In the coming days, months and even years, the shock outcome of the general election will be picked over by journalists, analysts and historians. They will identify many factors, but the role of Brexit will surely be central, and the roots of the result lie firmly with the referendum and its aftermath.
The vote to leave the EU was, in itself, a shock and one which left the UK polarised, politically unstable, and facing immediate economic consequences in the form of a currency collapse which would at any other time have been seen as a crisis. That led to a truncated Tory leadership campaign in which there was no real debate about what Brexit meant and the near coronation of Theresa May whose unique selling point (USP) appeared to be pragmatism and experience. Few knew anything about her, but many thought she would be ‘a safe pair of hands’.
But she faced an immediate problem. She had been an (admittedly lukewarm) Remainer and inherited a party which had for years been riven by Eurosceptic factionalism that was now triumphant and triumphalist. If she had delivered on her USP, what would have happened would have been a consensual, practical recognition that the country was deeply divided and that the referendum, whilst narrowly voting against EU membership, had not voted for anything in particular.
Whilst the referendum was legally only advisory, it was politically undeniable that it could not just be discounted. The obvious, leaderly, conclusion would have been to seek a consensus around a ‘soft Brexit’ of single market and (perhaps) customs union membership. This would have been in line with what some Leave campaigners, and many Leave voters, understood Brexit to mean. It would have given them exit from the EU, the CAP, the CFP, formally from the ECJ, and might even have been consistent with some kind of enhanced ‘emergency brake’ on free movement of people. It would have given all voters some of what they wanted and some voters all that they wanted. Moreover, it would have been consistent with what the traditional business and finance backers of the Tory party most wanted.
For months, May used the much-derided ‘Brexit means Brexit’ formula to avoid any public conversation about the different forms that Brexit could take, and so failed to build any consensus about what form it should take. In the same period, she engaged in an absurd and ultimately doomed legal battle to prevent a parliamentary vote on the triggering of Article 50 that made no contribution to consensus-building – on the contrary, it further polarised debate through the language of ‘enemies of the people’ – and flew in the face of the most basic theme of the referendum campaign, namely the sovereignty of parliament.
As this battle continued, May hinted at different possible positions, sometimes harder and sometimes softer, before announcing in her January 2017 Lancaster House speech that – by decree – Brexit meant the hard Brexit of leaving both single market and customs union, and any and every form of CJEU jurisdiction. That gave some voters all of what they wanted but most voters none of what they wanted. She had – perhaps through fear of the Tory hard Brexiters, perhaps because of her Home Office preoccupation with immigration as the ultimate issue – ceased to be the pragmatist many believed her to be and had become a dogmatist others feared her to be.
However, at the same time, two other things were happening. First, May was discovering, as Cameron had before her, and as Major had warned both of them was the case, that the Tory Eurosceptics could not be appeased. Give them Brexit, and they wanted hard Brexit. Give them hard Brexit – as she had done – and they wanted the ultra-Brexit of ‘no deal’. Out of that was born the ill-fated phrase ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’. But, second, she was beginning to realise that Brexit was much more complicated than she had thought.
May’s model for Brexit appeared to be the opt-out of all, then opt back into some, approach that had worked for her over security and policing issues whilst at the Home Office. That was never going to work for full-on Brexit, and it seems to have begun to dawn on her that at the very least there were going to have to be transitional arrangements on trade that might last for years, and certainly well beyond the next scheduled election in 2020. And even though she seems to have excluded business leaders and civil servants who raised concerns about the practicalities of Brexit, it’s difficult to believe that the mounting briefing papers about the kinds of compromises and complexities that Brexit entailed were lost on her, especially given her reputation for detailed immersion in her red boxes.
No doubt there were many reasons for deciding to call the 2017 election – the apparent weakness of the Labour party being the most obvious – but I suspect that a big part of the thinking was to create the political space to face down the ultras in her party, and the electoral space to avoid going to the polls when Britain was still to all intents and purposes in the EU during a transitional deal. Equally, as I have said, there were many reasons why that gamble failed. Amongst them is the fact that this chain of events meant that she had completely failed to build any kind of consensus around Brexit and that was a problem for ‘hard Remainers’, who had been treated with complete contempt, even though many of them were the professionals and business people who had to actually deliver a version of Brexit that seemed more and more detached from reality.
No less was it a problem for ‘soft Remainers’ and ‘soft Leavers’ – together probably the majority of the electorate since only a minority felt passionate on either side. They could see the beginnings of some really serious economic effects of a hard Brexit on their lives and were alarmed by the ever wilder sound of the ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’ rhetoric. Remember, they had been told during the referendum campaign that a deal with the EU would be quick and easy. Now, suddenly, they were being told by Theresa May that ‘dire consequences’ were in prospect if Brexit did not go well and, moreover, that she was willing to entertain these consequences. Sure, this played well with the ‘hard Leavers’ in the Tory base and with the UKIP vote, but it was a long way from that pragmatic, safe, USP that she had come to power and built her personal ratings on.
This isn’t the whole story of the election, by any means, but it is one important strand and it now begs a crucial question. What has Theresa May learned from it? The wise lesson would be, even at this late stage, to seek the pragmatic, soft Brexit consensus. It’s even possible that the need for DUP support will force this on her (to the extent that, whilst being pro-Brexit, they want to avoid a hard Northern Ireland border which in principle implies a soft Brexit). But there has as yet been no clear statement from May – just as there has not been throughout the last year – of what in achievable, realistic and, crucially, desirable terms she is seeking from Brexit.
The reason for that remains that which has dogged her premiership all along, and which is underscored today by the support she is receiving from the ultra Brexiters in her party: those ultras will simply never accept anything that is achievable, realistic or desirable from Brexit. So whether she secretly agrees with them or secretly opposes them makes no difference. Either way, her capacity to govern in – as she put it today – the ‘national interest’ is doomed to failure. The reason is nothing to do with personalities, strategies or electoral arithmetic. It’s something much simpler, but something that neither she nor for that matter the Labour party can yet say: Brexit, on any meaning of the term, is not, on any meaning of the term, in the national interest.
Originally published on Chris Grey’s Brexit Blog
Royal Holloway, University of London
Prof Chris Grey FAcSS is Professor of Organization Studies at Royal Holloway, University of London. His research interests include professional socialisation, organisational secrecy and sociological and historical analysis.