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From hard to soft to the “people’s Brexit”: Theresa May’s Britain is in one hell of a frightful mess

Nobody told me there’d be days like these.

Theresa May became Prime Minister only because of Brexit. Her insouciant predecessor, whose most substantial contribution to this year’s general election campaign was to star in a photograph of his and his wife’s feet as they lay side by side in bed, resigned because of Brexit. May’s successor will become prime minister because of Brexit. The defining question of British politics is Brexit and its effects and consequences.

So much time, energy and anxiety are being wasted on Brexit, and for what? For Britain to negotiate a new relationship with the European Union that will be, in every way, inferior – socially, economically, culturally – to what we have already, and at a time of dangerous instability in the world, when a clown and braggart occupies the White House. Nobody told me there’d be days like these, as John Lennon once put it in a song. Strange days indeed – most peculiar, mamma.

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David Cameron’s decision to hold the 2016 referendum at the height of the worst refugee crisis in Europe since the end of the Second World War was an act of spectacular folly by a politician who believed too much in the myth of his own good fortune (“Lucky Dave”, they called him). Michael Portillo has described it as the greatest blunder ever made by a British prime minister. After Cameron’s resignation last summer, Theresa May seemed like the only grown-up in a cabal of entitled and squabbling leadership contenders and Conservative MPs duly organised her coronation.

When she became Prime Minister, May delivered a fine speech in Downing Street: she would create a different, more communitarian, even post-liberal conservatism, and she would fight against “burning injustice”. She understood that the vote for Brexit was also a vote of protest against a failed economic model; against austerity, against stagnant wages and in-work poverty, and against ultra-globalisation. People were weary. “I know you’re working around the clock, I know you’re doing your best, and I know that sometimes life can be a struggle,” May said. “The government I lead will be driven not by the interests of the privileged few, but by yours.”

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Opinion polls seemed to suggest that May was admired and trusted. She was cold and austere but she also seemed serious, and these were serious times. Yet May’s actions were never equal to her early rhetorical positioning and she never reached out to the many millions who had voted Remain and felt excluded.

By the time of the general election campaign, she was reduced to repeating soundbites and clichés. She had become the Maybot. The promising “Red Tory” language of the early months of her premiership – when she spoke about the common good and the need for greater social responsibility – had gone altogether. This is a source of much regret to her maligned former joint chief of staff Nick Timothy.

“My biggest regret,” he has said, “is that we did not campaign in accordance with the insight that took Theresa to Downing Street in the first place.” With her authority and confidence shattered, May will be gone soon: in seeking to deliver the hard Brexit her Eurosceptic supporters in the party and press demanded, she has succeeded only in creating more confusion and tumult.

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May used to tell us with supreme wisdom that “Brexit means Brexit”. In her Lancaster House speech in January, she explained her preference for a “clean” Brexit (ie, Britain should leave the single market and customs union and be outside the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice). Her use of the word “clean” was philosophically very interesting, especially when you consider its opposite: dirty, as in a dirty or unclean Brexit.

One of the many satisfying outcomes of the general election was that it has reopened the possibility of an alternative to hard (or clean) Brexit, for which there is no mandate in the House of Commons. I have been keeping a note of the different kinds of Brexit that are being touted.

What is clear is that the adjectives “hard” and “soft”, when prefixed to Brexit, are now quite passé. Emboldened by the improbable revival of the Scottish Conservatives, Ruth Davidson favours what she calls an “open” Brexit, and so now does the preposterous Boris Johnson, too, who waits like a big, overheated, hungry dog for the door of 10 Downing Street to open for him, the saliva of ambition dribbling from his mouth.

Keir Starmer, Labour’s serious-minded barrister supreme, is against what he calls an “extreme Brexit”, even if we are not sure what he is actually for, and the Guardian opposes what it calls a “chaotic Brexit”. Andrew Adonis, the Labour peer and educationalist, supports a “sane Brexit”. The Labour activist Sam Tarry wants a “people’s Brexit”. The commentator Philip Stephens has called for an “intelligent Brexit”, as one would expect of an FT panjandrum; and ­Jeremy Corbyn, a long-standing Eurosceptic who leads a party of parliamentary Remainers, wants a Brexit that protects jobs and workers’ rights. Perhaps we should call this a “Bennite Brexit”. Do please let me know if you spot any other variations.

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My own preference – and I write having been no great enthusiast for the EU before the referendum – is for “no Brexit”, such is the mess into which this country has been dragged by a former Conservative prime minister who believed the simple mechanism of a binary plebiscite could settle an internal party dispute; one that had festered since Ted Heath took Britain into the European Economic Community in 1973. This as well as his desire to assuage the populism of Nigel Farage and appease his tormentors in the press: and all at the time of his own choosing. Strange days indeed – most peculiar, mamma.

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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Will the Brexit Cabinet talks end in a “three baskets” approach?

The joy of the three baskets idea is that everyone gets to tell themselves that it will be their basket that ends up the fullest. 

It's decision day in the Brexit talks. Again.

The Brexit inner Cabinet will meet to hammer out not its final position, but the shape of its negotiating position. The expected result: an agreement on an end state in which the United Kingdom agrees it will follow EU regulations as it were still a member, for example on aviation; will agree to follow EU objectives but go about them in its own way, for example on recycling, where the British government wants to do more on plastic and less on glass; and finally, in some areas, it will go its way completely, for instance on financial services. Or as it has come to be known in Whitehall, the "three baskets" approach.

For all the lengthy run-up, this bit isn't expected to be difficult: the joy of the three baskets idea is that everyone gets to tell themselves that it will be their basket that ends up the fullest. There are two difficulties: the first is that the EU27 won't play ball, and the second is that MPs will kick off when it emerges that their preferred basket is essentially empty.

The objections of the EU27 are perhaps somewhat overwritten. The demands of keeping the Irish border open, maintaining Europol and EU-wide defence operations means that in a large number of areas, a very close regulatory and political relationship is in everyone's interests. But everyone knows that in order for the Conservative government to actually sign the thing, there is going to have to be some divergence somewhere.

The bigger problem is what happens here at home when it turns out that the third basket - that is to say, full regulatory autonomy - is confined to fishing and the "industries of the future". The European Research Group may have a few more letters left to send yet.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.