It is extraordinary that the country is once again discussing the question of whether Britain is leaving the single market after an election where 85% of voters voted for parties who committed to doing so. Nonetheless, this is the picture which appears to be emerging after the general election, with revitalised Remainers suddenly reappearing, zombie-like, to launch a full-on onslaught against Brexit in whichever ways they can.
Many of the usual suspects on the Tory backbenches have already called for Theresa May to change her mind on leaving the single market, joining numerous pro-EU figures from the other parties and none. On the Sunday morning shows, Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell confirmed that Labour would not be trying to keep Britain in the single market, but by the next day, Shadow Brexit Secretary Sir Keir Starmer and and Shadow International Trade Secretary Barry Gardiner were already calling for May to “keep the single market on the table”.
Osborne’s Evening Standard splashed on the attempts by so-called Cabinet ‘sensibles’ to force May into changing her position, with the Telegraph then following with further details of the ‘plot’. Ruth Davidson – arguably one of the few senior Conservatives to come out of the election debacle with her personal reputation enhanced – is reportedly amongst those positioning themselves to demand a concession on the single market from the much weakened government in Westminster.
All the while, many of the leading advocates for Leave are tied up in government, unable to make their case forcefully, and with their authority dented by association with the failed campaign in any case, while the messaging from other Leavers away from government has not been consistent or clear enough. The media narrative is in danger of turning irreversibly against a clean Brexit unless Leavers can get organised quickly, with the broadcasters only too eager to feed the single market doubts.
It is important to be clear what voters were voting for on 8th June. 42.4% voted for a Conservative manifesto calling for the UK to “no longer be members of the single market or customs union” and for “our laws will be made in London, Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast, and interpreted by judges across the United Kingdom, not in Luxembourg.”
40% voted for a Labour manifesto which calls for a “strong emphasis on retaining the benefits of the Single Market and the Customs Union”, but also for freedom of movement to end alongside the signing of new “‘best-in-class’ free trade and investment agreements” with global trading partners. Both of these necessitate leaving the single market and the customs union in a clean Brexit – not
because of some red lines that have been magically dreamed up by the Conservative Party, but because they breach the EU’s fundamental rules as enshrined in the EU Treaties, which they have been clear they will not entertain any compromise over.Overall those two parties backing a clean Brexit succeeded in increasing their overall vote share by 5.5% and 9.5% respectively, alongside the DUP who also secured a sizeable vote share increase in Northern Ireland. Conversely, the parties which called for Britain to remain in the single market – the Lib Dems, Greens, and the SNP – all saw their vote shares go backwards. The Lib Dems were targeting the 48% – they couldn’t even get 8%.
In terms of seats in Parliament, the pro-Brexit Conservatives, Labour and DUP control 590 out of 650 seats between them, while the pro-single market trio have fallen back to only 48.
A number of factors were behind the precipitous collapse of Theresa May’s poll lead over Jeremy Corbyn – from the poorly-judged campaign messaging to the debacle over social care policy, along with unexpectedly strong showings from Corbyn himself on the stump – but Brexit if anything had the reverse effect. Indeed, May appeared all but invulnerable in the early stages of the campaign when Brexit remained the main focus. The trouble for her only began when the debate moved off Brexit and onto more bread and butter issues of domestic policy.
She will undoubtedly need to be in ‘listening mode’ and build a broader consensus in all areas of policy going forward, but that is a million miles away from the attempts of born-again Remainers to hold her to ransom with
opportunistic demands for a drastic change in Brexit policy on the back of altogether spurious reasoning.Firstly, while Labour’s rhetoric on Brexit was somewhat different from the Conservatives’, in terms of precise policy points, their approaches were barely distinguishable. Continued deep and far-reaching access to the EU single market is a top priority for all of the major parties, not just the Labour Party, while the perennial straw man of a so-called “hard Brexit” scenario in which the Conservatives are somehow determined to seek the worst possible access to the single market, along with no right to stay for EU citizens and a hard Irish border, is a perverse fantasy that exists only in the minds of the most hardline Remainers. Sir Keir Starmer himself went as far as to explicitly reject the EU’s demands for continued jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice over EU citizens’ rights in the week before the election, thereby ruling out the full unilateral guarantee which Labour had originally pledged on citizens’ rights.
Secondly, there is the question of the many Leave-supporting Labour and former UKIP voters, many of whom were thought to be leaning towards voting Conservative for the first time, before ultimately reverting to Labour in the final weeks of the election in the wake of the social care disaster. Would this have happened had Labour not made the clear commitments they did on ending freedom of movement – notably absent from the leaked manifesto draft before being inserted into the final version – and pursuing new free trade deals outside the EU customs union? To disregard Labour’s Brexit commitments now would be to disregard the votes of many Leave voters who otherwise may well not have voted that way.
There may be no clear answer to that specific question, but there was an abundantly clear answer to the single market question in this election, on top of the already clear answer to the question provided during the referendum campaign itself. This time of asking, an overwhelming majority of British voters voted for parties whose manifestos confirmed that Britain could and would not be remaining in the single market.
Yet this has not prevented the zombie Remainers from rising back up to the surface in droves and seizing on the Government’s present weakness to disingenuously claim the general election result as a mandate for keeping Britain in the single market, emboldened by the fact that the new parliamentary arithmetic means that only a small handful of pro-EU rebels are now needed to hold the entire Brexit process to ransom, as they attempt to re-fight the battles of the referendum for a third time.
If Leavers are complacent or uncoordinated, they run the real risk of allowing these pro-Remain voices to dominate the current political vacuum and twist the debate decisively to their advantage. Now is the time for those who respect the referendum result to stand up and make sure that the terms of Brexit are not hijacked by those who don’t.