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  1. Politics
  2. Brexit
3 June 2018

Tory advocates of a “sensible Brexit” must be less vague or risk handing victory to Leavers

The mainstream case against a hard Brexit has never been stronger, but the failure of those making it to talk specifics is damaging their chances of success.

By Patrick Maguire

Empty supermarket shelves. Medicine airlifted by the RAF to Scotland and Cornwall. Dover at a standstill. Petrol shortages. All cheery scenarios that await the UK should it try and leave the EU without a deal, according to “Doomsday” Brexit planning drawn up within Dexeu and briefed to today’s Sunday Times.

 

Though the Brexit department is insisting that “none” of the apocalyptic events described will come to pass, that such planning has seen the light of day at this point in the negotiating process underlines just how badly advocates of a hard break with Brussels are losing the air war as this month’s deadline for agreement on the Irish border – and possible compromise with the EU – approaches.

 

The government is clearly unprepared for a no deal scenario of the sort still advocated by hard Leavers like Jacob Rees-Mogg. The mantra that once underpinned Theresa May’s approach to Brexit – that no deal is better than a bad deal – is now fatally undermined.

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Similarly, serving members of the government are now openly pushing for a deal which would see minimal change in our economic relationship with Brussels. Business minister Richard Harrington tells the Mail on Sunday that the government should pursue a “very sensible Brexit” instead of a cliff-edge departure: “I am against a horrible hard Brexit. My portfolio… shows it would be madness to have a hard Brexit and that’s my view.”

 

Those in favour of a radical break with Brussels are clearly, at this stage in the game, at a disadvantage. Damian Green, who along with fellow cabinet exiles Amber Rudd and Justine Greening is lobbying the prime minister to pursue a “sensible Brexit”, restates his well-founded belief that there is a majority for a deal with Brussels that’s low on the dogma of the kind peddled by the European Research Group and pro-EU rebels and high on pragmatism.

 

The problem for advocates of a sensible Brexit, however, is this: they haven’t said what it is. Saying “pragmatism” isn’t enough. Nor, really, is suggesting close alignment with the single market on goods and time-limited membership of the customs union, as Rudd, Green and Greening suggested earlier in the week. They are right to calculate that most Conservative MPs would support any effort to pursue a Brexit rooted in reality rather than ideology as time before exit day runs out, but colleagues complain their call is too vague to decisively shift the debate.

 

There is not enough meat on the bones of their plan to give the government cover for a meaningful shift in position on anything, let alone, say, membership of a customs union (for which there is a majority in the commons and possible DUP backing). Without more detail on just what “sensible” means – and fast – they could yet squander the advantage they currently hold. The drift will continue. The vacuum between the ERG and mutineers will remain unfilled, and, as weary Tory MPs predict, the extremes will continue to drive the debate away from workable solutions.

 

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