Hard Brexit is dead - long live a hard Brexit

Written by Mark McLaughlin on 20 June 2017 in Inside Politics

Rumours of the demise of a ‘hard Brexit’ following Theresa May’s botched general election gamble appear to have been greatly exaggerated

Hard Brexit RIP - Image credit: PA Images

Within hours of the announcement that the Conservatives had been reduced to a minority administration, opponents hailed the result as a damning indictment of the Prime Minister’s hard-line European strategy.

“Hard Brexit is dead,” they declared, it’s time for...erm, a soft Brexit? Jobs-first Brexit? Open Brexit? Sane Brexit? Insert-meaningless-adjective-here Brexit?

May the Merciless was having none of it. Brexit will proceed as planned and there will be no talk of a return to the single market. ‘Nothing has changed,’ as she likes to say.

Much has been made of Ruth Davidson’s appeal to her Tory colleagues to “look again” at their Brexit strategy – but her public pronouncements to date haven’t amounted to much.

She wants an “open Brexit”, but her failure to articulate what this means makes it something of a rhetorical runny egg – not hard, not soft, definitely not closed, but lacking any real substance.


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In the void, commentators have surmised that ‘open Brexit’ means more focus on the economy and less on immigration.

“Ruth Davidson is the heroine of the party,” declared ex-chancellor-cum-hack George Osborne.

“She is flexing her muscles on Brexit...and has said she now wants to prioritise the economy and free trade over immigration in the negotiations around Brexit. By the way, I completely agree with her.”

Osborne’s homage is something of a poisoned chalice for Davidson given his current standing amongst current UK ministers – particularly the latest batch of arch-Brexiteers who have been given a government brief.

Michael Gove’s return to the cabinet raised some eyebrows after his, shall we say, questionable claims in the Brexit campaign and his ham-fisted attempt to take control of the Tory party, firebombing Brexiteer Boris and mangling his own campaign in the blowback, leaving Remainer May as the last woman standing. 

Meanwhile, new justice minister Dominic Raab pointedly called Davidson out on her ‘open Brexit’ obfuscation shortly before his cabinet appointment.

“Like hard and soft Brexit, I’m not sure what Ruth means by that,” he said.

“She did a great job in Scotland, but every Conservative Scottish, English and Welsh MP was elected on our manifesto, so obviously we deliver the plans in that manifesto as best we can – including, and especially, on Brexit.”

Osborne’s endorsement is as good an indication as we’re going to get in the post-election fog of how Davidson will be received if ‘open Brexit’ turns out to mean ‘open borders’.

European leaders have told British ministers “you cannot stay in the single market and have control of your borders”, Brexit secretary David Davis pointed out as he dismissed any suggestion of a deal that maintains freedom of movement.

Nicola Sturgeon has called for “a short pause” in the Brexit negotiations to build a new cross-party consensus, and has threatened to hamstring the Brexit process unless she gets a seat at the negotiating table.

She told Theresa May: “It will not be possible for the UK to effectively implement the outcome of Brexit negotiations without the co-operation of devolved governments. It is therefore essential that we are part of the negotiating process.”

Former prime minister David Cameron has also urged May to consult more widely.

“I think there will be pressure for a softer Brexit,” Cameron warned, but said that Parliament “deserves a say” on the issue.

He hailed his former protégé, Ruth Davidson, as a “new player on the stage” who could heap pressure on May for a change in direction.

He said: “Scotland voted against Brexit. I think most of the Scottish Conservatives will want to see perhaps some changes with the policy going forward.”

Davidson has called on the Conservatives to “listen to other parties in Parliament and people outside it”, but based on previous form, the British government is unlikely to listen to the SNP.

The Nationalists have publicly shelved their campaign for a second independence referendum for the moment, and are now wielding their narrow Scottish victory as a fresh mandate for their ‘Scotland’s Place In Europe’ prospectus.

