The news on Brexit lately has been mostly of a piece, for once. “Brexit: UK has already ‘agreed in principle’ with EU to Norway-style transition” ran a headline in the Independent on Monday. “Should we stay or should we go? Why the EU customs union issue is threatening to rip Tory party apart” was the Telegraph’s much grumpier take on the same subject matter. The point here is, everyone seems to agree that what we are headed for now is a very soft Brexit. Everything that Theresa May has said leads one to believe that this isn’t the case – while everything she has actually done has confirmed this direction of travel every single time. The agreement to not have regulatory divergence between Northern Ireland and Ireland pretty much assured this, however it was spun by various actors.
I get why the Remainer Tories are happy with this state of affairs. They have wanted the softest Brexit imaginable since June 2016 – in lieu of staying in altogether, but there is that pesky referendum vote to consider – so the way things are going now is great for them. What I don’t understand is why the hardcore Brexiteers, the ones clamouring for hard Brexit, are standing by Mrs May.
It is clear now that not only will Theresa May avoid a hard Brexit at all costs, she lacks the negotiating and political nous to get anything other than what the EU Commission wants to offer, which is Norway plus (inside the Customs Union as well), where the UK pays more than it was paying as a member. Everything that has happened so far in the negotiations tells you this is what we’re headed for. The hard Brexiters must know this.
Mrs May is also weak – not terribly popular in the country (preferred still as PM to Corbyn, but that should be viewed sceptically), without a real support base in the party. If the hard Brexiters (or “clean” Brexiters, as they prefer to call themselves) wanted to get rid of her, it would be the easiest thing in the world. Then there would be a leadership contest in which the hard Brexit candidate would surely win. From there, they could chuck in the negotiations and have their hard Brexit.
I can only think of two explanations for them standing by the current prime minister. One, they are seriously scared that Amber Rudd or Phil Hammond would win the subsequent leadership contest, and from there even possibly bring a halt altogether to Brexit – both of these fears are comically unfounded. The other is that they don’t actually really want hard Brexit at all, and realise, at least deep down where it counts, that it would probably be a disaster that would hurt the country and finish the Tory party off for a generation, one in which a far left Labour Party could do their worst.
Why then keep banging on about a “clean” Brexit? A year ago, they could have argued behind closed doors that it was a negotiating tactic – that having the “headbangers” in the Conservative Party seem serious about dropping out of the EU with no deal would scare the Commission into giving Britain a better deal. There’s no way after everything that has happened since that you can make that same argument. It patently hasn’t worked. That’s why we’re headed for such a soft Brexit, after all.