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"Have cake and eat it": Voters deserve a better Brexit strategy than an accidentally-snapped note

The Brexit narrative is being told scrap by scrap of paper. 

Political hacks have always been interested in what politicians carry in their briefcases. Any scribbled note caught on a long lens camera is a tantalising glimpse into the reality behind the carefully-organised press briefings or photo shoots.

But 2016 has upped the stakes. Now, the scribbles are read like tea leaves. Is a mention of the single market proof we’re ripping out the economic furniture of the past 40 years? Or is this the writing on the wall for hard Brexit?

The latest focus of attention is a notebook carried under the arm of aide to Mark Field, the vice-chairman of the Conservative party, captured by the photographer Steve Back. It states, in cursive, a series of observations on Brexit. 

“Problematic for EU if we move decisively with no transition. Difficult on Article 50 interpretation – Barnier wants to see what deal looks like first. Got to be done in parallel…” And then the clincher: “We think it’s unlikely we’ll be offered single market.”

And then some more Brexistential questions and phrases. “What’s the model? Have cake and eat it.” “Very French negotiating team.” One option – “Canada plus”.

The government has shot down the note, with the business secretary Greg Clark telling the BBC “it doesn’t reflect any of the conversations I’ve been part of in Downing Street”. 

But while this might be the most outspoken note to make headlines so far, it comes just two weeks after a leaked “Brexit memo” suggesting the government had no plan. This was traced back to an outside consultancy, Deloitte. 

The government has kept almost entirely schtum on Brexit. Nearly six months on from the EU referendum, we still have no official confirmation of how immigration controls will be weighed against access to the single market. We still know very little about how the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland would be policed. David Davis, the Brexit minister, doesn't even give a straight answer to his Conservative parliamentary colleagues

Remain voters fear they are going to be ignored in favour of a hard Brexit. Leave voters (and some MPs representing Leave constituencies) fear Brexit will never happen. The fact an entire nation is hanging onto scraps of paper for a clue is damning. 

The government argues that, as a negotiator, it needs to hold its cards close to its chest. On this basis, it is attempting to block parliamentary involvement in triggering Article 50, and has shut out the devolved nations. But the whole principle of voting Leave was – apparently – to return sovereignty to a more accountable, directly-elected body.  Leaving the flow of information open to those who are least discreet, or who deliberately blab, or try to obstruct the whole process, seems a strange way to control the narrative on Brexit. 


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. 

Photo: Getty
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What Jeremy Corbyn gets right about the single market

Technically, you can be outside the EU but inside the single market. Philosophically, you're still in the EU. 

I’ve been trying to work out what bothers me about the response to Jeremy Corbyn’s interview on the Andrew Marr programme.

What bothers me about Corbyn’s interview is obvious: the use of the phrase “wholesale importation” to describe people coming from Eastern Europe to the United Kingdom makes them sound like boxes of sugar rather than people. Adding to that, by suggesting that this “importation” had “destroy[ed] conditions”, rather than laying the blame on Britain’s under-enforced and under-regulated labour market, his words were more appropriate to a politician who believes that immigrants are objects to be scapegoated, not people to be served. (Though perhaps that is appropriate for the leader of the Labour Party if recent history is any guide.)

But I’m bothered, too, by the reaction to another part of his interview, in which the Labour leader said that Britain must leave the single market as it leaves the European Union. The response to this, which is technically correct, has been to attack Corbyn as Liechtenstein, Switzerland, Norway and Iceland are members of the single market but not the European Union.

In my view, leaving the single market will make Britain poorer in the short and long term, will immediately render much of Labour’s 2017 manifesto moot and will, in the long run, be a far bigger victory for right-wing politics than any mere election. Corbyn’s view, that the benefits of freeing a British government from the rules of the single market will outweigh the costs, doesn’t seem very likely to me. So why do I feel so uneasy about the claim that you can be a member of the single market and not the European Union?

I think it’s because the difficult truth is that these countries are, de facto, in the European Union in any meaningful sense. By any estimation, the three pillars of Britain’s “Out” vote were, firstly, control over Britain’s borders, aka the end of the free movement of people, secondly, more money for the public realm aka £350m a week for the NHS, and thirdly control over Britain’s own laws. It’s hard to see how, if the United Kingdom continues to be subject to the free movement of people, continues to pay large sums towards the European Union, and continues to have its laws set elsewhere, we have “honoured the referendum result”.

None of which changes my view that leaving the single market would be a catastrophe for the United Kingdom. But retaining Britain’s single market membership starts with making the argument for single market membership, not hiding behind rhetorical tricks about whether or not single market membership was on the ballot last June, when it quite clearly was. 

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.