I’ve been looking back at my posts from last summer, when things Brexit-y were in much more obvious flux. this was triggered by last week’s post on the looming Article 50 notification, which reminded me that I’d sketched out some options.
Briefly re-stated, these suggested that the UK would aim for either close or distant relations with the EU in the initial post-membership phase and then in the longer-term relationship: thus, you could have a ‘Norway’ (close, then close), ‘reverse accession’ (close, then distant), ‘abyss’ (distant, then close) and ‘hard’ (distant, then distant) path.
Clearly, debate has moved on since then, but the ‘abyss‘ option is worth revisiting, for reasons that will be fairly obvious.
The basic conceit is that the government would push hard for a distant relationship, only then to row back hard, having seen how perilous that route is in practice. The benign version would be a genuine change of heart – ‘we must think of the national interest’-type rhetoric – while the more cynical might consider it possible that the government always had this in mind, but it was the only way to build public support for what looks like a reversal of policy.
As regular readers will know, I incline in general to cynicism, but the past 8 months as surely the clearest ever example of cock-up over conspiracy. If there is someone in Whitehall or Westminster with a masterplan for all this, then it is the equal of any paperback thriller, and about as likely.
This, sadly, should be no comfort to any of us: there has been a palpable sense of ‘making it up as we go along’ in the corridors of power, strengthened by the repeated failures to demonstrate even the minimal level of intent needed to conduct negotiations with the EU27.
So if the abyss option is to be used, it will be because it looks like the best course of action at the time. This raises two basic questions: why would that happen, and what would be the effect?
Inasmuch as the government does know what it wants from Brexit, the direction is currently set for something between ‘reverse accession’ and ‘hard’ Brexit: no to free movement, but trying to keep as much as possible of the rest. Rhetorically, Theresa May has placed herself firmly in this position, accepting no advice and encouraging no debate beyond her very immediate circle. The unwavering opposition to any amendment of her ‘plan’ is a strong part of this: firm, if futile, resistance to the Millar case; parliamentary manoeuvring to avoid amendments to the EU(NOW) Bill.
The upshot is that May has made it very hard indeed to move away from her position, vague though it might be. As a result, it would need something of very great weight to move her.
Logically, that great weight would be an economic collapse, something at least in the order of 2007-8 and possibly even more. This means a need for dramatic visuals of shuttered factories, sharply rising inflation and unemployment, stark collapses in the exchange rate: moreover, it needs to be clearly linked to Brexit.
Ironically, the dithering caused by David Cameron’s abrupt departure in June makes this all much less likely. The hiatus has not only given economic agents time to start lying plans and make adjustments, it has also changed public opinion. The failure of the Leave vote to result in the economic calamities forecast by Remain campaigners has given many voters the impression that Brexit won’t (maybe even can’t) be so bad, economically speaking. Yes, the UK hasn’t actually changed anything about its status in the EU, but that is to miss the point: many people don’t see it that way. Put differently, ‘Project fear’ only works if people buy the fear: otherwise, it’s all a bit Wizard of Oz.
As a result, even if economic disaster did loom, it might not actually have the effect outlined above. Instead, it might simply encourage a ‘more of the same’ attitude: it’s only hurting because we haven’t yet followed through. Politically, the advantage of taking that view is that it’s unknowable, and that if things do go belly-up, then one can always argue that it was because we didn’t make the right choices earlier on. Unsatisfactory perhaps, but probably more attractive an option than having to eat humble pie as you scramble to rebuild links with the EU.
And this is the second element: the EU would probably be willing to accept a contrite UK, returning to the table to ask for more. Quite aside from the political and personal satisfactions of seeing the EU model be vindicated by the UK’s return, such a development would be a positive one for EU exporters and EU security (both narrowly and broadly). Practically, if this all happened relatively quickly, then the legislative gap would be minimal and things could be put together at some speed.
But to put all of this down on paper/screen simply highlights how much more unlikely the abyss option has become. If it ever had a chance, then that chance looks to have been spent somewhere between May’s election as party leader and the non-amendment of the EU(NOW) Bill in the Commons.
This matters, because it points once again to the central importance of the opening of Article 50 negotiations and the initial ask that will come with that. This will be the central determinant of the path of Brexit, which is why May has held on to control of it so very firmly. The big question now is whether she knows what to do with the power she now holds.