There is a majority in Parliament – in both Houses – for some form the ‘soft’ Brexit. The question is, can it get out?
Let’s be clear – the Brexiteers are right about one thing: the majority of MPs stood on manifestos committing us to leaving the EU. But they did not commit themselves to any old Brexit Theresa May and David Davis decide we’ll get. Labour’s manifesto was ambiguous and many individual candidates entered their own local caveats.
The majority in the House of Commons would probably now vote for something like this:
We formally leave the EU in April 2019.
We agree an “interim” deal to remain in the EEA or EFTA (or both) and the customs union pending further negotiations.
Such a deal could satisfy soft Leavers and Remainers. For now.
It would also conveniently ‘park’ the question of what our future relationship with the EU would be. It would keep open three options: staying in an EEA type arrangement permanently; agreeing some sort of harder Brexit trade deal; going back into the EU if sentiment changed.
But we would have “left the EU”, which is what was on the ballot paper.
Hardline Brexiteers would scream blue murder but they don’t have the numbers in the HoC or the HoL to frustrate it. Nor would they obviously have the backing of the majority of voters, who don’t want a hard Brexit.
So what’s the problem?
The short answer is Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn.
Theresa May is acting like she didn’t just ask for a mandate for a hard Brexit and get blown a huge raspberry from the voters. (If the “Corbyn surge” signifies anything it is not enthusiasm for socialism but fear of a hard Brexit).
So May is ostensibly still on course towards the cliff edge, despite rumblings inside her Cabinet, led by “her” Chancellor (although he increasingly his own Chancellor). How long she can sustain her policy or her position is highly questionable.
Jeremy Corbyn by contrast seems unassailable. Labour moderates who last year thought he was an incompetent who they “no confidenced” now keep quiet or singing his praises.
And Corbyn is clear: “Brexit is settled”. He must be about the only person who thinks that, because whilst leaving the EU might be ‘settled’ (for now) the nature of Brexit definitely isn’t. Pick any two Shadow Cabinet members and ask them what Brexit should specifically mean and you’ll at least three answers.
So how can a soft Brexit emerge from this?
One route could be Theresa May changes her position. It wouldn’t be the first time now would it? She may try to save her skin by ditching the hard Brexiteers and throwing in her lot with Damian Green, Philip Hammond, et al. Personally I can’t see it, but who knows?
The second route is getting rid of May and replacing her with a soft-Brexit PM. Philip Hammond is being touted by some as an “interim” replacement. That may happen, but I suspect Boris Johnson might have something to say about a Hammond coronation? My mischievous guess is Boris might do a “Nixon goes to China” and suddenly discover he’s a soft Brexiteer after all?
Both of the above assume Labour settles its ambiguity on a soft Brexit, which is not guaranteed.
A third option is the “guerilla underground” – a coalition of moderate Tory, Labour and other MPs manage to orchestrate frustrating a hard Brexit in the Commons (with irregular reinforcement from the Lords)?
There are lots of obstacles to this – not least the supine attitude on many Labour MPs who know Brexit and their Party ‘leaderships’ position is disastrous for the country but seem incapable of doing anything about it.
British government has a long history of “muddling through” and maybe, for once, it’ll stand us in good stead? Just maybe an interim soft Brexit will emerge? It is definitely there for the taking. The question is will any of our political leaders have the gumption to go for it?