Davis has already dismissed the paper’s three options, insisting it is “not possible” to keep the UK in the single market, it would be “confusing” to keep Scotland in the single market when the UK leaves, and it is “disappointing” that the SNP has suggested another independence vote to let Scotland decide which union it values the most.

There is no indication Davis, Davidson, May and freshly re-elected Scottish secretary David Mundell have changed their mind – and yet Scotland’s Brexit minister, Mike Russell, insists the whole paper is now back in play.

“We believe it is still on the table,” he said.

“It started from the premise that the whole of the UK should stay in the single market, and that now is something that I am pleased to see is back on the agenda.”

However, single market membership is definitely not on May’s agenda and, despite the SNP’s desire for a progressive alliance with Labour, it’s not on Jeremy Corbyn’s either.

“We will push for a jobs-first Brexit,” said Corbyn, brandishing another meaningless adjective.

“Labour wants to respect the results of the referendum. Staying in the single market would not honour that.”

And single market membership hasn’t been on Davidson’s agenda for quite some time either, as Mike Russell readily acknowledged.

“Ruth Davidson and her Tories have voted against that in every possible occasion in the Scottish Parliament in the last year,” he said.

However, in the hectic days following the shock Brexit vote, the single market and free movement of people were foremost in Davidson’s mind.

“Too often, I fear, the referendum debate was guilty of discussing the contribution of EU migrants to this country as some sort of necessary evil to fill in the gaps in our labour market,” she said five days after the Brexit referendum.

“So, let us say it loud and clear: ‘We do not need just your labour: we want your values, your brains and your culture, and we want you.’”

She also called for the First Minister to be “at the table” in Brexit discussions – although it later transpired that she did not mean the actual Brexit negotiating table.

She concluded: “We want to protect and maximise Scotland’s place in Europe, the continent and in the European single market.”

Now she insists she simply wants “free trade” with Europe, presumably without all the onerous membership rules, insisting she is “less hung up with the framework we use to achieve that than I am with the outcome for businesses”.

Davis has so far refused any pause for thought, starting the negotiations on 19 June, even before the Queen’s Speech, which has been delayed.

He also appeared sceptical that any palatable ideas would emerge from further parliamentary consultation.

“If anybody in the House of Commons comes to me with... a better idea I will take it on board,” he said. “But it’s got to work. It’s got to actually deliver on what the people asked for.”

With the Conservatives in disarray, the SNP privately reformulating its independence strategy, Labour on a permanent campaign footing for yet another general election, and UKIP facing the choice of digging up Nigel Farage again to head off a leadership bid by bumbling Scottish MEP David Coburn, Brussels chief negotiator Michel Barnier had said he would consider a short delay in the Brexit negotiations to allow Britain to get its act together.

But European Council president Donald Tusk warned there is “no time to lose”, and European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker said they were “desperately waiting” for negotiations to begin.

France’s new ‘prodige politique’, Emmanuel Macron, has offered a way out of all of this Brexit blundering, insisting “the door remains open” for Britain to change its mind about Brexit – which will be music to the ears of the Liberal Democrats and others who have called for a second referendum to ratify the final Brexit deal.

But the European Parliament’s bullish Brexit co-ordinator, Guy Verhofstadt, said it won’t be that simple, warning Britain could lose its budget rebate and opt-outs if it decides to remain a member of the EU.

“Emmanuel Macron... said if Britain is changing its mind, it will find an open door,” said Verhofstadt.

“I don’t disagree with him. But like Alice in Wonderland, not all doors are the same. It will be a brand new door with a new Europe, a Europe without rebates, without complexity, with real power and with unity.”

Nothing, it seems, will put the Brexit genie back in the bottle – not a second general election, not another Brexit referendum, nor even a change in leadership in the UK Government, unless they are hiding a potential prime minister with the charisma to convince Brussels and the British public to just forget the whole thing (maybe they’ll find the necessary charm within the DUP!).

Like Alice in Wonderland, Britain is already deep down the rabbit hole and probably heading for a hard thump.

Hard Brexit is dead – long live a hard Brexit.

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