If you listen very, very carefully, you might just be able to hear the rustling in the undergrowth. It is the sound of the soft Brexiteers, advancing stealthily through Whitehall.
Pitter patter, pitter patter. They don’t want to alarm the ultras, but they are slowly making headway. Their goal: to reach the Downing Street citadel and recruit the prime minister to their cause. The prize: continuing membership of the EU customs union and ― even ― the single market.
Every so often, like a meerkat, one of them raises their head. The chancellor, Philip Hammond, dared to suggest in Davos that the UK’s exit from the EU could involve only ‘very modest’ changes. Then, entirely coincidentally (or perhaps not so coincidentally), a cross-Whitehall economic assessment study was leaked, suggesting that however modest the changes might be, they will still damage the UK’s economic prospects.
A comprehensive free trade agreement? UK growth would be 5% lower over the next 15 years compared to current forecasts. Even under the softest of options ― continued single-market access through membership of the European Economic Area ― long-term growth would still be 2% lower.
Oh look, here’s another meerkat, Labour’s former business secretary Chuka Umunna, who has emerged to lead a pro-European, grassroots umbrella group that intends to campaign for the public to have a say in any final deal. You know what meerkats are like: first, one raises its head, and then, before you know it, they are popping up everywhere.
According to the Financial Times, civil servants are ‘actively’ considering the option of a customs union deal with the EU to cover goods but not services. More rustling in the undergrowth.
If I am reading the runes correctly, the soft Brexiteers are beginning to think they have the wind in their sails. In the Labour party, there are signs that Jeremy Corbyn may soon be nudged off his Brexit fence and actually commit himself to a long-term vision. The ultras, aka ‘the swivel-eyed few’ (© climate change minister Claire Perry), have been caught napping, lulled into complacency by the Downing Street hypnotist’s irresistible mantra: ‘Brexit means Brexit.’
Only the frantic alarm calls (‘Treachery, treachery!’) from Nigel Farage and Jacob Rees-Mogg can raise them from their slumber. But they have a problem: the Downing Street hypnotist has hypnotised herself. She is comatose, inert, reduced to mumbling in her sleep: ‘I am not a quitter. I am not a quitter.’
Her foot soldiers are in despair. Whether they prefer their Brexit hard or soft, whether they are pro-Remain or pro-Leave, their anguish was pithily and effectively distilled on the front page of this week’s Spectator into a simple, primal scream aimed at Mrs May: ‘Lead or Go.’
But here’s the thing: she is incapable of carrying out the first of those commandments, and refuses to carry out the second. Result: stalemate.
Meanwhile, I hear another sound. Tick. Tock. It is the Brexit clock, ticking inexorably towards March next year, the Moment of Truth, when the UK, unless someone sticks a spanner in the works, will formally leave the EU.
It is now nearly 50 years since my undergraduate days as a Politics student, so perhaps I have forgotten everything I was taught. But I am at a total loss to understand how a prime minister, a chancellor, a home secretary, and a majority of the House of Commons can sleepwalk the nation towards an outcome that they all believe will be deeply harmful for its future.
I understand how a referendum can delegitimise an elected parliament. I also understand that some MPs in constituencies with a pro-Brexit majority feel that it is their duty to represent the majority view. Whether they would feel the same way about, for example, the restoration of capital punishment is a question best left for another day.
The ultras’ caucus is the European Research Group, currently led by Jacob Rees-Mogg and consisting of some eighty Tory MPs. If just forty-eight of them signed a letter calling for a leadership election, they could topple Mrs May and seek to instal one of their own in Downing Street. So why haven’t they?
First, because they can’t be confident that their favoured candidate would win. Second, because a leadership election could well split the party from top to bottom. But third, because ― as Rafael Behr points out in Prospect magazine ― they don’t want to be held responsible for what happens after Brexit.
What they do want, says Behr, is ‘the freedom to complain that it has been bodged; that the dream has been betrayed by Remoaners and their civil service accomplices.’ In other words, they may huff and puff mightily to persuade us that they are blowing the Euro-house down, but by their cowardice do we know them. They do not even have the courage of their own convictions.
As a definition of political cynicism, it would be hard to beat. But it does offer Mrs May a way out. True, it would be wholly out of character, but here’s what she could do.
Eat her words on ‘no membership of the customs union, no membership of the single market’. ‘I have been persuaded that staying close to, but not a member of, the EU is best for Britain.’
Put the deal to the House of Commons, where she would win with the support of the Labour party but without the support of Gove, Johnson, Davis, and ― of course ― Rees-Mogg.
Stand down as Tory leader, making way for a new leader who would then call a general election. The Brexit ultras would leave the party, and stand either as independents or as members of some new, not-very-improved version of UKIP. They would lose.
Is it unlikely? Of course it is. Is it, or something like it, impossible? Not necessarily.