The UK’s EU partners have made it clear that not only would a reversal of Brexit be possible, should the nation change its mind, but it would also be warmly welcomed. The PM’s spokesmen were quick to reiterate the mantra that “Brexit means Brexit” and that a “second referendum” has been ruled out, apparently pouring cold water on the idea. However, the PM also stated that she had a mandate to govern when she took over the job and the leadership of the Conservative Party from David Cameron, insisting that there would be no general election until 2020 – something made all the more likely by the fixed term parliaments act – only to go to the people last June. The justification for the election was that forces within Labour and other opposition parties were trying to stymy Brexit and she needed the mandate of a big majority of MPs to deliver a proper Brexit. As a result, Mrs May lost her parliamentary majority and had to make a shabby alliance with the Democratic Unionist Party to cling to power. She survived as leader by the skin of her teeth because there was no clear alternative leader and the party had no stomach for a fresh leadership contest after a bruising general election.
In December it emerged that the cabinet had not formally agreed its goals for Brexit (other than it meaning “Brexit”, presumably) and that a detailed sectoral analysis of the effect of various Brexit scenarios of the British economy didn’t actually exist. In her Lancaster speech which launched the Brexit process, Mrs May drew up various red lines, but called for a bespoke (deep and special) deal with the EU which would replicate the advantages of single market and customs union membership whilst the UK would leave both. The EU made it clear that such an arrangement was the type of cherry-picking that its members had already unanimously ruled out.
Yesterday, the UK chancellor, Philip Hammond suggested that the UK would only seek modest changes in its relationship with the EU, a position quickly disowned by his boss’s spokesman. It has emerged that 60 Tory Brexiters may oppose government legislation on a Customs Bill which they believe could give the government the authority to remain in the customs union (despite Mrs May’s red line) which could provoke a government defeat, potentially.
Jacob Rees-Mogg is a leading Eurosceptic and backbench Tory MP seen by some as a potential leader of the party. He told a meeting yesterday that: “For too long our negotiators seemed to have been cowed by the EU. Their approach seems to be that we must accept what the EU will allow us to do and build from there. This is no way to negotiate and it is no way for this country to behave. The negotiations that are about to begin sound as if they aim to keep us in a similar system to the single market and the customs union. “‘Close alignment’ means, de facto, the single market; it would make the UK a rule taker like Norway, divested of even the limited influence we currently have.”
Rees-Mogg warned the government against Brexit becoming “only a damage limitation exercise”, claiming that: “The British people did not vote for that. They did not vote for the management of decline. They voted for hope and opportunity and politicians must now deliver it.”
Of course, the vast majority of Tory MPs supported the Remain position in the referendum and many will be at odds with the sentiments that their Brexit colleagues are increasingly feeling emboldened to express.
Business leaders are demanding assurances over the transition period that the UK wants after Brexit, but it is increasingly clear that the details will not emerge soon. The CBI (Confederation of British Industry) called for the UK to remain in the customs union permanently earlier this week.
Rumours are circulating that there is enough support in the Conservative party to trigger a fresh leadership contest, potentially after local elections are held in May.
Plainly, Brexit means Brexit…