For weeks, the Tory government has been sketching out a Brexit fantasy, where authoritarian immigration policies can somehow be combined with effortless free trade deals.
In this (some might say dystopian) vision, Britannia rises again thanks to a booming export market of selling naan bread to India, sparkling wine to France, and bottled English countryside air for £80 to gullible shoppers the world over.
Never mind the fact the EU considers freedom of movement a red line in negotiations over access to the single market. Never mind that business investment has slowed, unemployment has risen and the plunging pound means food prices are almost certain to rise. The Brexiteers, unhindered, spoke.
Now, finally, opposition MPs have got their act together and started hauling Brexit minister David Davis over the coals.
Keir Starmer, Labour’s shadow minister for Brexit, kicked off Thursday morning’s questions in the Commons by demanding a timetable for the plans.
Davis said he “couldn’t be clearer” that engaging with Parliament was of “paramount importance” (back in September he argued the negotiations didn’t require parliamentary approval).
Starmer asked him whether he was determined to leave the EU customs union – one of the core trade agreements underpinning the single market.
Davis, who had previously said it was “unlikely” Britain would stay in the single market, now sounded cautious. The customs union, he said, was “a very good example of why we’re taking time to come to a conclusion on this.” He even acknowledged that failing to sort out market access could leave businesses “on a cliff edge”.
Armed with 170 Brexit questions, Labour MPs piled in to quiz Davis on the impact on the economy, EU citizens and the environment. Backing them up on Team Remain were the SNP, outspoken liberal Tories and Northern Irish representatives.
Labour’s London MPs and the SNP found common cause on immigration. Would Davis consider work permits for London? What about claims by the Leave campaign before the referendum that Scotland could get devolved immigration powers?
“We will certainly take representations from London and other devolved areas,” said Robin Walker, Davis’s undersecretary. Indeed, the questions revealed a flurry of activity, with Davis meeting the First Minister of Wales and the Scottish government’s Brexit minister this week. On financial services: “We will do every bit possible to protect Scotland as we will London.”
As for Northern Ireland, Davis promised to commit to “extensive work” to keep an open border between north and south and “the most effective common market that we can achieve”.
While left-wingers demanded reassurances on workers’ rights, economic liberals wanted to be reassured their local businesses wouldn’t lose skilled workers.”Clearly it’s not going to be in the national interest to restrict the movement of talent,” said Davis. No citizens of the world, apparently, were to be mocked today.
There may have been few show-stopping revelations, but you can expect each concession to be remembered by Team Remain and revived in weeks to come. And what Davis seemed to be accepting on Thursday looked a lot more like a soft Brexit than the hard option apparently on the table.
Perhaps the most pertinent question, though, came from a member of Davis’s own party. Referring to an ongoing legal challenge on whether the government can trigger Article 50 with the Royal Prerogative, the unstoppable Tory MP Anna Soubry demanded: “What plans has my right honourable friend drawn up, including legislation, in the event that he loses that case and therefore it will be this place including the House of Lords that will trigger Article 50?”
Davis said he would not comment on ongoing court cases. But Team Remain has him on the back foot. So long as they can keep the debate in parliament, and work together, the future for the 48 per cent looks a little brighter.