It is received wisdom that the decision made by the electorate in the EU referendum is final and must be respected at all costs. Not to do so would undermine our democracy. Even an ardent pro-European like Chuka Umunna asserts that the will of the people must be respected. Our new prime minister famously promises “Brexit means Brexit”.
Those are the public positions of politicians, but many parliamentarians will be quietly thinking to themselves - if Brexit means leaving the EU, then is it actually possible to do it? This is because there are a series of intractable, practical and political dichotomies that they face.
- The government has a small majority and its noisy, reckless right wing fringe are looking for “Hard Brexit”, in other words severing links with all the EU institutions. Many who voted to leave believed they were voting to reduce immigration in a big way. But the government is close to the large financial institutions and large international businesses who will be privately telling the prime minister that we can’t and must not leave the Single Market. These two positions are irreconcilable.
- The government is committed to keeping the “Union” intact. Leaving the single market would give the SNP everything it wants to argue for independence, and the imposition of a hard border in Ireland, a requirement of the EU between EU and non-member states, is nigh on impossible.
- Bristol and other big cities voted to stay. Analysts describe Bristol and London as a metropolitan elite who have benefitted from EU membership. Maybe. But Bristol’s success equates to big tax revenue for the Treasury. Our cities are the economic drivers of our economy and the government knows this. Tory votes are in the shires but the cities make governing possible.
- Liam Fox’s new department will have officials who will explain to him just what trade agreements entail. Even if an agreement with the EU were relatively simple (I don’t think it is), given we meet their current criteria already, negotiating new agreements with all the other countries of the world will certainly take many years. Fox will be learning just how extraordinarily complex and time consuming trade agreements are. However willing and greedy the foreign governments are to do a deal, the minutiae the negotiators have to resolve must and will take years.
- David Davis, touted as a tough negotiator, will find out that the EU is under no obligation to negotiate at all. The UK is no position to haggle. Of course the EU isn’t going to cut off its nose to spite its face, but nor will be interested in making concessions allowing the UK to stay in the single market, without Freedom of Movement.
- The Foreign Secretary will be having lots of private talks with leading diplomats around the world, who will tell him that Britain leaving the EU is harmful to everyone. Boris will be operating outside of his usual bubble and being intelligent may find it hard to ignore detailed and convincing arguments repeated over and over again. He has demagogic tendencies but he is not an ideologue.
- The government will have to find a way to revise at least 2,000 pieces of UK secondary legislation which would need to be reviewed and then either repealed, amended or re-implemented. On top of this legislative review, Parliament and the UK Courts would need to consider the extent to which interpretation of EU law by the ECJ (or by EU institutions adopting decisions under EU law) would continue to be followed and what rights it would have, if any. It is expected that some 80,000 pages of law will need to be reviewed to determine whether they will be repealed or amended. The process could be simplified using ‘Henry VIII’ clauses – that is, provisions in a law that allow the government to amend or repeal primary legislation through secondary (subordinate) legislation, often without further parliamentary scrutiny. But the use of such a mechanism would be highly controversial.
- The government has to find thousands of civil servants competent to handle trade negotiations. Where? They don’t exist.
- As a backdrop, the government is likely to find itself managing a serious downturn in the economy, if not a recession. Its revenues will start to fall off and it will risk growing unpopularity. Governments don’t like being unpopular.
- At heart the great majority of MPs don’t favour leaving the EU. If things become protracted and if their constituents start to complain, in a couple of years time how relevant will be the referendum result be? Will they knowingly vote for something that they believe is against their constituents’ and country’s best interest?
All this might point to us joining the EEA, but that doesn’t make sense. EEA membership means we abide by the rules of many EU institutions but give up all our powers. Britain isn’t Norway. We are a major player on the world stage. The public knows this.
Michael Heseltine is a wily old fox. On Radio 4 he was asked by Peter Hennessey about Brexit meaning Brexit. He answered “the jury’s out. Let us see what they (Brexiteers) mean…. in the end parliament is sovereign”, he added “wait and see what the alternative is”.
Before long someone is going to shout out “Brexit has no clothes” and the crowd will be ready to listen and witness that he or she is telling the very truth that is right there in front of our noses.
Member of “Bristol for Europe” organising committee and retired Chartered Accountant and Broadcast Journalist.