Vince Cable is wrong. Brexit will take place, because of the way in which the Article 50 process works. It is essentially a conveyer belt: once a state has given notice of withdrawal from the EU, it is travelling towards exit two years after this has been given – in this case, on March 31 2019. It is true that there is a get-out clause: the deadline can be extended if the European Council agree it with “the member state concerned”. But this is not going to happen unless Britain is seized by some extraordinary convulsion. The two main political parties stood on manifestos which commit them to honour last June’s referendum result. Lump in the minor parties, and roughly 85 per cent of MPs are formally committed to the principle of leaving the EU.
However, though the fact of Brexit is set, the form of it is not. Continued British membership of the Single Market, for example, would not breach the letter of last June’s result: Norway and two other EEA member countries – Iceland and Lichtenstein – are not EU member states. Nor would staying in the customs union: Turkey, for example, is a partial member, but not in the EU. This brings us to the Government’s Repeal Bill, which would do the opposite of its title – in most respects, anyway. The purpose of the Bill is to give business and citizens certainty by transferring EU law into British law as it repeals the 1972 European Communities Act. It is set for its First Reading today.
But there is no date for Second Reading; the Bill is being pushed back. This is because opponents of Brexit in the Commons are looking for ways of keeping Britain as close to EU membership as possible. Anna Soubry and Chuka Umanna are leading an All-Party Group that favours Single Market membership. It is not clear whether the Bill could be amended to this end, or to confirm continued Customs Union membership, or whether the Government would bow to the will of the Commons in such circumstances, rather than seek a general election, but it is certain that such attempts will be made. Furthermore, some MPs are likely to seek to a long transition or implementation period as we leave the EU. Others dislike the so-called Henry VIII clauses which the Bill will contain. Finally, some of the most diehard opponents of Brexit may seek to oppose the repeal of the 1972 Act if they believe they have obtained enough political cover. Much will depend on what Jeremy Corbyn and Labour decide to do. These are murky legislative waters; the Government has no majority; Second Reading is postponed.
One of the questions that Conservative MPs should ask themselves over the summer, while preparing for the start of the new Parliamentary year, is whether Customs Union membership or Single Market membership or both is consistent not with the letter of the the referendum result, but the spirit. The former would blunt the logic of Brexit, as Shanker A. Singham argued on this site last week, by preventing Britain from striking new non-EU trade deals on its own – and doing so is important if we are to make the most of leaving the EU. The latter offers no proper means of controlling immigration, if any all, and Lord Ashcroft’s research found that this was the second most important factor behind the referendum verdict.
The first was “taking back control”. This is not reconcilable with remaining a Single Market member. Besides, both the Remain and Leave campaigns agreed that a Brexit vote would mean quitting it: David Cameron was very clear on the point. So was Theresa May in her speech to Party Conference last year, her address in January setting out the Government’s negotiating position, and the manifesto. So have been Cabinet Ministers since the election, including Philip Hammond. None of this is to rule out an implementation period, the creation of which is only common sense. But such a period is necessarily time-limited – as its name suggests – contrary to last week’s push by the CBI.
UKIP has imploded. But this does not mean that there would be no electoral penalty for the Conservative Party to pay were it to resile from its present approach to leaving the EU. This is neither to seek a “Soft Brexit” (i.e: continued Single Market or Customs Union membership) nor a “Hard Brexit” (i.e: a basic WTO deal alone, seeking legal certainty and no non-tariff barriers alone, with no agreement on tariffs). Rather, it wants what May called “a bold and ambitious free trade agreement with the European Union” as part of “a new and equal partnership – between an independent, self-governing, Global Britain and our friends and allies in the EU”.
Since that January speech in which she set out those aims, her political position has weakened. The Government’s position on an important aspect of the negotiation is unclear – namely, the proposed length of any implementation period. But the negotiating cards are not all stacked in our interlocuters’ hands. We have a very powerful one: money, as the second biggest contributor to the EU budget. There is a strong basis for a deal here. To label is money-for-access would be a crude way of putting it, but to the point for all that.
Tory MPs will want to ask themselves if they really want to spurn the message that the voters sent them only last year by a narrow but clear majority, which was endorsed by the manifesto on which they stood, and which must be delivered if a further election in the near future is to be avoided. That combination offers them a high motive for sticking with May’s Brexit programme – alignment with the referendum and election results – as well as a lower one: self-preservation.