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This election isn't about getting a better Brexit deal - and the Conservative manifesto proves it

The government's Brexit policy is the only thing not changed by the Conservatives' new manifesto. 

Why are we having a general election? The official line is that Britain’s Brexit deal is under threat because Labour are iffy on whether or not to back Brexit, while the Liberal Democrats and the SNP are out to oppose it.

And it is true to say that the Liberal Democrats have threatened to “grind the government’s business to a halt”, and that the SNP have pledged to vote against a deal that takes Scotland out of the single market. It’s also true to say that Labour’s policy on what flavour of Brexit it wants has tended to fluctuate depending on whether or not the by-election they are fighting takes place in a constituency that voted to Leave or Remain. For the Stoke-on-Trent by-election, they donned the full Brexit garb. For Manchester Gorton – obviated by Theresa May’s early election – they softened their line.

But the truth is that on Brexit issues, the government had a comfortable but not overwhelming majority, as the vote to trigger Article 50 showed. Despite the psychodrama over whether or not Jeremy Corbyn should have whipped Labour MPs to trigger Brexit, if his decision had gone the other way, most of the parliamentary Labour party would have voted the same way they did. On what you might call “general” Brexit votes – that is, whether or not we should actually leave – there are in excess of 400 votes in the House of Commons come what may.

On “specific” Brexit votes – that is, the vision of exit as seen by Theresa May – there is still a comfortable majority. The bulk of the Conservative Party, the whole of the DUP and the seven Labour Brexiteers will vote not just for European exit in general but May’s vision in particular. (That’s before you factor in Labour backbenchers who fear the wrath of their Leave-voting constituents or the party’s leadership, which is led by a Eurosceptic of long vintage.)

The truth is that May is calling this election to get a majority for everything else in this manifesto, most of which would be dead on arrival in the House of Commons as it stood on 3 May 2017.

And the proof? The sections on Brexit in the Conservative manifesto:

“As we leave the European Union, we will no longer be members of the single market or customs union but we will seek a deep and special partnership including a comprehensive free trade and customs agreement. There may be specific European programmes in which we might want to participate and if so, it will be reasonable that we make a contribution. We will determine a fair settlement of the UK’s rights and obligations as a departing member state, in accordance with the law and in the spirit of the UK’s continuing partnership with the EU. The principle, however, is clear: the days of Britain making vast annual contributions to the European Union will end.”

In other words, a simple restatement of the position outlined by Theresa May in her Lancaster House speech, her Article 50 letter, and her first conference speech as leader. The only big difference? A softening of the "red line" on the role the European Court of Justice will play. The undeniable truth is that the sections on Brexit have the greatest continuity with existing Conservative policy. It's not Brexit this election is changing. It's everything else. 

As I’ve written before, the government, no matter what Theresa May’s rhetoric about being “bloody difficult” might suggest, has quietly but effectively not ruled out continuing contributions to the EU budget every year. The way has been set for a Brexit deal where Britain pays into the EU every year, notionally in exchange for its continuing participation in science and anti-terror initiatives but in reality to the general pool, and pays the so-called “divorce bill” for its existing liabilities. (One reason why the British government wants to negotiate the divorce bill at the same time as everything else is, understandably, the more we pay in per year, the less they will want to pay up front.)

The word “vast” is one of those words that appears in party manifestos that can mean whatever you want it to mean. £350m a week is vast. A fiver per person is scarcely more than a pint in some parts of the United Kingdom. The secret is: these two amounts are the same.

If anything, a bigger Conservative majority decreases the quality of the deal Britain will get. With a majority of 16, it’s just about plausible that a deal involving a large upfront payment and continuing annual contributions – vastness TBC – might be difficult to pass through the House of Commons. (Though as the government will be giving the legislature a choice between May’s deal and exit without a deal, if there is any risk it will not pass with Conservative votes alone, Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs will have to vote for it)

With the House of Commons as it stood when May called the election, she had the ability to say to her fellow European leaders: Look, I’ve got these Brexit ultras, can you help me out here? With a thumping majority and as master of all she surveys, that card loses its value.

Both the Conservatives and their opponents believe it is in their interests to say that this election is about May getting a mandate for a hard exit from the European Union. The truth is completely the opposite. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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Nicola Sturgeon is betting on Brexit becoming real before autumn 2018

Second independence referendum plans have been delayed but not ruled out.

Three months after announcing plans for a second independence referendum, and 19 days after losing a third of her Scottish National Party MPs, Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon booted the prospect of a second independence referendum into the heather. 

In a statement at Holyrood, Sturgeon said she felt her responsibility as First Minister “is to build as much unity and consensus as possible” and that she had consulted “a broad spectrum of voices” on independence.

She said she had noted a “commonality” among the views of the majority, who were neither strongly pro or anti-independence, but “worry about the uncertainty of Brexit and worry about the clarity of what it means”. Some “just want a break from making political decisions”.

This, she said had led her to the conclusion that there should be a referendum reset. Nevertheless: "It remains my view and the position of this government that at the end of this Brexit process the Scottish people should have a choice about the future of our country." 

This "choice", she suggested, was likely to be in autumn 2018 – the same time floated by SNP insiders before the initial announcement was made. 

The Scottish Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie responded: “The First Minister wishes to call a referendum at a time of her choosing. So absolutely nothing has changed." In fact, there is significance in the fact Sturgeon will no longer be pursuing the legislative process needed for a second referendum. Unlike Theresa May, say, she has not committed herself to a seemingly irreversable process.

Sturgeon’s demand for a second independence referendum was said to be partly the result of pressure from the more indy-happy wing of the party, including former First Minister Alex Salmond. The First Minister herself, whose constituency is in the former Labour stronghold of Glasgow, has been more cautious, and is keenly aware that the party can lose if it appears to be taking the electorate for granted. 

In her speech, she pledged to “put our shoulder to the wheel” in Brexit talks, and improve education and the NHS. Yet she could have ruled out a referendum altogether, and she did not. 

Sturgeon has framed this as a “choice” that is reasonable, given the uncertainties of Brexit. Yet as many of Scotland’s new Labour MPs can testify, opposition to independence on the doorstep is just as likely to come from a desire to concentrate on public services and strengthening a local community as it is attachment to a more abstract union. The SNP has now been in power for 10 years, and the fact it suffered losses in the 2017 general election reflects the perception that it is the party not only for independence, but also the party of government.

For all her talk of remaining in the single market, Sturgeon will be aware that it will be the bread-and-butter consequences of Brexit, like rising prices, and money redirected towards Northern Ireland, that will resonate on the doorstep. She will also be aware that roughly a third of SNP voters opted for Brexit

The general election result suggests discontent over local or devolved issues is currently overriding constitutional matters, whether UK-wide or across the EU. Now Brexit talks with a Tory-DUP government have started, this may change. But if it does not, Sturgeon will be heading for a collision with voter choice in the autumn of 2018. 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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