6 December 2018

Brexiteers are snatching defeat from the jaws of victory


One of the most extraordinary trends in recent British political history is the speed with which Conservative Euroscepticism got a lot more, well, Eurosceptic.

To appreciate the extent of the change, cast your mind back to the summer of 2014, when almost no one had heard of the word ‘Brexit’. Prime Minister David Cameron appointed as Foreign Secretary a man reported to have a deep aversion to the European Union. He was a robustly Eurosceptic Conservative MP who, as the Spectator’s James Forsyth reported at the time, offered a “major challenge to Foreign Office orthodoxy” by saying he would vote to leave an unreformed European Union.

That man was Philip Hammond. Fast-forward a few years and he has gone from being the most unambiguously Eurosceptic foreign secretary in British history to a Chancellor berated by many of his colleagues for his apparent refusal to look on the bright side of leaving the EU.

That transformation is just one illustration of the breakneck speed at which mainstream British Euroscepticism went from meaning opposition to ever closer union and the desire to win back powers from Brussels to actually arguing for leaving the EU. As late as 2013, it felt genuinely shocking when a statesman of Lord Lawson’s stature called for outright exit. By 2017, hard Brexit was in the manifesto.

Much of this shift is entirely understandable. The EU has changed – and continues to change – for the worse. What could once be presented in terms of sensible economic integration became about stultifying political union. (Which is why I voted to Leave in 2016.)

But partly as a result, the Eurosceptic movement now risks snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

Writing for CapX on Tuesday, dyed-in-the-wool Remainer Garvan Walshe explained why a vote for the Withdrawal Agreement is the responsible choice for Remain-supporting Conservative MPs. Why risk a no-deal Brexit, a hard-left government and the break-up of the Union in pursuit of the unlikely outcome of continued EU membership?

But those backing Theresa May’s deal could easily ask the ultra-Leavers the same question: why risk a hard-left government, the break-up of the Union and no Brexit at all in pursuit of an idealised version of Britain’s departure?

The deal is, as we all know, by no means perfect. But it does not rule out the future arrangements that committed Leavers are aiming for. A Canada+ type deal of the sort that former Brexit Secretary David Davis and others want is, according to the Political Declaration on future UK-EU relations, still a possibility. Yes, the route via May’s deal – with a transition period and, more troublingly, the backstop – is far more circuitous than many Leavers hoped. But the end destination is still just about in sight.

This becomes all the more significant considering this week’s double whammy of the ECJ advocate general’s (advisory) opinion that Britain has the power to unilaterally revoke Article 50 and Dominic Grieve’s amendment enabling the Commons to vote on what the Government should do if May’s deal is rejected.

Reports in this morning’s Times of a cross-party Parliamentary committee to steer the next stage of Brexit talks should heighten concerns that the choice now is between May’s deal, a softer Brexit or no Brexit at all

Taken together, these developments dramatically reduce the chance of a No Deal Brexit – managed or otherwise — and boost the chances of no Brexit. Suddenly, the Withdrawal Agreement being debated in the House of Commons – maddening compromise that it is – looks like the most (the only?) viable route that allows Britain to capitalise on the opportunities created by Brexit, rather than just mitigate against the downsides.

It is certainly easy to understand the frustrations of the Brexiteers. We are a long way from the clarity of the Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech. The Prime Minister cannot avoid at least some of the blame for failing to manage those expectations and level with both her party and her country about the trade-offs involved in our departure. Moreover, as I have written before, the British government is paying a high price for needlessly accepting the EU’s logic on Northern Ireland and the unnecessarily cast-iron backstop.

But MPs must disassociate these regrets and grievances from their assessment of the options on the table. Though, if the attitude of one senior Tory — who told the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg that May “doesn’t listen to anyone, so why should we” — is anything to go by, too many MPs are playing the woman not the ball.

If Leave-supporting MPs really mean it when they say that no Brexit at all would be better than May’s deal, then they should vote accordingly. And if they say that a better Brexit is out there, they need to explain how, given the ever tightening Parliamentary constraints.

Not so long ago, Brexit seemed unimaginable. But the shift in where the Eurosceptic consensus lies has made it harder for some of those involved to remember how far their cause has come – or appreciate how easily that progress may be snatched away.

Oliver Wiseman is Editor of CapX.