The Leave campaign offered two contradictory visions for Brexit. Some argued that we could remain in the EU’s vital single market, despite leaving the EU. Others argued that we should cut links entirely, focusing on the rest of the world.
The reason they were divided is that both scenarios are problematic.
- Staying fully in the single market requires respecting its rules, but as a non-member we would no longer have any say in those rules. It also means accepting the principle of free movement, which (they were telling voters) was a big problem stopping us from slashing immigration.
- Leaving the single market means that most things we sell to our main export market would face a tariff, and our financial sector would lose its ‘passporting rights’ to offer services across Europe. These would lose us market share and, ultimately, many jobs.
Yet, rather than resolve this division among themselves, they continued to offer both these visions because they needed to woo two very different groups of voters.
- The first was ‘middle England’ voters, whose longstanding suspicions about ‘Brussels’ had always been tempered by the understanding that Britain’s place at the heart of the European single market is a vital ingredient in our economic prosperity. This group needed reassurance that walking away from the EU would not mean losing any of its economic benefits — a reassurance that Brexiteers were happy to give.
- The second group was voters concerned about immigration. With a little clever manipulation — after all, most migrants in Britain are from outside the EU — these people’s fears could now be diverted towards Europe, with predictable results.
The Leave campaign managed to get away almost unchalleneged in making these two different arguments simultaneously, without much media attention to their incompatibility.
Fast forward to five weeks after the vote, and the pro-single market and anti-immigration factions of the campaign are still there — but their vote-grabbing chickens are coming home to roost and finding there is only room in the henhouse for one of them.
EU leaders have reiterated that membership of the single market requires accepting its four freedoms: free movement of goods, services, capital, and people. This should not be a surprise to anyone. The single market is built on those four freedoms, and every country in it has signed up to them. (Incidentally, that includes non-EU member Norway, which welcomes many more migrants per head of population than we do, makes a similar budget contribution to ours, and silently accept EU rules without ever getting to vote on them. If you really feel the need to ‘take your country back’, aping Norway is not the way to do it, as they themselves have pointed out.)
Might there be room for a pragmatic compromise in Britain’s case? After all, the EU has historically been good at compromises. But it’s looking nigh-on impossible this time — largely because Brexiteers have backed themselves so far into a corner on free movement that there is literally nowhere for them to go.
Nothing illustrates this more clearly than the way the anti-European press have responded to an initial idea for precisely such a compromise, tentatively floated at the weekend. The suggestion was that the UK might stay in the single market and still restrict free movement for up to seven years if necessary — a beefed-up form of the “emergency brake” that Cameron had secured last year. This is not quite having one’s cake and eating it, but it would be a significant concession by our European neighbours.
How did the papers respond? The Sun ran with Eurosceptics blast emergency brake immigration plan as woefully inadequate. The Times was a little more careful, pointing out (perhaps accurately) that Seven-year brake on migration will not satisfy voters. And the Express predictably reinterpreted the whole thing as an anti-democratic plot, screaming about Anger at EU deal to STOP Brexit.
All three papers quoted UKIP and hard-right Tories claiming that anything short of complete and instantaneous EU abandonment would be a betrayal. For them, no compromise on free movement is possible, even if that means excluding ourselves from the single market. So, a ‘hard’ exit, not a ‘soft’ one. Never mind that they sold the softer version to many voters. And, too bad that, if only the hard version is on offer, many Leave voters might want to reconsider!
Theresa May’s new government, and the House of Commons as a whole, will therefore be struggling with a fundamental question. How should we respond if voters feel that they have been tricked?
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