After May's deal, many people will ask, does Brexit have any point?

Opinion piece (The Observer)
07 July 2018

Three experts, Vernon Bogdanor, Charles Grant and Claire Fox give their verdict on the compromise agreed by the prime minister and her cabinet.

Vernon Bogdanor
Professor of government, King’s College London

Theresa May has been much criticised over Brexit. But she inherited a crisis not of her making, and the divisions in her cabinet and party reflect divisions in the country. So she must proceed inch by inch, finding formulae to unite her government. Anything more heroic would break it up.

Friday’s formula provides for alignment with the EU on industrial goods and agricultural products. But we will remain outside the customs union so that we can negotiate independent trade deals; and we will end freedom of movement. Will such a bespoke arrangement be acceptable to the EU?

Some ministers – including Brexiters who told us two years ago that the EU was composed of wicked foreigners seeking to do us down – believe that the EU has now been transformed into a charitable institution. It has not; nor, as Michel Barnier says, is it “a supermarket”. It is a rule-governed organisation, which has not so far given frictionless trade to any country without free movement.

The cabinet must soon decide between two stark alternatives – divergence from EU rules which will end frictionless trade – or alignment, which means accepting the EU rule-book. In which case many will ask, does Brexit have any point?

In 1975, Harold Wilson, faced with a similarly divided party, called a referendum. He remains almost the only post-war prime minister to have triumphed over Europe, the issue which has destroyed so many Conservative leaders.

Theresa May studied geography not history at Oxford. But there are lessons to be learnt from history too.

Vernon Bogdanor’s book Brexit, the Constitution and the Future of the United Kingdom, will be published by Tauris next year.

Charles Grant
Director, Centre for European Reform

The EU will reject Theresa May’s proposals. It views her complex customs proposals as unworkable and believes that the four freedoms of the single market are indivisible – movement of goods must go with labour, services and capital. If the UK could “cherry-pick” the single market, others might seek a similar status, thereby undermining the EU’s strength and cohesion.

However, the EU will be grateful that May has finally imposed discipline on her cabinet and come up with a plan. That will earn her some goodwill and a “no, but”, rather than a plain “no”. But if May wants a deal, her red lines will have to shift. She has already agreed to be a rule-taker and accepted a role for the European court of Justice. She will also have to accept some sort of customs union, payments to the EU and something close to free movement of labour.

Claire Fox
Director, Institute of Ideas

Many of us who were passionate about the democratic possibilities opened up by Brexit were never optimistic that an establishment equally passionate in its efforts to Remain would be willing to deliver. The fudging over the past two years has been less a sign of incompetence than contempt: too scared to see through an ambitious, radical break from the status quo; anxious about the gall of 17.4million voters refusing to agree with the “common sense” of the great and the good.

The elite has consistently misread Brexit voters, assuming that the 52% were anti-immigrant, unsophisticated, gullible idiots. Maybe that’s why they now think we’re so easily duped that we’ll fall for Brexit in name only.

And while betrayal is an emotional word, it resonates. “Your Vote Matters” we were told. “A once in a life-time opportunity to make a difference”. There followed genuine debate and discussion amongst millions of families, friends, work-mates who weighed up the arguments critically (rather than the condescending belief that they simply read a bus advert or were fooled by Russian bots). It stirred millions to vote enthusiastically, in good faith, to take themselves seriously enough to make a historic, grown-up decision. Now that progressive mood could be squandered in favour of a backroom deal. But displaying their ignorance of ordinary people once again, what they don’t realise: the democratic genie is out of the bottle.