May’s hard Brexit: starting position or ultimate goal?

By on 20/01/2017
UK prime minister Theresa May speaking at Lancaster House 17 January 2017

The British PM has set out her stall for EU exit talks, and she’s offering few goods for Continental customers. Matt Ross unpicks the domestic political calculations that have shaped her position, and sifts the negotiating positions from the red lines

It is now explicit: UK prime minister Theresa May intends to take Britain out of the EU’s Single Market and Customs Union, producing a ‘hard Brexit’ that will satisfy hardcore Eurosceptics amongst right-wing Tories and in the insurgent UK Independence Party. In her 17 January speech, the PM pleased Brexiteers and their cheerleaders in the press – warning the EU not to “punish” Britain for leaving, and pledging to walk away without a deal if no satisfactory agreement can be reached.

On only two points did May risk upsetting Brexit puritans: the UK may continue to make some contributions to the EU, she said, and will seek interim arrangements that avoid a “cliff-edge” transition from Single Market membership to life outside the EU. And even these represent not a concession to Remainers, but recognition of the price attached to May’s own strategic goals: the negotiation of free trade arrangements with the EU, and a formal relationship with the Customs Union that minimises border controls and goods tariffs.

May knows that brokering free trade deals will take longer than the two years permitted under the ‘Article 50’ exit process, and that any form of special status with the Customs Union will involve the payment of membership fees. Had she not given herself wriggle-room on these two points, her key goals would have been rendered unattainable even before talks begin – giving May the unenviable choice between eating her words, and crashing out of the EU without an agreement.

So the PM has accepted all the main demands of Brexit campaigners; and it is not immediately obvious why. Nearly 60% of Tory MPs and 80% of former PM David Cameron’s Cabinet members campaigned to Remain. May herself was barely visible during the referendum campaign – her caution paid dividends after the poll, when she emerged as the only leadership candidate able to reunite a divided party – but she did call for a Remain vote: “Remaining inside the European Union does make us more secure, it does make us more prosperous and it does make us more influential”, she said, pointing out that “in a stand-off between Britain and the EU, 44% of our exports is more important to us than 8% of the EU’s exports is to them.” So May believed that leaving the EU would harm Britain’s economy, and that the UK would have a poor hand in any exit negotiations. Yet she’s now catalysing exactly this kind of a stand-off – and in very pugnacious language.

Why so tough?

Having succeeded Cameron, the new PM was always going to take Britain out of the EU: Tory party members – much more Eurosceptic than the parliamentary party – and the 52% who voted Leave wouldn’t have accepted any backsliding on this central point. But that didn’t necessarily mean leaving the Single Market or Customs Union: Norway is a member of the former, and Turkey the latter, without being members of the EU.

Norway’s arrangements require it to accept free movement of labour, a key bugbear for Brexiteers – but most EU members do want Britain to stay inside the Single Market: May could have pushed for some flexibility around migration, whilst deterring non-working immigrants by moving to a contributory benefits system. Hardcore Brexiteers would have felt cheated; but she’d have satisfied the referendum’s mandate to leave the EU, whilst avoiding the huge economic risks of exiting its economic bloc. And with the vast majority of MPs, the City and 48% of the country having backed Remain, surely she could have built a strong coalition behind a compromise deal? Why the hard line, and why the confrontational language?

The answers lie in domestic UK politics; and these answers will shape the UK’s behaviour over the next few years, as talks replace the shouting – and a new European landscape emerges.

Following the referendum vote, the Brexiteers utterly dominated the public debate. The national press largely celebrated the result, whilst Cameron quit and May turned up the Brexit dial to win the backing of Eurosceptic party members in her bid to succeed him. The pro-EU Liberal Democrats had reaped the electoral whirlwind following their 2010-2015 coalition with the Tories, and had little national voice. And the Labour Opposition leader and longtime Eurosceptic Jeremy Corbyn infuriated his own largely pro-Remain MPs by calling for Article 50 to be invoked immediately: “The British people have made their decision,” he said. “We must respect that result.”

Labour MPs promptly rebelled against their leader, but Corbyn saw off the subsequent leadership challenge. And many Labour MPs have their own electoral reasons for going with the Brexit flow: nearly 40% of Labour voters and, crucially, about 65% of Labour-controlled constituencies voted to Leave: if the Opposition takes a strong line against a hard Brexit, it risks losing seats to pro-Leave candidates at the next general election. Now Corbyn seems set to tell his MPs to nod through May’s Article 50 vote; divided Labour is, currently, a bit player on Brexit.

