That Britain will be in neither the Single Market nor the Customs Union from January 1 is “the price the rest of us in the pro-EU camp will pay for trying, in the years following 2016, to reverse the referendum decision rather than achieve the least damaging form of Brexit”.
Peter Mandelson’s recent claim provoked anguished reprisals from other Remainers who, like him at the time, wanted Nick Boles’ Norway-type option smothered at birth so that their cherished second referendum might flourish. The first part of the scheme succeeded and the second failed. Both infants perished – leaving Brexit alive and accomplished, perhaps now on No Deal terms.
Is there a moral for the near future in this tale from the recent past?
For the event of No Deal, those Remainers will target their affrontedness, rage and frustration on the Leave campaigners once again. The sum of their case will that the latter promised Brexit would come with a trade deal, and that it hasn’t. Fair enough (in most though not all cases).
They will then go further, claiming that No Deal will shipwreck the British economy. In the short-term, it would be surprising if it didn’t cause a lot of disruption. Furthermore, there is no guarantee that a trade agreement would then be reached swiftly, because both sides of the table come quickly to believe that a deal is better than disruption. Neither might be willing to be seen to back down.
Anyway, the Remainers will go further still, arguing that the EU’s trade offer was a reasonable one and that the Government’s negotiating position was not. Some will call for Britain to stay in the Single Market and Customs Union after all – perhaps including Keir Starmer, one of the main movers in the bid to asphixiate that option only a few years ago. Others will go the whole hog and call for rejoining.
Joe Biden is sure to make his views known, by the way. That will unleash a wave of claims that the UK is now “isolated”, “friendless”, “without influence”, “with diminished standing in the world” – and so on. Those Remainers will draw parallels with Suez, when American economic pressure was followed by Eden’s Government reversing its policy, and in due course by the then Prime Minister’s resignation.
In the meantime, the Government will be busy telling its own side of the story. George Eustice gave it a trial canter yesterday, when he said that “we cannot be the only country in the world that doesn’t control its own waters”. In a nutshell, Ministers’ case will be that the EU wanted to subjugate the UK, uniquely among independent countries negotiating a trade deal, to its own rules, standards and laws.
What would be the point of Brexit, endorsed first at a referendum and then at an election, if Britain was bound in this way? If it is to happen at all, we must be free to set our own standards, decide our own choices and make our own laws. Blame the EU, not us, Ministers will say, if there are queues outside ports and shortages in shops.
Furthermore, the argument will run, Brexit has always been about the longer-term, not just the short – whether the ride in the next few months is bumpy or much smoother than expected. And that future does not simply equal new trade deals, welcome though these would be.
Rather, it has always suggested a restructuring from our recent model of an overvalued pound, finance based on the City of London, high migration and a prosperous southern hinterland to a more competitive currency, a balance between services and manufacturing tilted back towards the latter, lower migration, a more even spread of wealth – and technology-driven escape from a low-growth EU zone.
Whatever view you take, life will go on. The UK will still be a UN Security Council member, one of the G7, one of only two western European countries with substantial armed forces, at the centre of the Commonwealth, a major provider of aid (though no longer at 0.7 per cent of GNI) – and, as we keep pointing out, a new partner on the ground in the French-led mission in Mali.
Eden had a majority of 60 when the Suez crisis took place, not far off Boris Johnson’s larger majority of 80. The passions it aroused have been paralleled in our post-war history only by Brexit itself (and class divisions over the two seem to have been much the same, with strong working-class support both for leaving the EU and for Eden’s throw of the military dice over the canal).
But are Brexit and Suez really comparable? The latter was sparked by an unexpected event: Nasser’s seizure of the canal. The former was legitimised first by the 2016 referendum and later by last year’s election. Boris Johnson’s mandate rests on his call to the nation to “get Brexit done””.
Furthermore, the Conservative Parliamentary Party has lost some of Brexit’s most determined critics. They have stood down (Philip Hammond), lost the whip, not regained it and stood down (Rory Stewart), lost the whip, not regained it and lost at the polls (Dominic Grieve), joined other political parties (Sam Gymiah) or tried to found a new one (Anna Soubry).
It is true that no Cabinet member is enthusiastic about No Deal. Michael Gove is worried about the effects it would have in Scotland. The institutional interests of the departments are against it, including the Treasury – with the possible exception of that most pro-Leave of them, International Trade.
And although a smallish minority of the Parliamentary Party are keen on No Deal, and indeed on tearing up the Withdrawal Agreement, that is not the position of the majority, which includes a number of former Remainers and anti-No Deal Leavers. But being reflexively hostile to No Deal is one thing; siding with the EU in a trade row would be quite another.
Not that it will necessarily come to this; our view throughout has been that there will be a deal.
It seems to have been shared by just about everyone else, including the unions, the institutional state, business, the political parties, voters…and cynics, who suspect that a late crisis is invariably contrived, in EU talks, to smooth the way for a deal – and claims of victory on both sides, with Government sources confiding in this case that “Boris has played a blinder”.
So No Deal, if it happens, will come as a profound shock. And will pit the spectre of Suez against the power of patriotism – in England and Wales, at least. Whose side are you on? Our own Prime Minister’s – or Macron’s?
You may object that this would be a shocking distortion of patriotism, and that Remainers are patriots, too. But that is how it is, or at least may be, in a country in which patriotism, Parliamentary government and sovereignty are combined in so much of the popular imagination.
The Mandelsons of this world over-reached in their opposition to Brexit, and by aiming to get everything they wanted ended up with nothing. Suez is not the only way in which history could repeat itself.