29 January 2019

From Norway to no deal: How hard Brexit went mainstream


At some point in the not too distant future someone is going to write a short but necessary book. It shall be titled something like The Radicalisation of Euroscepticism 2015-2019: From Norway to Ourselves Alone and it will chronicle the manner in which much of the Conservative and Unionist party dedicated itself to a mission most of its elected tribunes thought either impossible or undesirable at the outset of the period under examination. That outcome is leaving the European Union without a withdrawal agreement. The book will explore how and why so many MPs persuaded themselves that the hardest of all Brexits was also the best of all possible Brexits.

Because, as a fascinating BBC documentary “Inside Europe: 10 Years of Turmoil” broadcast on Monday night reminded us, it is startling to recall how recently the Conservative party converted itself to hardcore Euroscepticism. Election results change everything, of course, creating their own new realities, but even so it bears repeating that until very recently actually leaving the EU was a minority enthusiasm within the Tory party and leaving without a “deal” a minority enthusiasm even amongst that minority.

How times change. The BBC’s film, which featured plangent interviews with George Osborne, William Hague, Donald Tusk, Nicolas Sarkozy and others, offered a portrait of David Cameron that was, depending on your mileage, damning or tragic. Or, indeed, both. Here was a prime minister repeatedly making impossible demands of his European partners, the better to placate his implacable internal critics.

Granted, the film owed much to a certain hindsight bias. As Cameron’s tortuous, wholly inadequate, but also impossible attempt at renegotiating Britain’s EU membership, the likes of Tusk and others claimed to foresee the likelihood, perhaps even the inevitability, of a Leave vote. I am not persuaded this is what they really felt at the time; if they had, if they had taken that possibility more seriously, the renegotiation process might have proceeded differently.

From Hague and Osborne, too, there was a sense of despairing inevitability about the entire process. We were forced to ask for things we could not get, knowing that failure to achieve a bigger, better, set of changes would lead us to our doom. We pressed on, for we could do no other, but the game was up.

Again, however, this fits ill with how the government behaved at the time. There was little sense in 2015 that Cameron and Osborne thought they might well lose the Brexit referendum. If there had been, you would think they would have taken some different decisions. At the very least, cabinet ministers who wished to oppose government policy would have been told they could not do so while remaining members of the cabinet.

That decision, not necessarily a fateful one but hardly a helpful one either, was, in poker parlance, a “tell” too. A reminder that preserving Tory unity was both the proximate cause of the referendum and the prime minister’s chief preoccupation during it. Winning was assumed; therefore the importance of other factors was given greater weight than now seems altogether wise.

Even so, referendums are radicalising events. To the victors the spoils and to the losers, well, nothing. This at any rate is one of the stories of the post-referendum period. Some of this owes much to the meaning of Brexit divined by the prime minister and Nick Timothy, not least their conviction that ending the free movement of European people was the one non-negotiable lesson of Brexit.

At a stroke, therefore, and with Theresa May’s encouragement, some of the Brexits previously championed by Brexiteers themselves were ruled out of bounds. Amongst these, most notably, the Norway option that, in a society divided 52-48 on the substantive issue, most probably came closest to satisfying both the referendum result and the balance of opinion in the country.

This, it seems worth recalling, was also an outcome with which many Brexiteers could have lived before the referendum. As Daniel Hannan put it in October 2015, “Norway has a much better deal than the UK, but Switzerland’s is better yet. There is no reason why, after Brexit, we shouldn’t get an even more attractive arrangement”. Their respective relationships with the EU “would be a big improvement on where we are now”.

Now Mr Hannan, I think, still believes this and certainly believes that either a Norwegian or Swiss model would be more attractive than the withdrawal agreement the prime minister has actually negotiated with the EU. Nevertheless, it is striking that many of his colleagues in the Brexiteer movement disagree. To be Norwegian would be to accept “vassalage” of a kind no roast-beef-fed Englishman could be expected to think anything other than an intolerable assault upon his dignity.

Such, however, is the power of group think and group dynamics. What was once impossible or undesirable becomes steadily more attractive as members of the group encourage each other to indulge themselves in ever more radical flights of fancy. Hence the manner in which a “hard” Brexit is redefined as a “clean” Brexit — hard is painful, clean is aspirational — and “no deal” becomes as appealing as the fairest sirens that ever sung a tune.

Again, the Prime Minister cannot escape her own responsibility for this radicalisation of Brexiteer opinion. You cannot spend two years telling the country “no deal is better than a bad deal” without there being some consequences. Because, as has become all too evident, any deal was likely to be considered a “bad deal” and, if this is so, hardline Brexiteers have been given license to say they are only taking the Prime Minister at her own word.

The history of British Euroscepticism, however, is such that all deals are bad. UK-EU relations are a form of Danegeld in which the government keeps paying but, as Kipling observed, without ever getting rid of the Dane.

As Hague and Osborne ruefully recalled, however, a government has two choices when faced with a rebellion. It can crush it and risk looking weak if it fails to crush it properly, or it can seek to buy-off the rebels and look weak anyway. Time and time again, Tory prime ministers have taken the latter option. That being so, perhaps the increasing radicalisation of Brexiteer sentiment should not be thought surprising.

Even so, it remains remarkable and it has led us to this remarkable point at which the Gordian knot of the withdrawal agreement can be solved by a single slash of a Brexit sword. No deal is better than any deal; no deal is pure.

And that, perhaps, is how we may yet find ourselves in the extraordinary position of enduring a kind of Brexit for which there is little support in the House of Commons and for which there was little enthusiasm for even amongst the hardcore Brexiteers themselves as recently as 24 months ago. A rum game, indeed, and possibly a tragic one too.

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Alex Massie is a political commentator.