A popular thesis, doing the rounds of SW1, is that Remainers via their intransigence have made a harder Brexit than would have otherwise been coming our way inevitable. I think there are several massive problems with this theory to say the least.
For a start, Theresa May’s Brexit, at least what we know of it from the speeches she gave as prime minister combined with her Withdrawal Agreement, looked like a pretty hard Brexit. It wasn’t like she’d put Norway Plus on the table and the purist Remainers destroyed it; she wanted to leave Single Market and end Freedom of Movement and was against a customs union enough to fight it every step of the way. The idea that if enough of the opposition swung behind a CU it would have happened strikes me as deeply naive. One thing about May’s approach to Brexit that we should be able to agree on is that she was single-minded about how she felt it should look and didn’t accept compromise (other than with the EU itself, weirdly enough). Even when it might have theoretically saved her premiership, she refused to budge on anything and with good reason – she was always walking a political tightrope. If a customs union amendment had passed the House, the Conservative party almost certainly would have just brought her leadership down then and there and we would have had Boris a little earlier.
The idea that a soft Brexit was there for the taking is much like the counterargument that a People’s Vote was reachable – it strikes me as wishful thinking from those who tried to advance either a soft Brexit or another EU referendum. Once Theresa May made her speech about leaving the Single Market, that sealed the deal; either Brexit was going to be stopped somehow or we were going to get a hard Brexit, the latter always being the more likely scenario.
Another thing to point out is that we have no real idea what Boris Johnson’s final Brexit settlement will look like. Yes, he says no alignment, yes, he says he’s going to put up tariff barriers with the EU, but he also says there will be no checks on goods going between GB and NI and we all know that’s not the case. It’s still entirely possible that we end up with a softer Brexit than we would have got under Theresa May. Given how hard her Brexit was going to be, I don’t think that’s an unrealistic thing to say.
It seems to me that what Remainer parliamentarians did was to fight against Brexit at least in part with the hope of making it softer. As Brexiteers are fond of saying, you don’t get the compromise you’d eventually accept if you don’t take a hard position from the start. It didn’t work, but trying to stop Brexit gave soft Brexit the best chance of happening. In fact, if anything, Remainers instantly retreating to a soft Brexit position right after the referendum probably did more to help create the conditions for hard Brexit than anything else. By setting up the debate as soft versus hard Brexit, they made the latter much more likely.
The final thing to say is to reiterate what I have said in other articles on this site about the last two and half years, namely that by creating a real, large pro-European movement within Britain, it makes the chances of rejoining someday much more likely, whereas I very much doubt we would have seen a million people on the streets marching for a Norway Plus Brexit. On the same note, a hard Brexit might in fact be slightly preferable to a soft Brexit from a pro-European perspective. I think a soft Brexit really would have pleased no one, with Brexiteers arguing it wasn’t real Brexit and Remainers still unhappy we’ve left. A “proper” Brexit has looked for years like something that has to happen; a step that the country needs to get out of its system, no matter how ugly that might be. Blaming Remainers for what is about to come might feel cathartic to some, but it doesn’t ring true when you look at the alternatives, what actually happened and who was in charge.