6 December 2018

Brexiteers should hold their nerve and set a course for No Deal


This morning CapX editor Oliver Wiseman argued that “Brexiteers are snatching defeat from the jaws of victory” by urging that May’s deal be voted down. This is one of the main arguments proffered by that few, that happy few, that band of Brexit brothers that believes May’s deal is the only way forward that “saves Brexit”.

I disagree, and I want to explain why. I disagree for the conventional and widely-discussed reasons that May’s deal is an unconscionable capitulation that breaks up the United Kingdom, surrenders sovereignty over Northern Ireland to foreign lawmakers and foreign courts with no say, makes the rest of the UK a rule-taker with no say over a wide range of policies for the future, with no means of escape, traps us in a customs union with no chance of making our own non-EU trade deals and obliged to accept the terms of future EU trade deals without reciprocation, and squanders £40bn and more, that we do not owe the EU, for nothing concrete of value in return.

May’s deal is worse than Remaining in the EU. The threat that if we reject May’s deal we may end up Remaining is, in that sense, no threat at all.

All that is well-rehearsed, and more than enough, but not my main point here. I want to counter the idea that, if we are not to Remain, May’s deal is the only option. It is not.

Most obviously, it is not the only option because the default is that we will leave the EU with no deal – infinitely preferable to May’s deal – and it is by no means clear that, for all the talk, there is anything anyone can do to prevent that if May’s deal is rejected. There is nothing close to a majority for May’s deal, but there may well be nothing close to a majority for anything else either.

Some folk appear to believe that if we ditch May’s deal we will end up with membership of the Single Market and Customs Union, but with no say over the rules or trade deals. It is worth observing that, for all the talk, that is not actually Labour’s policy so even if there were enough Conservatives willing to vote for it to see it through (which there probably aren’t, for reasons we shall come to in a moment), it is by no means obvious that Labour would support it.

Labour’s policy is that we should remain as members of the Single Market and Customs Union but with a say over the Single Market’s rules and a role in negotiating future trade deals — or, in other words, being EU members. There is no official Labour tolerance for placing the UK as a rule-taker, and it is quite easy to see why.

Can you really imagine Jeremy Corbyn coming in to power, attempting to implement his economic programme, and simply accepting it when the EU says: “That’s against the Single Market’s rules”? Corbyn is and always has been more passionately opposed to the EU than any “hard Brexiteer” on the Conservative side. A sustained majority Corbynista government means leaving the EU. It’s by no means obvious that Labour’s frontbench would back rule-taking, especially not if a second EU referendum were available as an alternative.

But even if Labour’s front bench did back Single Market plus Customs Union rule-taking, how would it pass the Commons? Such an arrangement would mean free movement of people. Some in Labour might accept that, though probably not the Corbynistas, since they believe it means under-cutting salaries with cheap foreign labour. But how could Conservative MPs go to their electorate and say, in the context of talk of Brexit betrayal, that they hadn’t even delivered an end to free movement?

So what would be the way forward, then, if Parliament considers it cannot accept no deal? A second referendum?

That would obviously be hugely illegitimate, akin to a coup. Yes, I mean that quite literally. To have a vote then use Executive power to refuse to implement the result of a vote is exactly and literally what happens when there is a coup. And I say: make them do it. If Parliamentarians who have never truly accepted that we are leaving the EU want to refuse to implement the result of our largest ever national vote, we should force them to do so openly, and reap the consequences, instead of hiding behind made-up excuses about the Irish border, as May has sought to do in her deal.

The consequences of the Conservative Party advocating a second referendum would not be us remaining in the EU. For starters, a second referendum would probably go for Leave again, and with a bigger majority this time. Pro-Brexit folk should therefore not be in the least intimidated by threats of another vote.

The objection is not that we would not win. It is that having a second vote, refusing to implement the first, is a constitutional abomination, that it would cause a huge loss of confidence in democratic politics and greatly empower extremist democratic politicians and anti-democratic political forces, and that it would probably trigger the creation of a new True Leavers party that would split and destroy the Conservative Party in the form we have known it. According to opinion polls, 90 per cent of Conservative activists oppose a second referendum.

Similar percentages oppose May’s deal or any Single Market plus Customs Union rule-taking alternative. Those activists and donors will not sit mute in a second referendum. The only way to motivate Leave voters to turn out again, despite the absolutely undemocratic nature of a second vote, will be to tell them that we do not care about the result and ask them to vote, not to leave, but for a new political party, the True Leavers, who will then stand in elections and implement Leaving if they win (regardless of the result of any second “referendum”).

Such a split might well lead to a Corbyn government anyway. True Leavers might not be able to grow quickly enough to beat Corbyn the first time. But, from here, anything other than No Deal probably ensures a Corbyn victory anyway. Only leaving with no deal or winning a second referendum and then leaving with no deal gives us any chance to stop that now. And, of course, a Corbyn government would mean rapidly leaving the EU anyway.

There are very few paths from here that lead to anything other than leaving with No Deal. We do that in March, or we do that after a second referendum is won, or we do that after a Corbyn victory, or we do that after a True Leavers victory. Brexiteers cannot snatch defeat from the jaws of victory now except in one way: by voting for May’s deal. Once that is voted down, almost all paths lead us home.

Andrew Lilico is an economist and political writer.