I hate to take issue with a fellow Spectator writer, but Robert Peston’s revelation that a “no deal” Brexit is now off the table strikes me as a prime example of Westminster’s ability to ignore the bleeding obvious for months on end then talk cobblers in an authoritative voice when finally forced to confront reality.
Robert is far from alone in his conclusion about last night’s Commons vote. To be honest, I’m just taking issue with his post because the spectacle of Spectator writers disagreeing seems to interest some people, probably because they struggle with the idea of one publication publishing multiple and contradictory viewpoints. I’m happy to oblige that taste, on condition that it’s noted that I think Robert is ten times the journalist I’ll ever be and a very nice man too.
The point I’m getting to is that “no deal” Brexit has been dead for a long time -- just over a year, in fact. It died on election night last year. You remember the election? The one Theresa May called because she said she needed a clear mandate for her chosen approach to Brexit. The one where the electorate denied her that mandate. That election.
I mention it because a lot of people seem to have forgotten it, or chosen to ignore it. To her credit, Mrs May has not. Within a few hours of the result last year, she had accepted that Brexit must take a course different to the one she had set before the election. She even told us so, not least in her Florence speech and then very clearly in her December deal.
As for “no deal is better than a bad deal”, ask yourself when you last heard Mrs May say the words. I repeat: no-deal Brexit died not last night but on election night in June 2017. Mrs May knows that, and the EU27 know that and have known that since last June too. The idea that yesterday’s Commons drama revealed some new truth about Brexit is for the birds.
Just in case you think I’m being either deliberately contrarian or wise after the fact, allow me a self-indulgent reference, to something I wrote here in August 2017:
Theresa May has come a long way from the days of “no deal is better than a bad deal”. The clear message from the UK government positions sketched out this summer is this: we want a deal. We really want a deal. We want a deal so much that we’re prepared to walk back from our previous rhetoric and posturing. Let’s talk.
What next? Well, I expect Mrs May will continue on the course she has followed with largely unremarked consistency since last June, a course that tacitly accepts that the only form of Brexit that stands a chance of winning parliamentary and public acceptance is one that continues many of our current relationships and arrangements for quite some time to come.
Does that mean “kicking the can down the road”? You betcha. But so what? Did you really think that Brexit would be “over” by some particular date? That there would be a clear end-point to the process of rewriting and rewiring institutional and economic relations that have taken four decades to construct? If so, you really haven’t been paying attention, so let me spell it out for you: Brexit will never end. Brexit will never be over. There will be never be a time “after Brexit”. Because “Brexit” doesn’t mean leaving the EU. It means ending our current EU membership and defining a new relationship with the EU, and that relationship, like all our international partnerships, isn’t static but constantly evolves. Have you ever heard anyone talking about our relationship with the US being “settled” or “over”? Does anyone think Britain’s dealings with China will ever be fixed and concluded, a matter for no further debate? Brexit won’t be “over” any more than politics will “end”. This is life, chums, and kicking the can is not just fine, it’s normal business.
On the EU side, Mrs May’s approach will continue to be accepted and embraced. Yes, the EU will seek a price: no rights without responsibilities and all that. But the rest, all that stuff about “no cherrypicking” and so on? Ignore it. There’s a deal to be done, and ideally with Mrs May: the EU27, like the Conservative Party, know that whatever her flaws, Mrs May is the least bad option under the current circumstances.
On both sides, the arrows point to some some sort of bespoke, fudge-laden and nominally “temporary” arrangement that looks and feels something like the European Economic Area, perhaps as a staging post on the way to something else, one day, maybe. We can work out what later, after all, since this process doesn’t have an end.
Much of this process is taking place far away from the British electorate. Yes, I know everyone on Twitter says it’s a disaster or a betrayal, and some polls say people think the talks are going badly. But whose life has really changed yet? Again, if you’re in politics and you think that the public is today greatly concerned about a time-limited agreement to retain the Common External Tariff or our ability to begin trade talks with Indonesia, I suggest you seek alternative employment, or at least have a lie down in a darkened room for a good long spell.
But yes, sooner or later, people will start to care. When the shape of the next phase of the endless Brexit (the one that starts in March next year and runs well into the next decade) becomes a little clearer, some will start to fret. That’s because that phase is going to involve some degree of free (or free-ish) movement of EU nationals: this is the “price” that we will pay to continue many of our current economic arrangements, though it’s one we should gladly embrace.
And this is where political conversation should really be, and should really have been for most of the last year or so. (Again with the self-indulgence, but see this from June 2017.) If we are indeed heading for some variant of the European Economic Area, our leaders really should be talking to the electorate a lot more about European immigration and why it’s a good thing. The good news is that those voters are perfectly sensible, open-minded people who will listen to arguments here.
While a lot of politicians (especially Remain-minded ones, oddly) are fond of the notion that most voters are knuckle-dragging racists who just want to kick out the foreigners, a growing body of polling evidence shows that people are more sensible than that. Anti-immigration sentiment has been waning since the EU referendum, and the salience of the issue has been declining too.
We shouldn’t get carried away -- most voters still think immigration is too high. But anti-immigration feeling, once regarded as the defining and immutable feature of British politics, has been revealed to be changeable - as long as someone is prepared to put the case for change.
So just as it was plain that Mrs May and Britain will make a deal with the EU, it’s plain that European nationals will continue to live and work in the UK in large numbers for years to come. And instead of messing about pretending anything else is on the cards, why don’t we all start talking about that instead?