Unless it’s for a referendum
London4Europe Committee member and former senior civil servant Michael Romberg writes.
It could all have been so different.
What the Leave campaign should have done
For a start, the Leave campaign should have worked up a plan. They didn’t for two reasons. First, for decades they had fulminated about how awful the EU was but they had not bothered to work up a plan. That would have required them to face up to the advantages as well as the disadvantages of EU membership; to explain how they would replicate the benefits of EU membership from outside.
Second, when the referendum campaign arrived they – or rather their Svengali, Dominic Cummins – realised two points:
- They would not be able to agree a plan, since the different supporters of Leave had conflicting objectives: global Britain or protectionism? stop immigration or open to the world?
- Without a plan every voter could project onto the Leave campaign the Brexit that they wanted. That would maximise the vote.
Hence the mandate of the 2016 referendum is binding but provisional: as always when an idea is accepted the next step is to write a plan. Then that plan has to be compared with the no-change option. That’s why there should be a referendum with the option to Remain.
What happened after the referendum
Everyone decided that the result definitely meant a vote for whatever type of Brexit they wanted. Given the resumption of Parliamentary focus that meant that three groups got to define Brexit:
- Theresa May decided that her long-term aim of ending freedom of movement was the point. Other decisions flowed from that as well as the need to shore up her position against the ERG.
- The Conservative MPs who wanted Brexit were fairly homogeneous in what they wanted: Global Britain, sovereignty, low regulation, low tax.
- Lexiter MPs wanted out of the rules of the single market, especially state aids. They wished to reduce the impact of international trade on employment and protect manufacturing jobs. That stance was reinforced by those who wished for largely electoral reasons to end freedom of movement.
Unlike the other groups the Government had to face up to reality. They did engage with the practicalities and with the economic and administrative advice. They had enough sense of responsibility not to wish to harm the economy more than was necessary. They also did not wish to risk a return to fighting in Northern Ireland
Hence the largely identical Brexits promoted by many in both of the two main parties: no freedom of movement; close to but not in the single market; customs union; substantial regulatory alignment with EU rules.
What the Government should have done
A narrow win for an undefined but massive change should have led to a period of reflection. The Government could have said “Yes, but what did you mean?”. It could have convened citizen’s assemblies, promoted debate, put out information on the options and consulted. It could have clarified what the point of Brexit was. It could then have presented options for how to achieve those aims, whether by Brexit or by other means. Once there was a consensus it could have taken the policy forward.
What the opposition should have done
The opposition could have done that too, albeit on a more modest scale without access to public funds and finding it harder to avoid a suspicion of party bias. It could certainly have called for such a programme of work. To some extent dissident MPs who opposed the Article 50 notification on the basis that the Government was not ready did so. But the Labour party leadership was more gung-ho even than the Government with Corbyn calling on 24 June 2016 for the notification to be given “immediately”.
Where we are
We don’t know what Brexit is for. The parties have competing narratives that explain the vote in terms of their own general political stance.
The Prime Minister’s Brexit deal offers an anti-immigration Brexit with minimal economic cost.
Jeremy Corbyn’s is much the same with added freedom from State aids rules. That difference could be settled in the negotiations leading up to the long-term arrangements. (If he won a pre-Brexit election, the EU would not be willing to mess up the European Parliament elections for trivial clarifications to the political declaration. So they might extend the time-table but only to mid May. Without a Parliament to ratify a treaty change, only clarifications could be agreed.)
The ERG prioritise Global Britain, trade freedom, freedom from rules, stripping back protective regulations. It is hard to believe the plan would have its current level of popular support once the domestic agenda was clearer.
Norway Plus would prioritise formal sovereignty (and the economy), while subordinating actual sovereignty and doing nothing on immigration.
It’s make-up-your-mind time
The choice is between the Government’s deal and Remain. One could expand the choice to no-deal so that the campaign can educate voters in what Rees-Mogg is really about and reduce the betrayal narrative.
There is no reason to believe we would put more time to good use. There is no more analysis that will change minds, no new information to come, no new ideas to be developed. We have to face up to the options there are.
So the only justification for extending the Article 50 deadline is to allow a referendum with the option to Remain.
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