Chickens coming home to roost

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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  1. Which is why I think there may have to be a second referendum once the choice of route has been decided.

    It is the equivalent of deciding whether or not to buy the house you made an offer on now you have the surveyor’s report and can decide whether or not it meets your requirements.

    • Totally agree second ref is the ONLY sensible solution. Many truths are now coming to light now that we were unaware of not least of which is the mind boggling cost in time and manpower of untangling reams and reams of trade deals and legislation that will take years and years. In the end what will we be left with? If a second referendum produces the same result then we can be sure that Brexit is indeed the will of the people. If, on the other hand, a sufficiently large number of people are persuaded to change their vote or to vote at all, in light of the information we now have at our disposal, a Remain result would return us to the fold without the doomsday scenario hovering over us for years to come.

  2. I agree we will need a second referendum ,no one will change the minds of the brexiters who don”t like migrants,immigrants,asylum seekers and refugees(and who don’t know the difference between these groups). However,when the financial and economic reality of losing the single market is understood,a second referendum may produce a different result,which will be better for the UK.

  3. In fact, this completely invalidates the referendum. Those who voted Remain knew what they were voting for – essentially the status quo – but those who voted Leave had no clear idea at all of what they were voting for. There was never any clear plan for Brexit, and there still isn’t. It was totally dishonest to tell voters that , essentially, they would get whatever it was that they wanted if they voted Leave. The entire Leave campaign was based on “pie in the sky”.

    Now, Theresa May is going around giving reassurance to everyone – the Scots, the Northern Irish, the Irish Republic, the Poles, etc., etc. The assurances she has given so far are doubtfully attainable – indeed, some of them are probably mutually incompatible. “Brexit is Brexit”, she says – but no one yet has any clear idea of what Brexit actually may be.

    A further point, which is absolutely fundamental, is that, IF the British government can ever arrive at some kind of consensus on what Brexit should be, it will still be necessary to obtain the consent of the EU, which may well not be forthcoming.

    The whole Brexit idea is already an economic disaster. What has happened since the referendum? Has anything improved? I see nothing that is better than it was before 23 June, but a very great deal that is worse.

    Brexit must be stopped, and it must be stopped as soon as possible, before the economic damage to the UK becomes irreversible.

  4. Leaving the EU is effectively national suicide. Added to that, not one of the Brexit promises will work out .. History will view these days with puzzlement, asking why on earth the population of Britain allowed 52% of the population to be hoodwinked, and for nobody to be held to account.

    • Please don’t dignify them by calling them 52%. They were 37.44% of those registered to vote, and then there were over a million not registered thanks to Cameron’s gerrymandering, not to mention a huge number of 16 and 17 year olds who have to live with the damage.

      Their constant whinging about being a majority is just a lie.

  5. Plus a soft fudged exit might just persuade the Scots to hang on in there for a bit to see how it goes. A hard exit and that’s the end of the UK. Will Theresa May go for an election in October to get a mandate for one or the other?

  6. I’m afraid there will be no second referendum. There is no room for compromise on freedom of movement and saying the electorate was mislead, whilst true, is no more than happens at most elections when promises are made (such as the upper limit on immigration) which are impossible to keep. Many people in Europe have had enough of the UK and it’s whinging and I doubt there will be much sympathy for attempts to negotiate first and present article 50 later. Frankly Europe has more important matters to attend to than the problems of the UK Tory party.

  7. The self-contradictory arguments are well and eloquently dissected here. But a missing element is any allusion to Germany. In a plethora of discussions with Brexiters over the past few weeks, charges of German ambitions, German bullying and German duplicity (rather than the more time-honored French version) have invariably been featured themes. Where on earthj did this come from? No one offered a shred of convincing evidence to support these charges. When challenged, they usually fell back on Boris Johnson’s utterly unfounded assertion that Madame Merkel is carrying out Hitler’s program for the teutonic domination of Europe. As an Italian, I’m painfully accustomed to the blurred line between fact and phobic fantasy. Those of us who do respect facts and sober analysis used to look with great admiration at Britain — especially England! — as a model of rational discourse. But you’ve managed the impossible feat of outdoing Silvio Berlusconi and his minions in wild exaggeration and inventive paranoia.

  8. You’ve provided a very clear dissection of the Brexit campaign, and from the antipodes it appears that Britain has made a monumental mistake. So how did this come about? I don’t believe that it was just an internal Tory Party problem. A significant proportion of those who voted Brexit have suffered under globalisation. They are at the lower end of the now yawning wealth divide. Conditions in the western world are eerily similar to the late 1920s, and those left behind are flexing their discontent. Unless we make a more inclusive society, and ensure that services and opportunities are more fairly shared, we may run the gauntlet of a new round of demagoguery and fascism.

  9. Before the referendum the majority of MPs (450 according to the BBC) were pro-Europe. Those who weren’t seem to largely have been the Conservative eurosceptic wing. What might arise if parliament gets a vote on article 50 (not certain) is a marriage of convenience in favour of remaining: europhile tories, bulk of the PLP, libdems, SNP, some NI MPs. Enough to beat the eurosceptics and any MPs who feel constrained to vote in the way that their constituencies voted in the referendum.

    Would that happen? Maybe.

    Firstly, it’s clear from the parliamentary briefing given before the act enabling the referendum passed through Parliament, that the result was not mandatory: “It does not contain any requirement for the UK Government to implement the results of the referendum, nor set a time limit by which a vote to leave the EU should be implemented.”

    Secondly, the result was clearly a win for ‘leave’, but not an overwhelming one. In the end 37% of the registered electorate voted leave. Put another way, 63% of MP’s constituents didn’t vote to leave.

    Thirdly, the code of conduct for MPs states ‘Members have a general duty to act in the interests of the nation as a whole.” If MPs believed on June 22 that the nation’s interests were best served by remaining in the EU, it’s difficult to accept that many will have changed their minds since.

    Given all that it seems quite feasible that parliament will not vote (again, if it gets the chance) to invoke article 50. It might even happen that parliament votes to reject Brexit completely. More likely is that it will instruct government to determine the terms on which UK will (or will not) leave, and then to submit those terms to the public either as part of a general election manifesto, or in another referendum.

  10. The problem all along, and it hasn’t gone away as your newspaper headlines demonstrate, is how ever do we, the general public, get timely, accurate information about what is happening ? The media is at best failing us, and at worst positively harmful. The Government has no apparent intention or will to assist, so we are left with social media and helpful individuals like yourself from which to gather what we can. And this is (they tell me) the 21st Century with the internet widely available, and a TV set in almost every house. The means of communication is there, the will to communicate is sadly lacking.

  11. The inconvenient truth that no one dares to talk about is that people voted for Brexit to express their total disenchantment with the Westminster government, NOT our EU membership as such. If Mrs May invokes Article 50 without first winning a free vote in the Commons and without first “uniting the country” as she had promised to do, then we are heading for civil war and a total break up of the UK. Anger on the Remain side is rising steadily and will certainly not be silenced by the undemocratic, and self-centred actions of a right wing Tory government. No one wants to sit back and let them inflict such economic damage and regionally divisive policies on the British public, many of whom have been blatantly misled on what is at stake. Better to stand up and be heard than for future generations of Brits to pay the price for our silence and timidity.

  12. The trouble with a second referendum (which would be sensible once we know the outcome of the negotiations) is, can you imagine the hysterical anger of the UKippers and their Tory friends?

    I can’t see May risking that. And if they chucked her out and Corbyn replaced her, would he go for that?

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