I appreciated the large response to my post-referendum blog on the 48 Movement. The Bank Holiday Sunday press reminds us that this issue will very soon return with a vengeance as the politicians come back from their holidays. The Brexit hardliners in the Tory party are already preparing their narrative of betrayal by Remainer ministers and sabotage by civil servants.
When I wrote my note there was agreement on many points, not least the negative impacts which still await us, but two things I said triggered a negative reaction. One was my argument that the result was final and could not be wished away by legal subterfuge or attempts to reverse the vote. I see that Owen Smith in the Labour leadership contest is arguing for a re-run through a second referendum and that position appeals to many in our own party. There will be debate on this issue at Conference. Since, unlike Labour, we have nothing to prove on the EU issue I hope we can be more realistic. The most recent polls show that almost all Brexit voters and half of Remainers accept the result however much we deplore it. Shock, anger and remorse are very understandable but not if these harden into the conviction that the majority of voters are gullible fools.
The second point of controversy was my view that the free movement of EU labour should not be regarded as an inviolable principle, but is now politically unsustainable and of questionable merit when at the expense of non-EU migration. There are better ways of being liberal on immigration: opposing the self-harming stupidity of the current ‘crack-down’ on overseas, non-EU, students to help Theresa May meet her absurd target; defending the position of EU nationals who are already resident here; promoting a less pusillanimous approach to refugees, as Tim Farron has been doing.
Almost three months on from the Brexit vote, not much has actually happened. And the more extreme forecasts of a post-referendum economic shock, by Osborne in particular, have not materialised thanks in large part to an emergency monetary stimulus by the Bank of England. The one big change has been sterling devaluation, which will squeeze incomes in real terms but is necessary in any event to restore external balance.
I believe more strongly than ever that we have to engage with the issue of what Brexit means, and the wide range of possible options, rather than bury ourselves in the backward-looking question of how to negate the referendum result. This debate is already taking shape within government; but it affects all of us. It can be loosely characterised as ‘soft Brexit’ versus ‘hard Brexit’. The former seeks to maintain as much as possible of the present arrangements: the Single Market, for manufacturers in particular; the customs union (just as important as the Single Market and potentially a nightmare, if lost, for UK exporters to the EU who would be caught up in fiendishly complicated red tape around rules-of-origin); much of the regulatory framework designed to ensure common standards; and participation in common EU programmes through a shared budget. The negotiating strategy of the ‘soft Brexit’ tendency will be to keep as much of this as possible while securing the one objective which eluded David Cameron: some restriction on free movement of labour whether in the form of a ‘brake’ and/or restrictions on those who do not have jobs to go to (while providing complete protection to those already resident).
I have no doubt that something along these lines is what Sir Humphrey is urging and favoured by some ministers like the Chancellor: perhaps, even, a chastened Boris Johnson. This will also be the advice of the CBI, the EEF, the universities and others who have good reason to fear serious disruption. Key figures in the German government are signalling that they want some kind of associate status for the UK which has many of these elements.
The counter-view is that ‘soft Brexit’ is simply unrealistic. We hear that various EU governments will not tolerate a ‘pick and mix’ approach to EU membership though that is precisely what the UK has been doing so far with the various opt-outs. We also hear that the principle of free movement is inviolate, though in practice the labour-exporting countries might well see merit in having the UK applying some limited but agreed controls on EU migrants rather than blanket restrictions. And the Single Market is potentially divisible: keeping the arrangements for industrial goods but accepting that Mr Barnier will be less accommodating to the bankers.
We should stop seeing the issues as absolutes and binary alternatives. We are, after all, embarking on a negotiating process. It is not too difficult to see how Britain, instead of being 55% European as at present becomes 45% European. Messy and unsatisfactory, no doubt, but not a total disaster.
All of this is complete anathema to the hard-line Brexiteers. They want out, period. They fear, with good reason , that the forces of common sense and compromise will mobilise against dogma and ideological purity. I found myself on the radio, recently, debating with Nigel Farage who seems to have concluded already that his legacy will be betrayed by the Establishment. Dr Fox will realise that if a customs union remains he will be redundant since there will be no need for him to fly round the world seeking separately negotiated trade agreements with Tanzania and Tonga. He and the rest of the Tory Right will be up in arms. And I, for one, can’t wait to see the Tories at each others’ throats again.
The issue for our party is whether to stick to the position that only the status quo ante is acceptable or whether to define a series of negotiating objectives and ‘red lines’ which will determine whether we support or oppose the government’s negotiating strategy, once decided, and the outcome of negotiations, once agreed. In the short term it is just about plausible to defend the status quo in the event of an early election and before Article 50 is triggered. But an early election is unlikely, albeit possible and, once negotiations commence, it makes progressively less sense to insist that the referendum can be revisited and reversed.
Such a position is, moreover, politically dangerous. It suggests arrogance and being out-of-touch perpetuating the errors of the Remain campaign. It also risks our becoming tactically aligned with the fundamentalists of UKIP and the Tory right, rejecting whatever outcome is put to parliament or another referendum. And it could contribute to ‘hard Brexit’, the worst option.
* Vince Cable was MP for Twickenham from 1997-2015 and Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills from 2010-2015