Theresa May’s Hard Brexit: politically and tactically smart

by Stephen Tall on January 17, 2017

It’s official: it’s a hard Brexit. We’re not just exiting the EU, confirmed Theresa May today, we’re also exiting the single market and probably the customs union also.

Now, I’m a Remainer and last year’s 23rd June result left me pretty numbed. Not because I’m emotionally attached to the EU — I’ve long counted myself a liberal Eurosceptic who’s actually pretty embarrassed by the way too many Lib Dems fetishise the EU — but because Vote Leave owed its majority to naked xenophobia.

We don’t know exactly how many of the 52% belong to the send-the-bloody-foreigners-back-home brigade. But I’m pretty sure it was enough to be decisive. The votes of racists counted equally alongside the votes of those who just wanted to ‘take back control’.

So I was angry then. But, ultimately, that’s a wasteful and futile condition (see Twitter passim). And, honestly, I was more impressed than I expected to be today by the Prime Minister’s speech. Though I wouldn’t have started from here, her’s is the speech I’d have made if I were standing in her kitten heels.

First, it’s politically smart. Mrs May has earned a lot of capital today from Ukip, the Tory right and the Daily Mail. Like it or not those audiences matter to her. The optimistic ‘Global Britain’ tone will likely prove popular with the public, too, with those continuing to fight the ‘Remain’ side risking sounding like unpatriotic moaning minnies.

Secondly, it’s tactically smart. The Prime Minister is about to enter the toughest and most complex set of negotiations this country has had to undertake in over 70 years. She can’t do that on the back foot. She needed to offer a clear vision, one which strikes a deliberately independent pose, to anchor the British position in a way which avoids ambiguity or hostages to fortune. I think she largely succeeded.

That’s why I can’t feign the outrage I’ve seen expressed today about our departure from the single market. Of course I think it’s the wrong choice. And yes, I think Vote Leave was deliberately disingenuous in the referendum campaign in eliding single market membership/access. It’s also quite possible that a referendum specifically on membership of the single market might have produced a different result.

But we are where we are. I think it’s at the very least arguable that Theresa May’s decision to choose a swift exit may prove less economically harmful than protracted fudge-and-mudge.

It is, it’s true, a huge risk. But that’s what the country voted for. To take a leap in the dark. That might well mean years of fumbling around unable to find what we’re looking for and knocking over something really valuable by mistake. But it might also mean our eyes adjust quicker than we’re expecting and we’re able to navigate the obstacles in our path without tripping over (much). Only time will tell.