An odd thing has happened in the past few weeks. One by one, the grand high Brexiteers are admitting we’re better off staying in the EU! Whaddya know!
Well, kind of: what they’re really saying is that, if Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement were to pass, it would be even worse than remaining a member of the EU.
The latest was Dominic Raab, the former Brexit Secretary who recently resigned over the Prime Minister’s deal. When asked last week whether EU membership would preferable, he replied, “Yes, I think this [May’s plan] would be even worse than that”.
This followed a piece by former Tory leader and arch Brexiteer Iain Duncan Smith in the Telegraph the previous week frothing: “We have conceded our sovereignty in a way we haven’t even had to do in the EU and we are paying £39bn for the privilege.”
The same day, vocal backbench eurosceptic John Redwood MP described May’s deal in the Guardian as “a worsening of the position of being a member, where we had some influence”, in a piece headlined: “Theresa May’s deal is worse for Britain than staying in the EU”.
Earlier that month, Leave.EU founder and self-styled “bad boy of Brexit” Arron Banks told the BBC’s Andrew Marr that, “If I had my time again I think we would have been better to probably remain and not unleash these demons”, in light of what he sees as the “disgraceful behaviour of the government over what they are doing with Brexit and how they are selling out”.
In September, at a Brexiteer event in parliament about the economic case for leaving without a deal, the former foreign secretary Boris Johnson said the Chequers plan (over which he resigned) would be “substantially worse than the status quo”.
The man described as the “brains of Brexit”, the influential former trade lawyer Shanker Singham, who advises eurosceptics on pro-Brexit economic arguments, has said “there’s no point leaving the EU”, as the opportunities he envisaged have disappeared. He reiterated to the Guardian: “From a trade policy perspective this is a worse situation than being in the EU.”
Even the Prime Minister herself refused to say during a live radio phone-in whether her deal was better than staying an EU member.
So what’s going on here?
First, it is a bit of rhetoric: Brexiteers hate May’s deal so much that they want to paint it as – gasp – even worse than their most-hated scenario, which is staying in the EU.
But at the same time, of course the deal is worse than staying in the EU. As my colleague George often reminds us, our position in the EU is already “having our cake and eating it” – we have single market and customs union membership and a seat at the table, but we’re not in Schengen, we don’t have the euro, and we get a rebate that reduces the size of our payments to Brussels. Brexiteers know this, and they’ve seen throughout the negotiations since the referendum result that it’s impossible to get a deal that’s any better. (The alternative is the economic armaggedon of no deal, as outlined by the Bank of England and others.)
They seem desperate to wash their hands of this sorry, unsolvable mess before they are blamed for it forever more. That’s why their increasingly frequent references to the status quo, and remaining in the EU, sound more like yearning than a warning.