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14 June 2017

It’s not unthinkable that the UK could remain in the EU

As Brexit softens, the full-fat Remain option could start to look awfully attractive.

By Stephen Bush

Can Brexit be stopped? Emmanuel Macron has raised Remainer hopes by saying that the “door is open” for the United Kingdom to change its mind and stay in the EU.

Elsewhere, David Cameron has called on Theresa May to work with other parties on Brexit, while the Times reports that Philip Hammond is fighting to keep Britain in the customs union. Did the Remainers win after all?

Don’t start singing Ode to Joy just yet. The election means that the majority for Theresa May’s immigration-focused Brexit is off the cards. But it also means that the biggest power brokers in the Tory party are its most organised backbenchers, who are also its most Eurosceptic. As the euphoric reception that Jeremy Corbyn received at last night’s PLP meeting, there’s just one power broker in the parliamentary Labour party at the moment, and it’s Corbyn, a Eurosceptic of long vintage. That’s before you get to the large group of people who feel that referendum results need to be honoured.

But pro-Europeans across the House are still hopeful they can deliver a softer exit, and they’re right to feel that way. Firstly, when the Conservatives contemplated a punishing exit without a deal, they did so when they thought they had a electoral insurance policy called “Jeremy Corbyn”. Now they are keenly aware that Corbyn is inches away from power, no deal looks to be quite a lot worse than a bad deal. Anything other than a transition agreement and a close relationship with the EU has got a lot more politically risky.

The second is that there is another set of power brokers in the Labour party, the trade union leaders, almost all committed to a Remain vote before the referendum and all determined to retain the jobs that go with single market membership.

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Ultimately, Britain’s Brexit deal means working out what agreement gets 325 votes in the House of Commons, and pro-European MPs feel increasingly certain that there is only one deal that does that: continuing large payments to the European Union, and acceptance of the European Court over cross-border issues, with de facto the same level of immigration. (Labour’s pro-migration tendency privately believe that when push comes to shove, Corbyn’s manifesto commitment to ending free movement will come a distant second to protecting jobs.) At that point, many will think: won’t the full-fat Remain option start to look awfully attractive? Certainly, stranger things have happened.

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