I wrote the day of the vote on Theresa May’s Brexit deal in January 2019 that the deal was a major diplomatic coup by the UK government and that MPs should back it. Almost two years before that, I had also written that I believed – and still do – that the fact that Leave won the 2016 referendum meant that Brexit had to happen.
While I expect the economic damage of Brexit, particularly on the terms envisaged by the Conservative Party, to be severe, it is easier to repair economic damage than political damage: and it is better to lose GDP than to lose trust in institutions. You can not borrow your way out of a crisis of faith – you can use the state’s extraordinary powers to loan and lend your way through a misbegotten economic and political strategy. Single markets can be rejoined, non-tariff barriers can be torn down: political discontent endures.
Unlike Peter Mandelson, a devoted Remainer who has blamed himself and others for the outcome of the vote, or Owen Jones, a late convert to a second referendum position, who has written a piece along similar lines today, I thought that even after Labour’s disastrous performance in the local and European elections, the party should have held fire before moving towards an explicitly pro-Remain position, because the looming election of Boris Johnson may have meant they could squeeze Remainers with a “this guy? Really?” message while reassuring Leavers with their pro-Brexit policy.
So I have a strong cognitive bias – who among us doesn’t like to imagine that our preferred policy options are electorally and politically fruitful, and that our political analyses are correct? – in favour of the idea that, had organised Remainers put their weight behind Theresa May’s Brexit, or a genuinely soft option such as single market membership, we would now have signed up to a softer exit and not be staring down the barrel of a no-deal Brexit.
However, I don’t think the hypothetical is at all convincing. Let’s start at the beginning. As James Kirkup notes in his Spectator piece arguing that Remainers bear a share of responsibility for our current predicament, the first blow to any prospect of a soft Brexit came when, after Johnson set out his thinking on what should happen in 2016, one that hinted heavily at an EEA-style arrangement for the UK, his leadership bid was immediately wrecked by nervous Brexiteers who feared he was backsliding.
It’s tempting to conclude at this point that if Johnson – rightly or wrongly seen as the architect of Brexit and the politician with the most credibility among Leave voters by most Tory MPs – couldn’t sell his colleagues on a soft Brexit, then no one could, and certainly not an out-and-out Remainer. I think this is true, and the idea that Theresa May would have been able to do so after the loss of her majority in 2017 is even more far-fetched.
But what about a Brexit imposed on the Conservatives, or one put through on the backs of the Conservative payroll vote – that is, ministers, junior ministers and so on – with the support of the opposition?
It’s true to say that if Jeremy Corbyn had whipped his MPs in favour of May’s deal, there would have been a majority in the House of Commons to pass the meaningful vote at the first time of asking, even if you assume, as seems reasonable, a significant Labour rebellion at or near triple figures.
The problem, though, and I think the ubiquity of the “Remainers blew their chance at a softer Brexit” take shows that this has been poorly understood, is that passing the Withdrawal Agreement was never as simple as passing the meaningful vote. The accompanying legislation also had to pass through the Houses of Parliament, and then the resulting election had to produce a parliamentary majority to maintain that deal and to back the negotiating position of a soft Brexit, or at the least, something only as hard as May’s Brexit.
So to deliver a soft Brexit, you’re having to claim that the following scenario is plausible: first, the Labour leadership opts to back Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement in January 2019. This is the least implausible part, in that the withdrawal agreement is as close as you can plausibly get to Labour’s expressed Brexit position at the time. It’s stage two where it gets tricky: that, after an alliance of Labour MPs and the Conservative payroll vote passes the meaningful vote, opposed by essentially every major figure on the pro-Brexit right into law, neither party experiences any kind of internal or external blowback.
Let’s take the Conservative Party first. While a majority of Brexiteers did eventually back May’s deal on the third time of asking, they did so only because Dominic Cummings convinced first himself, and then them, that if May’s deal did not pass, Brexit would not take place. It’s hard to see how this would have happened in a universe where Labour had actually backed May’s deal.
What would surely have happened is that there would have been an internal Conservative revolt, and whether or not May was dislodged or not, the result would have been a Tory party committed to negotiating a yet-harder Brexit once it won a majority. (I don’t think you can claim that May’s immunity from a challenge, having seen off a vote of no confidence in December 2018, would have protected her, as it didn’t in the summer of 2019.)
Of course, that would have been fine had voting for May’s deal left Labour fighting fit to, if not win the 2019 election, then at least deny the Conservatives a majority. But it’s hard to reconcile the idea that Labour would not have suffered serious political damage on its Remain flank as a result of doing so – after all, it suffered serious damage among Remain voters simply due to the defection of seven backbenchers, none of whom were household names, to form The Independent Group. It’s not really a plausible scenario to suggest they could have weathered the much bigger affront to Remain voters of backing May’s Brexit, which was already pretty hard.
The only way to prevent a hard Brexit was for the Conservatives to be defeated at the polls – and the only way to do that was for Labour to be able to hold together its 2017 electoral coalition. Its pro-Brexit position being rendered explicit by the defection of seven Labour MPs did fatal damage to its prospects and moving to a pro-Remain position fixed its Remainer problem but at the consequence of creating a Leave one.
Nonetheless, it would have been the right move to back May’s Withdrawal Agreement because I think it was the right thing to do. It was as soft as you could get while still meaningfully enacting the desires of the majority of Leave voters, and, unlike the Northern Ireland protocol or a no-deal Brexit, allowed the genuine maintenance of the status quo on both Northern Ireland’s land border with the Republic and its sea border with the rest of the UK. I believe that while the economic and social cost of Brexit will be large, the democratic consequences of not pursuing Brexit would have been larger and much harder to fix.
But I don’t think you can plausibly construct a universe in which a Brexit arrangement passed on the backs of the Conservative payroll vote and the Labour leadership is an enduring Brexit and that, sooner or later, the hard Brexit of 2020 would have been inevitable. At some point the real causes of a hard Brexit – that Leave won the 2016 referendum, that the Conservatives formed a government after the 2017 and 2019 elections and that a soft Brexit has never been able to command public support – have to be faced.