The real threat to May

With Labour broadly on-side and UKIP struggling to find a new role following the Leave vote, the biggest political pressure on May over Brexit is that exerted by Eurosceptics on the right wing of her own party. This isn’t new: for 40 years, the Tory parliamentary party’s growing cadre of Eurosceptics have challenged and undermined successive leaders. Whilst serving as PM, John Major had to quit his own job to see off Eurosceptics in a leadership election; David Cameron was, of course, ultimately brought down in a failed attempt to neutralise the threat. So May well understands the need to keep Eurosceptics on board; she has a parliamentary majority of just 14 and ten times as many Leave voters on her own backbenches, so a hardcore of anti-EU campaigners could bring her down. And the true believers are watching her very carefully indeed.

The Fixed Term Parliaments Act, introduced by the Coalition before the last election, increases May’s vulnerability. Previously, backbenchers opposing their leader in key votes risked catalysing an immediate general election; but now, parliamentarians would have two weeks to try to assemble a new government and win a Commons vote. So if backbenchers rebel on key votes, they’re more likely to prompt a change in PM than a general election. And as May well knows, the Tories are ruthlessly pragmatic in selecting their leader: if she can’t hold the party together, they’ll ditch her for someone who can.

Even if May did manage to keep her job whilst taking a softer line on Brexit, her premiership would be a rerun of Major’s and Cameron’s – weakened and distorted by endless battles with backbench malcontents. And there’s one eternal, incontrovertible truth in UK politics: divided parties don’t win elections.

Which brings us back to Labour. The party is utterly split – with socialist Corbyn and the membership on one side, and MPs on the other – but the mutiny is over: many MPs appear resigned to losing the next election, expected in 2020. Labour faces a deeply hostile press; its constituencies are neatly split between enthusiastic Remainers and avid Leavers; Scotland is lost to the nationalist SNP; and Corbyn’s shadow cabinet has little experience of running a general election campaign. Above all, Corbyn’s old-school socialist ideas and grumpy demeanour are massively unpopular with the public: the latest poll gives the Tories a 17-point lead. No Opposition has ever come back from these mid-term polling numbers to win a general election.

Hard-nosed calculations

Given Labour’s dire state, May can probably keep on upsetting Remainers and liberals without paying an electoral cost. Many on the left and centre might head for the Liberal Democrats – but with just eight MPs, they’re coming back from nowhere (though their recent victory in a South London by-election, on a 22-point swing, shows their resilience). Scotland’s SNP government will scream blue murder if May drags them out of the Single Market; yet the polls still show a Scottish majority for the union, so the SNP’s threats to call a new independence referendum aren’t yet convincing. And as long as May holds a tough line on Brexit, UKIP have no foothold in Tory seats; they could even do her a favour by defeating Remain-voting Labour MPs in the Midlands and North.

If May angers Brexiteers within her own party, though, she faces the risks of both a leadership challenge and a difficult general election. For the British leader, as one former permanent secretary told me, “the calculation is that she can probably crash the economy with a hard Brexit, and still win a general election. But if she goes for a soft Brexit, the party splits and she’ll be in trouble.”

A realistic and astute politician, May will work hard to broker a workable EU deal. Her threat to walk away from talks, whilst not groundless, is mostly about positioning: only the most right-wing Tories seek the low-tax, low-regulation, low-wage Britain that forms May’s fall-back plan, and that way lie huge social, political and economic risks. But all the pressure on the PM points in the same direction: in hard-headed political terms, she’s better off hurting the economy than accepting large-scale immigration or EU payments. Labour’s ambiguous, conflicted position even means that, should a hard Brexit push the UK back into recession, the Opposition will have few grounds to say that ‘I told you so’.

So when Theresa May says she wants a hard Brexit, that’s not a negotiating position: it’s the best route forward for Britain’s PM, at least in political terms. On the economic, diplomatic and cultural fronts, as May probably knows, the calculation is a different one. But May is a politician, playing by the rules of politics. She may believe that Britain would be better off with a much closer relationship to the EU than the one she’s planning – but if so, she thinks that it’s more important still that she wins the next general election.

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See also:

Britain to leave Customs Union, says PM – but she’s flexible on timing and budgets

Ripples around the world: Brexit’s implications for Europe and beyond

Responding to the Brexit challenge: a round table debate

UK cabinet secretaries defend pre-vote Brexit planning

UK government allocates over £400m to key Brexit departments

Former UK chancellor condemns ‘idiotic’ Brexiteer lines on EU talks

UK needs ‘30,000 extra civil servants’ for Brexit, says leaked memo

Court ruling casts doubt on UK Brexit timetable

Interim Brexit deal with EU ‘inevitable’ for UK, says former Foreign Office chief

About Matt Ross

Matt is a journalist and editor specialising in public services, policymaking, government and management. He was the editor of trade title Civil Service World from 2008 to 2014, serving an audience of senior UK officials; and the features editor of weekly news magazine Regeneration & Renewal between 2002 and 2008, covering urban regeneration, economic growth and community development. He has also been a motoring and travel journalist, and now combines his role as editorial director of Global Government Forum with writing for other publications including The Guardian and Planning magazine.

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