It certainly makes things more complex!
In the words of Professor A C Grayling ‘When May called the election she said it was for a mandate for #Brexit: meaning she didn’t have one. She certainly hasn’t got one now!’
The electorate rejected May’s approach to Brexit. But as a result of losing her majority, she has now made an alliance with the DUP, a party that supports a hard Brexit – except in terms of wanting to avoid customs controls on the Irish border.
She is also dependent on the soft Brexit supporting Scottish Conservatives – without whose surge she and her party would have been completely sunk.
And it is worth remembering how close we were – a few hundred votes in eight constituencies – to having a Labour government that would have depended on the goodwill of the Lib Dems, the SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Greens, all demanding a referendum on any final Brexit deal. We would have been in a totally different ballgame.
But now, uncertainty reigns. There is no majority in Parliament for a hard Brexit, but what is there a majority for? And what can feasibly be secured in the negotiations? And will we conclude that Brexit itself should be questioned?
Some MPs on both government and opposition benches support staying in the single market, possibly going for the ‘Norwegian’ model of remaining in the European Economic Area (and rejoining EFTA – the European Free Trade Association – if it will have us). This avoids the economic disruption of being torn out of our main market, and allows most goods and services to flow freely without red tape.
But it implies accepting also the free movement of labour. That has, up to now, been anathema to leading ministers, on the grounds that that was what voters most dislike about the EU. However, some may at last be willing to grasp the nettle and actually explain to the electorate that most migration to Britain is from outside the EU (entirely under national rules and control), that EU freedom of movement is not an unconditional right and that Britain could address the difficulties it creates by enforcing the conditions properly and taking other national measures.
There is also a concern that staying in the single market means following its rules (on consumer protection, fair competition, environmental standards and workers’ rights) without having a say on them anymore. But most of these rules will be followed anyway, not just by industries and services who export to the EU, but also by Britain as such in its internal legislation. Many EU rules are in fact the transposition in Europe of standards agreed at world level. Others are where the EU, as the world’s largest market, has set a standard which is subsequently followed by many others. We will therefore be following the bulk of those rules anyway. Not having a say on them is a consequence of leaving the EU, not avoided by leaving the single market too. Leaving the single market would simply add economic losses to the loss of political influence that arises from leaving the EU. (And if we want to avoid the loss of influence, then we must stay in the EU itself.)
Similar arguments arise about staying in the customs union. Even if we secured tariff free access, exporting into a customs union from outside means customs controls to apply World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules of origin. This means a lot of paperwork and red tape for companies and increased controls at the border. The cost of the additional bureaucracy and delays – often within international supply chains – is prohibitive. What does Theresa May want to do? Leaving the customs union would be particularly unpalatable to the DUP, because it would mean a customs border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, but on the other hand she has re-appointed Liam Fox, who wants out of the customs union and whose whole department is premised on the idea that Britain would negotiate separate trade deals and set its own tariffs with the rest of the world, despite the significant hurdles to that course of action.
And what of security cooperation? The recent terrorist attacks in Manchester and London were a reminder that we need to cooperate more, not less, with other countries in facing this common threat. Walking out of EUROPOL and of the EU data sharing mechanisms is not a good idea. The EU might let us remain in them, provided we accept that any disputes about the rules are settled by the European Court of Justice. On this issue, several ministers and opposition MPs are signalling that they want to maintain such cooperation.
Other technical agencies are important for completely different reasons. The European Air Safety Agency, the Medicines Agency, the Chemicals Agency and so on are not just about cutting costs by pooling our verification, testing and certification systems – their authorisations are necessary for placing products on the European market. Either we ask to stay in them, or we will have to set up our own agencies at great expense, recruit the necessary expertise and negotiate recognition of them by the EU and by countries across the world. Without securing one of these two options, British airlines, pharmaceutical and chemical companies will be unable to sell to the rest of Europe.
Also up for debate is what to do about agriculture and fisheries. There are increasing signs of disquiet from farmers who face leaving an agreed system of subsidies across Europe that not only guarantees their income but also their access to European markets with a level playing field. That access will be under threat if we leave. Can we negotiate to avoid such a catastrophe if we leave? How? By following a system equivalent to the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) leaving little leeway for difference? In which case, shouldn’t we stay in it and have a say on the rules.
And for fisheries, not a peep from the government about its intentions.
In another sector, our universities – and MPs representing seats with universities – will also be pressing for continued participation in European research programmes and student exchanges. Will the government agree to soften Brexit in this way? Can it secure that in the negotiations if it is at the same time questioning free movement of students?
Confusion and chaos… or a re-think?
All this will add pressure on the government that may reach breaking point. Agreeing what constitutes a soft Brexit will accentuate divisions in the Tory party, polarise positions and raise the possibility that the only viable way of avoiding economic catastrophe is to rethink Brexit itself.