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28 January 2020updated 29 Jan 2020 10:13am

Could Remainers have achieved a softer Brexit by abandoning EU membership?

The argument gives EU supporters too much agency – and ignores the internal dynamics of the Tory party. 

By Stephen Bush

There’s an interesting idea going around that the United Kingdom’s imminent exit from the European Union shows that organised Remainers would have been better off using their energies to campaign for a softer Brexit, rather than seeking to stop it happening entirely.

It’s superficially attractive because the 2017 parliament held a series of indicative votes about the preferred Brexit end state and, in each case, had the various opponents of Brexit backed a softer deal than the one envisaged by Boris Johnson (either to retain the UK’s membership of the EU customs union, or to remain in the customs union and single market) then they would have commanded a majority of those MPs voting.

However, I think it doesn’t quite add up, for a number of reasons. The biggest reason is that it hugely overrates the importance of Remainers in the inner life of the governing party throughout the Brexit deadlock, the Conservatives. Any Brexit end state had to do all of the following to succeed: 1) unite a majority of MPs in parliament 2) command the support of the executive 3) command the support of a majority of MPs in the governing party. The 2017 parliament was capable of producing a parliamentary majority for a soft Brexit in theory but it was incapable of supporting an executive that was committed to it. A soft Brexit was also unacceptable to the majority of Conservative MPs, including those who backed Remain. Former minister Jo Johnson may have gone further than many of his colleagues in actually quitting parliament, but his view that a drastic Brexit was better than a soft one because of his commitment to British sovereignity was and is pretty mainstream. (One serving cabinet minister describes their view as “better all in or all out”, and that position makes up a good chunk of the Tory party’s remaining Remainers.)

We shouldn’t forget that one of the things that brought Boris Johnson’s 2016 bid for the Conservative leadership to an end was a column he wrote for the Telegraph in which he said that after Brexit, there “will still be intense and intensifying European cooperation and partnership in a huge number of fields” and that the major change, which would not come “in any great rush” would be to free the UK from the domestic reach of the European Court of Justice, a series of policy demands that pointed towards a significantly softer Brexit than the one he is now the avatar of. It contributed to the loss of support he experienced among MPs.

To be blunt, if Boris Johnson, the highest-profile Leaver in the country, couldn’t carry a critical mass of Conservative MPs with him, the idea that the parliamentary Conservative Party would have accepted a soft Brexit deal, cooked up with the help of MPs from outside of it, is pure science fiction.

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There’s an open question about whether Labour would have been better served had Jeremy Corbyn been able to do as he planned after 2017 and fight the 2019 general election on a pro-Brexit platform. The party’s earlier position appeared to be paying dividends electorally right up until February of 2019, when the defection of eight Labour MPs to form the Independent Group triggered a concomitant defection of Remain voters, albeit largely to the Liberal Democrats and Greens. Moving to an anti-Brexit position helped to win some of those voters back. I thought after the European elections that Labour should wait and see if supporting a softer Brexit than that put forward by Johnson, coupled with the level of dislike towards him among Remain voters, would allow them to hold onto their position. But Labour remained stuck in the mid-to-low 20s in the polls throughout Johnson’s first summer in charge. It improved only after changing its referendum position, and even then, Labour’s main gains came during the general election campaign itself. (Don’t forget that because the polls were pretty much bang on this time, we can fairly confidently say that the pattern they showed between the elections in May 2019 and the election in December 2019 were pretty accurate too.)

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Now, maybe Labour would have been able to win back all the Remain voters it did and hold onto Leave voters with a pro-Brexit policy. It might well have improved the coverage of Johnson’s Brexit policy if the press, particularly the BBC, had been forced to cover it in detail, rather than simply “to Brexit, Y/N?” but it is far from clear that this a) would have benefited Labour or b) that they wouldn’t have simply lost more votes among Remainers as a result. That was the argument I made several times in the election, and I think it was probably right, but we can’t know for sure.

In any case, the question of whether Labour would have been better off with a different Brexit position in the 2019 election is a different one to whether or not “Remainers” could have secured a softer Brexit with a Tory government in power. Any serious examination of the mood of the Conservative Party at Westminster has to conclude that it would not have done so.