Could Britain’s weakness be pushing us towards a softer Brexit – or no Brexit at all?

Away from the current scandals, the government is still pursuing its largest negotiation in decades. 

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Remember Brexit? Away from the Westminster harassment scandals, away from Boris Johnson’s umpteenth “gaffe”, away from Priti Patel’s implausible excuses about her idea of a fun family holiday in Israel, the government is still pursuing its largest negotiation in decades.  It’s a difficult story to cover because, as one political journalist put it to me, “it’s like covering a space shuttle launch – it rolls inch by inch to the launchpad, and that’s boring… except we all think it’s going to explode when it gets there”.

The incremental nature of the talks is only one of the challenges in getting to the truth. Brexit has also revealed the monoglot insularity of our political class: few read the foreign press, and therefore have little insight into the motivations of, say, Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron. That also breeds narcissism. We assume that the rest of the EU27 is as transfixed by our national identity crisis as we are. In reality, Macron is preoccupied with his labour reforms, and Brexit did not even feature during the leaders’ debate between Merkel and Martin Schulz before this autumn’s German elections. (The Social Democrat leader instead attacked the chancellor for reneging on her promise not to introduce road tolls.)

In such a climate, factionalism beats facts. The row over the so-called sectoral assessments, which will show the effect of leaving the EU on various parts of the economy, demonstrates this. It was undoubtedly a political coup for Labour to win a parliamentary fight to have the reports released, even in redacted form. But does anyone seriously think that their content, however bloodcurdling, will sway public opinion?

Since last June, support for leaving the EU has remained relatively stable, and there is no evidence that a re-run of the referendum would produce a different result. As any pollster will tell you, tribalism is a hell of a drug: witness the 36 per cent of Americans who currently approve of the way Donald Trump is doing his job. What has changed, however, is the political calculation in both Whitehall and Brussels. A strange sort of optimism is emerging. Many believe the British government is so rudderless and badly prepared that it will either have to delay its leaving date or capitulate to a Norway-style agreement where we stay inside the single market, simply to avoid a ruinously hard exit.

Jonathan Lis, deputy director of British Influence, is in the former camp. Although he says that EU officials estimate the risk of “no deal” at 50 per cent, he believes that “no deal will mean no Brexit, because it’s so catastrophic”. He has a point. There is no Commons majority for an exit that sees the UK outside programmes such as the European Atomic Energy Community and the Open Skies air transport agreement, and sees Northern Ireland’s farming industry devastated by tariffs. Asking for more time would be a lesser humiliation than defeat. “The government is always playing catch-up,” Lis adds. “They said there could be no transition, now there is a transition. No money [into the EU budget], then money. So they keep catching up with the experts. And what we’re all saying now is that we need to extend Article 50.”

Anand Menon, a professor of European Politics and Foreign Affairs at King’s College London, agrees that the mood in government has shifted. “On ‘no deal’, there’s been a sea-change,” he says. “You struggle to find anyone who’s nonchalant about it in DExEU [David Davis’s Brexit department]. Maybe on the Tory back benches. I wouldn’t say anything at all was impossible now.”

However, neither believes that Britain can achieve the next best thing to staying in the EU: membership of the single market, but with greater controls on immigration to placate Leave voters. “They’re not suddenly going to let us cherry-pick after all,” says Lis. “It’s never been about encourager les autres, it’s about – if you’re out, you’re out. You’re a third party. Then we’ll negotiate from there.”

The Labour peer Charlie Falconer has a different view. He concurs that there is no time for a bespoke deal, such as the Canadian free trade agreement invoked by Brexiteers. “That took seven years,” he says. “The Tories have to finish the transition by the time they have the next general election.”

But, Falconer wonders, could the answer be to take Norway as a starting point? If so, Britain could end up in the European Economic Area, with trade disputes mediated by the European Free Trade Association court, allowing Theresa May to keep her promise to leave the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. On immigration, the EEA has a better emergency brake on immigration than the EU.

“The position of the British government is that we can’t do a Norway deal because at the outset the 27 were clear there was no give on immigration,” Falconer told me. “But the 27 are now much more confident that the departure of the UK is not a threat.” He believes that even a prime minister as diminished as Theresa May could sell this to her party. She could say: “We are adopting the single market on regulatory convergence” – which we’d have to do for a free trade deal – “but we’ve extracted a significant concession on immigration.”

Unfortunately, politics may take precedence over rationality. The sexual harassment scandal has left the Commons weakened and discredited in the eyes of the public. (“It’s becoming like the scouts or the Catholic church,” says one politician.) Dejected MPs feel little inclination to pick a fight with the press or public opinion.

In politics, everything is connected. What a very British farce it would be if Michael Fallon’s unwanted lunges, Priti Patel’s suspicious family holidays, and Boris Johnson’s big mouth ended up denting Britain’s future economic prospects. 

Helen Lewis is associate editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and is writing a history of feminism for Jonathan Cape

This article first appeared in the 09 November 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory sinking ship