The reason why Theresa May is so silent on her Brexit plans is because, as soon as she comes off the fence, the Tory party civil war on Europe will flare up again in public.
The divisions between those who consider it vital that Britain continues to participate in the single market and those who are determined to wrench Britain away from any connection to Europe run deep.
On the one hand, people like Michael Gove say:
“We don’t want or need to be in the single market (…) We don’t want to be bound by being members of the customs union. Outside we can negotiate new trade deals with emerging economies. Inside we’re trapped.”
On the other hand Tory grandee and former chancellor Ken Clarke argues that “you cannot leave a market of 500 million people without making yourself poorer than you otherwise would be” and Anna Soubry, former business minister, has called on her leader to “show she’s prepared to stand up to the hardline, fall-off-a-cliff Brexiteers and say, ‘no, we’re not going to do it your way’”.
Within the Tory party, anyone who calls for a more specific definition than ‘Brexit means Brexit’ is dubbed one of the ‘new bastards.’
Theresa May has sought to straddle this divide by talking in general terms about Brexit meaning Brexit and securing “access” to the single market – a weasel word; because some form of access is always possible, it is a question of what terms and conditions apply. But she cannot continue to obfuscate for very much longer without appearing indecisive, disingenuous and inept.
“People want detail. People need detail. If the prime minister does what she did as home secretary and not say much then she’s going to really find it difficult to keep the party with her.”
Who said this? Not Labour’s Keir Starmer – who has successfully led a call in the Commons for a plan to be put before Parliament so it can be debated in public – but Ben Howlett, Conservative MP for Bath, who backed May’s leadership campaign.
Even Tory donors are wading in. Industrialist Sir Andrew Cook, who has donated over £1.2 million to the Tories, said this weekend that leaving the single market would be “chronic and dangerous” to the economy. “One of my factories has 200 people employed making engineering parts that go to France, Germany and Italy,” he told the BBC, “were it not for the single market I would not be trading with these people“. He went further in The Times, saying that the “economic arguments of staying in the single market are overwhelming” and that he does not want to see the country “sleepwalk to disaster” by leaving it.
The Conservatives fought the general election in 2015, on a manifesto which claimed ‘We say: Yes to the single market. Yes to turbocharging free trade. Yes to working together where we are stronger together than alone. Yes to a family of nation states, all part of the European Union.’ It is hard to see how those MPs elected on this manifesto, who campaigned hard to remain in the EU, and who acknowledge the benefits of market access and working together, will be able to fully support May’s government if it goes down the hard Brexit path. Some may even oppose any Brexit, certainly a costly and damaging one.
However, it is equally hard to imagine that MPs who are staunch Brexiteers will support a government that, in aiming to get us the best deal possible and protect the UK economy, keeps us in the single market, where we will be obliged to respect its four freedoms. For many of them, ideology trumps economy. What kind of a stink will Dan Hannan, Peter Bone and Philip Davies kick up if they are asked to follow the government down the soft Brexit path, with the preferential single market access we now have, and the four freedoms that come with it.
Much as she might wish to continue to fudge it, May is merely postponing the inevitable. She has promised Parliament she will lay out her plan before article 50 is triggered at the end of March. Her negotiators need to be given clear objectives. Her increasingly futile efforts to hold her party together have led her to try and evade scrutiny by Parliament, confuse our negotiating partners and further diminish her credibility.
‘Brexit means Brexit’ is a circular definition that has been spinning around long enough. It’s time for Theresa May to start talking straight.