May’s troops back a hard Brexit, but they’ll give her a rough ride on the way

For the last three years, we at The UK in a Changing Europe, in collaboration with the Mile End Institute at Queen Mary, University of London, have posed a series of questions to MPs about their attitudes to Brexit .

Since we last asked parliamentarians their views, Theresa May has called an election, lost her majority and the government has suffered a defeat over its Withdrawal Bill. This lattermost setback served to underline the fact that the House of Commons is where much of the Brexit action will be over the coming year.

At first glance, Mrs May’s position appears far weaker than it did a year ago. And yet, this year’s poll tells the story of a prime minister who has proven remarkably successful when it comes to convincing her own MPs to accept her ideas about what Brexit should look like.

That said, while they may be convinced of the final destination she has chosen, they are far less so about the route she has proposed to get us there.

Mrs May has been consistent since she set out her stall at the Conservative Party conference in 2016. Brexit means hard Brexit – in other words, leaving the single market. Our findings reveal that she has been successful in convincing her MPs on this score.

When we carried out our survey in December 2016, 50 per cent of Conservative MPs felt that remaining in the single market was an outcome fully consistent with the referendum result. This number has fallen to 23 per cent.

To test this further, we presented MPs with a choice between four varieties of Brexit. These ranged from the softest option of continued single market membership, to the hardest of no trade deal at all, via alignment with EU rules outside the single market, or a more limited trade deal.

A striking 80 per cent of Conservative MPs seem to back the position adopted by the prime minister – leaving the single market, but negotiating as close a deal as possible with the European Union.

In contrast, while Jeremy Corbyn has insisted that remaining in the single market would not be compatible with leaving the EU, 56 per cent of his MPs say this would be their preferred outcome.

Moreover, the prime minister seems to have convinced her troops, and in contrast to the forecasts of most economists, that the economy will not be damaged by leaving the single market.

Eighty-nine per cent of Conservative MPs believe that, over the course of the next decade, the British economy will improve. In contrast, 69 per cent of Labour MPs believe it will either fail to improve or deteriorate in the same period.

All of which speaks to the government’s success in rallying its troops. Yet don’t let this fool you into thinking that the prime minister faces an easy ride. Because, whilst the idea of leaving the single market commands the support of the majority of her parliamentary party, her plan for reaching this point does not.

The coming around of ministers to the necessity of some kind of transition period, to carry us from the moment we leave to the coming into force of a new relationship with the EU, has been one of the most striking developments in the Brexit negotiations.

In her January 2017 Lancaster House speech, Theresa May referred to a “process of implementation” to phase in new arrangements negotiated with the EU.

Yet by September and her next major Brexit speech in Florence, she acknowledged that the transitional period (she insists, wrongly, on continuing to talk in terms of implementation rather than transition) would see the UK continuing to operate under the ‘existing structure of EU rules and regulations’.

Seventy-three per cent of Conservative MPs surveyed support the idea of transition. But they don’t support the kind of transition on offer.

The European Commission laid out in December its approach to a transitional arrangement. It stressed that continued participation in the single market meant accepting free movement, and that EU law, including any changes made to it during the transitional period, would continue to apply to the UK as it were a member state. All this while Britain loses its seat at the table, and its judge on the court.

And here is the rub. Conservative MPs appear to be set firmly against the idea that transition should involve either freedom of movement or a role for the European Court of Justice. Seventy-four per cent of Conservative MPs told us they are unwilling to accept freedom of movement during a transition period; 63 per cent said that they would not support any role for the European Court of Justice after March 2019.

Prominent Conservative Brexiters view the transition terms on offer as equivalent to becoming a “colony” of the EU. But equally, the majority of Tory MPs accept the need for transition. All of which raises the tantalising possibility that they might prefer another means of bridging the period between March 2019, and the coming into force of a trade deal.

As one of us argued on these pages recently, the neatest and legally least problematic way of securing transition would be for the European Council to vote to extend the Article 50 period. Whilst this would prolong British EU membership, it would also avoid a situation in which the UK had to comply with EU laws while having no say at all over them. Given what her MPs seem to think, might this be a way for the prime minister to reconcile them not only to her idea of Brexit, but also to her plan for getting us there?

By Professor Anand Menon, director and Alan Wager, research associate at The UK in a Changing Europe. This piece originally featured in 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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