Brexit: There Will Be Tears Before Bedtime

02/09/2016 16:37 | Updated 02 September 2016

Right. Shake the sand out of your sandals and bundle up your burkini. Summer is over. (And if you really want to know what I thought about the burkinis on beaches row, you might be interested in this piece that I wrote about the niqab three years ago. The arguments are the same.)

It's time, I'm afraid, to get serious. And that means Brexit. There is simply no other game in town - and Theresa May knows it. She's been dealt a lousy hand by her unlamented predecessor - isn't it extraordinary how quickly one forgets these people's names? - and she's going to need every ounce of her political skills to negotiate her way through the labyrinth.

Think of it this way: to get a deal on the UK's new relationship with the EU, she will have to satisfy not only the bulk of her own party, with a substantial chunk of her own MPs wishing the referendum had gone the other way, but also all 27 of the remaining EU heads of government. She will also need to find a way to keep her three semi-house trained Brexit bull elephants - Boris Johnson, David Davis and Liam Fox - all on board, a task that I confidently predict will be utterly beyond her. I strongly suspect that at least one of them will be angrily tramping off into the jungle before the end of next year.

We have already learnt one thing: the Norway half-in, half-out option is off the table. Last Wednesday's statement from Number 10 is worth careful analysis: 'The model we are seeking is one unique to the United Kingdom ... This must mean controls on the numbers of people who come to Britain from Europe but also a positive outcome for those who wish to trade goods and services.'

It is nearly, but not quite, a direct echo of Boris Johnson's policy on cake: pro-having it, and pro-eating it. If Boris had been PM, the word after 'Europe' in the sentence quoted above would have been 'and' instead of 'but'. The effect is the same: whistle as loud as you like, Mrs M, but what you want and what you are going to get are two very different things.

We've known right from the start, whatever the Brexiteers would have had us believe, that restricting immigration from the EU will come at a cost: less tariff-free access to the European single market. The issue that will dominate all of politics for the next two years is exactly how to calibrate the equation. How much less immigration equals how much less market access?

One proposal well worth considering has already come from the Brussels-based Bruegel think tank, in a paper co-authored by five eminent European policy advisers, including Sir Paul Tucker, the former deputy governor of the Bank of England, Norbert Röttgen, chairman of the German parliament's foreign affairs committee, and Jean Pisani-Ferry, who is head of the French prime minister's policy planning staff.

What they suggest is something that they call a Continental Partnership, which they describe as 'considerably less deep than EU membership but rather closer than a simple free-trade agreement.' It would, they say, 'be based on an intergovernmental form of collaboration, with no legal right to free movement for workers but a regime of some controlled labour mobility and a contribution to the EU budget.'

The key is that it would be a tailor-made relationship, negotiated specifically to meet the needs of both the the UK and the EU, while accepting the clearly expressed wish of British voters to leave the EU. No one is suggesting that it will be easy to draw up a new, post-divorce co-habitation agreement, but the Bruegel authors have at least had the courage to try to imagine a post-Brexit future.

They say: 'The proposed continental partnership would consist in participating in goods, services, capital mobility and some temporary labour mobility as well as in a new system of inter-governmental decision making and enforcement of common rules to protect the homogeneity of the deeply integrated market.' Which sounds fine in principle, until you look at that tell-tale phrase - 'enforcement of common rules' - and you realise that access to markets never comes cost-free.

The Brexiteers' slogan 'Taking back control', which was just a marginally politer way of saying 'Doing what we want', conveniently ignored the fact that if you want to be granted preferential access to the biggest market in the world, you will be expected to accept certain conditions. We'll do what we like, and screw the lot of you, is not a trade policy calculated to win many new orders.  Mrs May knows that, even if Mr Johnson doesn't.

It's worth noting that the prime minister's long experience at the Home Office is likely to have taught her just how difficult it is to control immigration when business leaders are loudly arguing for a flexible labour pool and their continued need to be able to hire the 'best and the brightest' from overseas. Her maverick foreign secretary is also openly pro-immigration even as a Brexiteer-come-lately, and the Treasury is institutionally much more sympathetic to those who argue about the economic benefits of immigration from the EU.

But Mrs May has now nailed at least one of her colours to the mast. There will be an end to uncontrolled immigration from the EU. So let the negotiating begin. It'll be tough, it'll be ugly, and there will be tears before bedtime. But it has to be done, because actions have consequences, and all those little crosses on the referendum ballot papers last June must be made to count for something.