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This election isn’t about getting a better Brexit deal – and the Conservative manifesto proves it

The government's Brexit policy is the only thing not changed by the Conservatives' new manifesto. 

By Stephen Bush

Why are we having a general election? The official line is that Britain’s Brexit deal is under threat because Labour are iffy on whether or not to back Brexit, while the Liberal Democrats and the SNP are out to oppose it.

And it is true to say that the Liberal Democrats have threatened to “grind the government’s business to a halt”, and that the SNP have pledged to vote against a deal that takes Scotland out of the single market. It’s also true to say that Labour’s policy on what flavour of Brexit it wants has tended to fluctuate depending on whether or not the by-election they are fighting takes place in a constituency that voted to Leave or Remain. For the Stoke-on-Trent by-election, they donned the full Brexit garb. For Manchester Gorton – obviated by Theresa May’s early election – they softened their line.

But the truth is that on Brexit issues, the government had a comfortable but not overwhelming majority, as the vote to trigger Article 50 showed. Despite the psychodrama over whether or not Jeremy Corbyn should have whipped Labour MPs to trigger Brexit, if his decision had gone the other way, most of the parliamentary Labour party would have voted the same way they did. On what you might call “general” Brexit votes – that is, whether or not we should actually leave – there are in excess of 400 votes in the House of Commons come what may.

On “specific” Brexit votes – that is, the vision of exit as seen by Theresa May – there is still a comfortable majority. The bulk of the Conservative Party, the whole of the DUP and the seven Labour Brexiteers will vote not just for European exit in general but May’s vision in particular. (That’s before you factor in Labour backbenchers who fear the wrath of their Leave-voting constituents or the party’s leadership, which is led by a Eurosceptic of long vintage.)

The truth is that May is calling this election to get a majority for everything else in this manifesto, most of which would be dead on arrival in the House of Commons as it stood on 3 May 2017.

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And the proof? The sections on Brexit in the Conservative manifesto:

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“As we leave the European Union, we will no longer be members of the single market or customs union but we will seek a deep and special partnership including a comprehensive free trade and customs agreement. There may be specific European programmes in which we might want to participate and if so, it will be reasonable that we make a contribution. We will determine a fair settlement of the UK’s rights and obligations as a departing member state, in accordance with the law and in the spirit of the UK’s continuing partnership with the EU. The principle, however, is clear: the days of Britain making vast annual contributions to the European Union will end.”

In other words, a simple restatement of the position outlined by Theresa May in her Lancaster House speech, her Article 50 letter, and her first conference speech as leader. The only big difference? A softening of the “red line” on the role the European Court of Justice will play. The undeniable truth is that the sections on Brexit have the greatest continuity with existing Conservative policy. It’s not Brexit this election is changing. It’s everything else. 

As I’ve written before, the government, no matter what Theresa May’s rhetoric about being “bloody difficult” might suggest, has quietly but effectively not ruled out continuing contributions to the EU budget every year. The way has been set for a Brexit deal where Britain pays into the EU every year, notionally in exchange for its continuing participation in science and anti-terror initiatives but in reality to the general pool, and pays the so-called “divorce bill” for its existing liabilities. (One reason why the British government wants to negotiate the divorce bill at the same time as everything else is, understandably, the more we pay in per year, the less they will want to pay up front.)

The word “vast” is one of those words that appears in party manifestos that can mean whatever you want it to mean. £350m a week is vast. A fiver per person is scarcely more than a pint in some parts of the United Kingdom. The secret is: these two amounts are the same.

If anything, a bigger Conservative majority decreases the quality of the deal Britain will get. With a majority of 16, it’s just about plausible that a deal involving a large upfront payment and continuing annual contributions – vastness TBC – might be difficult to pass through the House of Commons. (Though as the government will be giving the legislature a choice between May’s deal and exit without a deal, if there is any risk it will not pass with Conservative votes alone, Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs will have to vote for it)

With the House of Commons as it stood when May called the election, she had the ability to say to her fellow European leaders: Look, I’ve got these Brexit ultras, can you help me out here? With a thumping majority and as master of all she surveys, that card loses its value.

Both the Conservatives and their opponents believe it is in their interests to say that this election is about May getting a mandate for a hard exit from the European Union. The truth is completely the opposite.