Hard Brexit looks inevitable unless there is a large shift in public opinion to stay

Anyone hoping that the UK can avoid a hard Brexit, let alone avoid Brexit altogether, is probably deluding themselves.

The only people with a chance of changing things are MPs representing the two biggest parties in the House of Commons – something that gives rise to all sorts of Kremlinology.

Will the hardcore Brexiteers wear the divorce bill and the possible continued role of the European Court of Justice in any transition period?

Just how mutinous are the mutineers? Can it be true that Jeremy Corbyn and his cronies are finally coming round to the idea that the EU isn’t a capitalist conspiracy? Etc etc.

It’s complicated. In fact, it’s way too complicated. The reality is much simpler.

The only thing that could possibly convince enough Labour and Tory MPs to think again is a major shift in public opinion rooted, firstly, in the belief that the government is incapable of cobbling together a deal with the EU and, secondly, and even more importantly, a serious economic shock.

Sadly, if you’re a Remainer or even simply a soft-Brexiteer, such a shift is unlikely to occur anything like soon enough to make any difference.

Think of the EU as a road and the UK as a car. We’ve left the motorway (at junction 50, obviously) and are heading up the slip-road towards a roundabout with four exits.

The first exit leads to us leaving not just the EU but the customs union and single market, too. The second sees us leave the EU but not the customs union and single market. If, instead, we head straight on and take the third exit we’re onto the slip road that leads back on to the motorway. The fourth exit leads to no deal.

Right now, the Conservatives are in the driving seat and intending on taking the first exit – hard Brexit – even if a few of them in the passenger seat rather fancy the fourth, which they (and pretty much only they) are convinced leads to a bright future for Britain as a buccaneering global free trader and all-round neo-liberal nirvana.

Labour, in the back seat, would (even it doesn’t dare admit it openly yet) really rather take the second exit – Norway/soft Brexit/whatever you want to call it – although many people in the party (especially at the grassroots where they don’t have to worry about offending Leave-voting constituents) would much prefer simply to take the third and return to Europe before it’s too late.

We’ve all been there. That busy roundabout at the top of the slip road’s coming up fast, maybe even a little too fast. We think we know which way we’re headed but we’re not completely sure.

We’re bickering about the best option. And we know we don’t have very much time to change our mind.

However, unless something obvious happens to change it – maybe we get a sign to say that a certain exit is closed for some reason – we’ll end up taking the one we’d supposedly decided on earlier.

For MPs on both sides of the Commons that sign – as perhaps it should be in a democracy – would be a clear indication that the public was coming to the conclusion that we shouldn’t be doing what we’re doing. And “clear” is an important qualifier.

Polls that occasionally show Remain may now be edging Leave won’t cut it. To make an impact the gap would have to open up to something like 60:40, and persistently so.

That will only occur if two things happen.

The first – the conviction that the government is making such a pig’s ear of negotiations that it may not be able to secure a reasonable deal – already seems to be happening.

But the second is more important: a marked and perceptible economic downturn which leads to a loss of confidence so sharp and so sudden (think Black Wednesday or Northern Rock) that it would trump what, until now anyway, has proved to be an overwhelming wish among the general public to reduce immigration – a wish that, if recently realised ONS figures are anything to go by, seems very rapidly to be coming true.

By my reckoning, we’re going to be hitting the Brexit roundabout in the late summer/early autumn of 2018 at the very latest.

However, even if the long-term economic signs don’t look good right now, they’re unlikely to be flashing bright red by then.

As a result, whatever the majority of MPs want or believe in their heart of hearts would be best for the country, Brexit – and a hard Brexit – now looks inevitable.

Unless, that is, an election in the new year – perhaps precipitated by the 21st century equivalent of the Irish Question – suddenly serves to bundle the Tories out of the driving seat and lets Labour grab the wheel.

Even then, precisely which turn the newly-dapper Mr Corbyn would take is anyone’s guess – at least to those of us not lucky enough to have crystal balls as big as Morgan Stanley’s.

By Professor Tim Bale, Professor of politics at Queen Mary University. This piece originally featured on Times Red Box.

Disclaimer:
The views expressed in this analysis post are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the UK in a Changing Europe initiative.

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