I remember the morning of 23 June very well. I remember leaving home to run a committee room in west London in a state of unhappy dread. I remember the rain starting and worrying about the effect on turnout. I also remember that the ballot paper I received in the polling station had nothing to say about quitting the single market or bringing down immigration; it simply asked whether Britain should leave or remain within the European Union. The country’s eventual decision to leave was unequivocal but the terse wording of the referendum question gave no further instruction as to what form this would take. When Theresa May and others suggest that the referendum gave a clear mandate for only the ‘hard’ version of Brexit, neither the ballot paper nor the divergent messages from the Leave campaign, back them up.
In a general election, the electorate is also only offered a brief list of choices but they can still be reasonably clear about the consequences of their vote. Each party has a published manifesto, and a leadership that can be judged on its ability to deliver on its promises. All the Leavers had was a bus. Having now officially gone back on their most eye-catching commitment – giving an extra £350m a week to the National Health Service – it is exceptionally difficult to argue that any of the other ‘bus pledges’ are completely irrevocable. The jaw-dropping hypocrisy of prominent Brexit cheerleaders like Fraser Nelson and Daniel Hannan, who were happy to ride the wave of anti-immigrant sentiment to victory, yet now wail that none of this was to do with migrants, illustrates that even amongst Leavers there is confusion about the meaning of Brexit.
Meanwhile, let us imagine the result was reversed, Remain winning by 52 per cent to 48 per cent – close enough that 650,000 people changing their minds (1.3 per cent of the total electorate) would have altered the outcome. Imagine that the government had taken this as a definitive mandate from the British public for more European integration and higher levels of immigration. And then just imagine the ear-splitting shrieks of fury from the Leavers. If Remain had achieved a close victory, Ukip would have argued strenuously that the narrowness of the result was a clear sign that the country wanted less Europe, not more. A triumphalist Remain agenda that ignored this would have been rightly condemned as hugely divisive in an already divided nation.
Yet the prime minister has chosen to push us down the equivalent route – and all for nakedly political reasons. As a new convert to the Church of Leave, anything other than enthusiastic evangelism will look suspicious to Brexit-loving Tories. But her ambitions extend beyond placating her own party. Not content with merely herding the ex-Tory part of the Ukip vote back into the Conservative fold, she has her sights set on stealing the voters that Labour lost to Ukip by combining a hard Brexit pitch and centrist economic policies. But May will know that her political games carry a heavy economic price. Holidaymakers and Marmite fans have already been hit by the collapse in the pound, but in the coming months higher import prices will start seriously impacting real wages. If business continues to anticipate hard Brexit then much worse will come, investment is likely to decrease with consequent rises in unemployment. The Treasury has estimated that £66bn of annual revenue would be lost on leaving the single market and switching to World Trade Organisation rules.
Some Leavers are happy to be poorer in order to cut immigration. But polling suggests that 30 per cent of them are not prepared to give up even one per cent of their income in order to reduce EU migration. I suspect many of those 30 per cent are the ‘just managing’ families that May claims she wants to help, but who would find any reduction in their household budget deeply frightening. If the polling is right then added to the Remain votes, this gives a very clear 63-36 per cent majority in the country as a whole against doing anything to jeopardise incomes. It would take fully 93 per cent of Leave voters to agree that cutting immigration was worth losing money over for there to be majority support for this position.
It is possible that May’s hard Brexit rhetoric is simply an elaborate piece of virtue signalling, and that as the economy worsens, her stance will soften during the actual negotiations. But the danger of taking such a hardline position now is that the weight of public expectations may make it impossible to reverse course later. This is why we need political as well as economic opposition to hard Brexit. Last week saw the emergence of proper Labour leadership on the issue, following the inspired appointment of Keir Starmer as shadow Brexit secretary. Every major party in Westminster other than the Tories oppose hard Brexit. Even on her own side, members of parliament such as Anna Soubry and Dominic Grieve remind the prime minister that her majority is vulnerable.
Opposing hard Brexit does not mean closing down the debate on immigration and it does not necessarily mean that we should not still aim to cut numbers. But it does mean that the prime minister must be constantly reminded that the majority of British people simply do not want to be poorer as a result of Brexit.
Christabel Cooper writes a regular column on the Progress website. She tweets at @ChristabelCoops
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