomes the route out. And she might be right. So the road less travelled – the road that the country opted to go down – has in effect been barricaded.

What this will mean for British democracy and the British political process is yet to be seen. But I have two predictions: it will be big but it won’t be pretty.