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What Does 'Brexit Means Brexit' Mean?

19/07/2016 10:55

In the post-referendum landscape, ironies abound. Someone who campaigned, albeit largely unnoticed, to remain in the EU will now lead the Brexit government. After a referendum supposedly to 'take back control' from unelected elites, the Tory elite have rallied round the establishment candidate. Theresa May, whose failure to control immigration was allegedly a major factor in the Leave vote, has ironically become its principal beneficiary.

Her in-tray as the incoming Prime Minister and Tory leader is unusually daunting. The referendum created an ambiguous coalition united by the lightning rod of the EU, primarily what they were against. The aftermath revealed the incoherence of this position. So although May keeps repeating 'Brexit means Brexit', what this means in practice remains unclear. There's almost a need to resurrect the skills of cold war Kremlinologists to try to decipher the Delphic indications in her recent speeches.

A number of options are, however, already emerging. Cameron's government in March issued the Alternatives to Membership guide as one of the requirements of the referendum process. In essence, there is a choice between models which retain some access to the Single Market and the freedoms of movement that go with it, or not. Cameron's government concluded that all of these were worse than the status quo, but if Brexit is to mean Brexit May will presumably have to choose one.

Leaving the Single Market would involve walking away from one of Margaret Thatcher's legacies. Thatcher was more of a nationalist than an economic liberal. However, because the Single Market was supposed to play to Britain's competitive advantages, not least in the City, economic liberalism could be a prop to nationalism in the 1980s. It seems likely that May will, like Thatcher, try to straddle economic, social and national conservatism.

The first is represented by her appointment of David Davis, at least as keen an economic liberal as Thatcher, to lead on Brexit. Alongside Davis, Brexiteers Liam Fox and Boris Johnson have also been appointed. This puts them on their mettle to deliver the kind of economic miracle of a Britain freed from the shackles of the EU that was promised during the referendum. Davis is an enthusiast for deregulation allowing Britain to thrive economically and has signalled intentions to retain some kind of access to the Single Market if possible. This is incompatible with the immigration controls that many Leave voters seem to want. It is therefore noticeable that immigration is among the many issues that May did not mention in her Prime Ministerial acceptance speech. Instead, she seems intent on appeasing the anger of Brexit voters with a rhetoric of listening, fairness and change in the division of spoils between rich and poor.

In doing so she has rightly spotted that the gripes of the Leave voters she addressed in Birmingham on 11 July are largely domestic. There are a few potential quick wins sketched out in her Birmingham speech, around employee access to boardrooms and so on. Such moves involve May turning her back on another part of Thatcher's legacy - the idea of a flexible workforce - for one which is more valued and protected.

Delivering a more dynamic, productive and equal society is much easier said than done. Brexiteer expectations of enhanced prosperity, portrayed with Marxist certainty as inevitable as a result of leaving the EU, seem equally doubtful. The same is true of simply playing by the World Trade Organisation's rules, a favourite option of many Brexiteers during the recent referendum and an option May's speech of 11 July might suggest general support for. The process of adjusting to Thatcherism was long and painful. The process of inventing something else will not necessarily prove less so, just because Davis reassures us that it will be.

Thatcher and her ministers indeed had similarly sanguine expectations of an easy adjustment in the early 1980s.They had, however, reasonably clear ideas developed over the preceding decade of where they were taking Britain after 1979. Thatcher herself also provided a narrative which linked economic, social and national conservatism around a unifying project of national economic renewal.

May, in contrast, may have all of these elements in her rhetoric, but so far it is addressed more exclusively to the discontents of those who voted for Brexit, and is yet to address those in parts of the economy who will be badly affected by the process. Instead, her language is of social renewal for those left behind by the effects of Thatcherism. So important is it to her to assuage their anxieties that the referendum is now being interpreted as a mandate for withdrawal from the Single Market, even though it is not apparent that this is what electors thought they were voting for. It is clear that 'Brexit means Brexit' means that May's government will interpret it as carte blanche to mean whatever they want it to mean. Understated, however, under the rhetorical cover of May's language, is that alongside departing from the EU, there is also a departure from Thatcherism. So understated is this, that it is unclear what May intends to put in its place.

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