Rarely can a Prime Minister have been so glad to see the back of her colleagues. As she left Westminster for a well-earned holiday last week, Theresa May knew that each one of the crucial votes she survived in a fraught parliamentary session only served to underline just how unenviable her task of shepherding any kind of Brexit deal through the House of Commons will be – if indeed a deal can be concluded that she is prepared to sign.
The fact that people on both sides of the Leave-Remain divide recognise the bind she is in and praise her efforts to produce a workable solution will be little comfort. So will any rueful reflections that her reasoning in calling an early election has arguably been vindicated: there is, as she warned on the steps of Number Ten fifteen months and an age ago, division at Westminster when there should be unity, and the “uncertainty and instability” she wanted to banish is inescapable. Oh, for the thumping majority that seemed to be in the script.
As it is, the PM is caught between those in the Conservative Party, let alone outside it, who would cheerfully exit the EU without a deal and those who want nothing to change, or as little as they can possibly get away with. Though we have the White Paper, with its proposed common rule book for goods and agricultural products, and the results of last week’s parliamentary drama in which the government saw off an attempt to keep the UK in the customs union, the Cabinet’s negotiating aims are not yet complete. Important details, including the crucial question of migration, have yet to be agreed.
But even after the UK’s position is fixed, only the bravest punter would stake his shirt on what the final deal will look like when it emerges from the Brussels negotiating chamber. Threats will be made and bluffs called; concessions could be demanded in any number of areas: finances, free movement, the role of the European Court of Justice, aviation, single market access, customs arrangements and the implications for our external trade, and doubtless others that no-one has yet thought of. The warning from Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, that the White Paper proposals are unacceptable to Europe in their current form was predictable enough, but despite Brexiteer demands and the PM’s insistence that it Europe’s turn to “evolve” its stance, government figures have already warned that further compromise will probably be necessary. The British team will know that anything they agree to will have to get through the House of Commons. But in deciding where to draw the line, they must think a degree further: not just what will be accepted by Westminster in the following weeks, but by the people in the ensuing years.
It is true that few are following the twists and turns of the Brexit debate. For most people outside politics, and a good many insiders too, the subject is not just complicated but immensely tedious. Though they can hardly have escaped the government’s internal wrangling – hence the declining numbers saying they have confidence in its handling of the process – it is a rare voter who could describe the intricacies of the Chequers deal. But just as people get the measure of parties and politicians without pondering the subject every day, so they have a pretty good idea of what they think Brexit means – and what it doesn’t. My research since the referendum has pointed to a handful of things that people tend to feel would be inherently incompatible with Brexit. I would list these as follows: not being free to strike our own trade deals with countries outside the EU; being compelled to follow EU rules which are against our apparent interests; being ordered to change our laws or practices by the European Court of Justice; and not being able to decide for ourselves who may and who may not come to live in the UK from abroad.
This is not just true of leave voters. My recent project on Brexit, the Irish border and the Union, for example, found even remainers indignant at the idea that we could be constrained in how we traded with the rest of the world after the country, if not they themselves, had voted to leave the EU. But nor does it mean that people are hostile in principle to any kind of compromise: a survey I conducted late last year found that even leave voters liked the idea of common rules and safety standards on consumer goods, and ensuring the UK and the EU had similar rules on banking and financial services so British firms could easily do business in Europe.
It comes down to whether people in Britain feel that the outcome can reasonably be said to have delivered Theresa May’s goal that the UK should “regain control of our own money, our own laws and our own borders” and is “free to strike trade deals with old friends and new partners all around the world”. Or to distill things further, whether the deal is consistent with “the principle that decisions about the UK should be taken in the UK” – the single most important factor for leave voters according to my 2016 referendum-day survey. To adapt a previous Tory leader’s dictum, they don’t want to be out of Europe but still run by Europe.
Ultimately, though, the question of whether we have taken back control will not be answered in principle, but in practice. When they consider the shape of any final compromise deal, our Ministers should cast their minds forward with two questions. One: what will they be able to say we can do the day after Brexit that we couldn’t do the day before? And two: what is the first thing that will happen afterwards to make people say “but I thought we’d left?”
The two fringes of the debate will be unhappy with the outcome whatever it is. One will lament any compromise they can point to as an infringement of sovereignty; the other will always argue we would be better off in. What matters is whether the non-fanatical, fair-minded, sensible person – that is, the great majority of voters – will feel the referendum result has been honoured or ignored.