The UK political press is filled these days either with reports about how badly the Brexit negotiations are going from a British perspective, or not terribly convincing assurances from the right of centre press that, in spite of appearances, the negotiations are actually going amazingly well. In regards to the latter: one of my favourite articles from the summer was one in either the Spectator or the Telegraph, can’t remember which, that was all about how Britain is apparently doing all of the creative thinking on Brexit. Well, you’d hope so wouldn’t you, given that the whole thing was our idea in the first place. Onus is kind of on us in that regard, chaps.
But if you read between the lines, there is a whole other story going on: a big, ol’ Brexit climb down by the government, to take place across as long a period of time as can be afforded. Not avoiding leaving, no no no, but backtracking rather big time on Theresa May’s speech back in January. “They can go whistle” has become a plea that we must honour our financial duties to the EU – and in fact, a denial by certain sections of the Right that continuing to pay into the EU budget was ever seriously in question. We seem to be headed for what will likely be an open ended transition period – either explicitly open ended or de facto open ended, with the transitional period itself getting continuously extended over time – in which a great deal of the current status quo will be part of the deal. Single Market, Customs Union – we’ll probably be part of the EFTA court and not the ECJ, but that’s not as big a distinction as some will try and make it out to be (it’s still ceding some sovereignty to a supranational court, after all).
Some will crow that the public will never accept this; that UKIP will rise again to cry betrayal, splitting the Right afresh. I doubt it. This deal would allow the Tories to apply an “emergency brake” on EU immigration which would be popular and sound decisive to many people; we would have technically left the EU, so the government could say that it was “mission accomplished” and move Brexit into the background, as something being done by some “experts” in a backroom somewhere, taking Britain stage by stage to a brighter dawn; Theresa May could step down with some grace, allowing the party to get a new leader who would have a honeymoon period. UKIP might try and shout about a betrayal of the referendum result, but think about how tired of Brexit people are already – then imagine what that feeling will be like in a year and a half of non-stop Brexit crap’s time. Most people will accept the “mission accomplished” line and get on with their lives.
I will caveat all this by saying this is not a prediction: the Tories could still deviate from all this, and by doing so commit suicide. My guess is that they will do the only sensible thing left.