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19 June 2017

Why the Conservatives have no mandate for “hard Brexit“

The majority of voters backed parties who support a soft exit from the EU.

By George Eaton

The Conservatives’ majority has gone but their Brexit stance remains the same. As David Davis begins negotiations with the EU, the government is still committed to leaving the single market and the customs union.

Brexiteers are fond of boasting that “85 per cent” (the combined vote share of the Conservatives, Labour, Ukip and the DUP) backed “hard Brexit” at the general election. By this logic, despite the loss of their majority, the Tories retain a mandate for their stance. But analysis of the parties’ manifestos suggests otherwise.

It is indisputable that the election provided a renewed mandate for Brexit. Labour is unambiguously committed to leaving and the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and the SNP won just 12 per cent of the vote and 48 seats. This tallies with polls consistently showing that more than two-thirds of the public now back Brexit (“the 48 per cent”, as I’ve written before, no longer exist). In the form of the referendum and the general election, Leavers now have a double mandate.

Some go further and contend that there is a mandate for “hard Brexit” on the basis of Labour’s manifesto. The document did not commit to single market and customs union membership and stated: “Freedom of movement will end when we leave the European Union”. It’s sometimes said that this is identical to the Conservatives’ stance – but the reality is more complex.

Unlike the Tories, Labour is committed to “retaining the benefits of the Single Market and the Customs Union” (as are the Lib Dems, the SNP and the Greens – making 52 per cent). The opposition would prioritise the economy, rather than immigration control, in the negotiations.

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Since the EU will not allow Britain to have its cake and eat it, it will be forced to choose. With this in mind, Labour’s statement that “freedom of movement will end” should not be overinterpreted. “Free movement” may officially end but something near-identical, or close to it, could endure.

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It’s not only in this respect that there is a mandate for a soft, rather than a hard Brexit. Again, unlike the Conservatives, Labour has ruled out “no deal” with the EU, a stance shared by the Lib Dems, the SNP and the Greens (52 per cent). The same parties support a unilateral guarantee of EU citizens’ rights, which the Tories have repeatedly rejected (despite public backing for the move).

Far from enjoying the backing of 85 per cent of voters, hard Brexiteers can only claim the support of 44 per cent (combined support for the Conservatives and Ukip) and a minority of MPs. The DUP manifesto committed to ending European jurisdiction but not to leaving the single market and the customs union (preservation of the Irish “soft border” is the party’s priority).

In a hung parliament, it is MPs, not ministers, who determine the government’s stance. Should the Tories’ position remain unchanged, the Commons will not hesitate to obstruct them.