Long hot summer of Brexit may be about to get hotter

Carlos Valderrama
Valderrama: he was the future once

Never make predictions, they say, especially on blogs that people might read after the prediction has already died a death. But after England lose 17-16 to Colombia on penalties this evening, in a bizarre shoot-out in which Gloria from Modern Family races onto the pitch dressed in a Carlos Valderrama wig, bearing the skull of Pablo Escobar, in order to distract Jordan Pickford, here’s what’s coming next. Not in the World Cup – clearly Switzerland will win it as usual – but in that much more gripping end-to-end contest between two highly talented (surely ‘un-‘? -Ed) teams, Brexit.

Simon Wren-Lewis, an emeritus economics professor here in Oxford, writes a blog called Mainly Macro which is always worth a read. He’s not afraid to roam into politics and he writes for the general reader, not just economists. I think he nails it here on where we are now on Brexit: Simon Wren-Lewis: Brexit Endgame.

That’s pretty much how I see it. The parliamentary arithmetic dictates some form of “soft” Brexit – that is the UK in something like the current customs union, plus a high level of regulatory alignment with the EU – and the hard Brexiteer squeals just now are likely to cries into the void. The hard Brexiteers, for all their media ubiquity, just don’t have the numbers in parliament for a hard Brexit. That’s been clear since they lost in December on the “meaningful vote”. Theresa May is keeping them onside as long as possible for party unity, but eventually – whether at Checkers this week or at one minute to midnight on deadline day – she will go for the best deal available for British business. Yes, business – remember that?

Brexit bus tight corner
Nowhere left to turn: they re-sprayed the Brexit Bus white in honour of Vladimir Putin’s naked torso, but it got stuck during its triumphant tour of mid-Wales unemployment hotspots

Johnson’s “f*** business” notwithstanding, the Conservatives pride themselves as being the party of business. Ignoring business pleas for a soft Brexit would turn the Tories into a party of the ideological right, not the realistic, pragmatic middle. With Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader, the middle ground is there for the taking – or centrist Tories will certainly feel it is. So I just don’t see Theresa May going against UK plc when push comes to shove, despite the rhetoric.

Theresa May seems to me of the sensible pragmatist strain of traditional Tory. She is also I think, though I’m not her biggest fan, or a fan at all in fact, someone who feels a serious sense of duty to her country, not just her party. I think she’s gone way too far already in trying to appease the Brexiteers for the sake of the party; she will have to climb down on a number of high profile statements about Brexit if we are to have a deal at all. But I do think ultimately she knows what side Britain’s bread is buttered on. She will, when she finally has no other choice, disappoint the hardliners. That’s if they don’t bring her down.

piggy back
It’s been a fun ride for a rejuvenated Bernard Jenkin, but Theresa May is getting sweaty now inside the clown outfit

Triggering a leadership election and potentially winning it is something the hard Brexiteers can potentially do. The thing is though, her replacement would be faced with the same parliamentary numbers Theresa May has and would have no better chance of uniting the Tories behind a hard Brexit. The Jacob Rees-Moggs and Bernard Jenkins of this world know that May is their best conduit to work through – they are piggy-backing on her, politically, because she commands more support from Tory MPs than they do. She knows they know. What’s going on now seems to be May edging bit by bit towards a soft Brexit and daring them to jump off. If they do, and move to unseat her as PM, it will show the game’s up for the hard Brexiters – it would be a last desperate gamble, feeling they have nothing to lose.

I’d add though to the Wren-Lewis analysis one cat that could be put amongst the Brexit pigeons – and I suspect will be, by increasingly desperate Brexiteer Tory MPs – immigration. To get the kind of trading terms we want with the EU single market, the UK will be asked to accept “free movement”. At the moment, the EU is being absolute that it would have to be the exact same kind of free movement we have now; I am not so sure it can’t be tweaked at the edges. But either way, we may well soon once more be back onto the topic of immigration. Why is this significant and a bit worrying?

A week before the Brexit referendum in June 2016, Ipsos MORI showed this in their regular issues tracker – Ipsos MORI tracker June 2016 – that immigration was the biggest issue for British people thinking about the 2016 referendum, ahead of even the economy:

Screen Shot 2018-07-03 at 11.53.16

The immigration issue’s key role has been confirmed by subsequent studies like the British Attitudes Survey: The Independent: BSA survey suggests immigration concerns crucial to Brexit vote. It was also clear from trackers in the months and years before the referendum was called that EU membership per se was really not a hot topic for many people, but immigration was. And recent Ipsos MORI polling shows that even now, post-Windrush, which has shifted attitudes somewhat in a pro-immigration direction, it’s still a massive issue for the public. Over half of us still want overall numbers reduced: Ipsos MORI: attitudes to immigration after the Windrush scandal.

It’s an issue over which the public sits up and takes notice, in a way it really doesn’t over the byzantine maze of trade deals, single markets and customs union arguments. Most of us don’t really know a hawk from a handsaw on those issues when we really get into the detail. We tend to say, “Get on with it and sort it out” to the politicians, which has been the refrain of Question Time audience after Question Time audience for a year and more now. But we know, or we think we do, whether we like having more or fewer people from other countries living in the UK. And we tend to have strong views on it, especially those people who feel there has been too much immigration.

Sealford Mods
We’re going down like BHS … but it is some solace that we’ll still have Sleaford Mods to tell us about it with appropriate levels of anger and swearing

So here is my Nostradamus moment on Brexit: I think immigration is going to come back into the debate, big time, and it will shake things up like no other issue has thusfar. I think it will be used by hard Brexiters as the reason why we can’t agree to close relationships with the EU on the single market and customs union. The hard Brexiters will put May under huge pressure on this, and it may also unnerve a lot of Labour MPs in Leave constituencies. The parliamentary arithmetic that favours a customs union might end up in quite a different place over single market access – and put quite a spanner in the soft Brexit works.

union jack on head
Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, cooling off yesterday

What’s more, this bit of messy politics will not be left to the politicians alone: the public and the press will be engaged as never before in the heated Brexit arguments.

If you thought you’d had enough of the heat, I’m sorry: it could be about to get much hotter.

Published by Simon Riley

Qualitative researcher in the UK. I listen to people from all walks of life and think about what it all means. I work for leading brands, media companies and government.

2 thoughts on “Long hot summer of Brexit may be about to get hotter

  1. A cogent analysis & I agree that Simon Wren Lewis is always worth a read. the one thing I’d add is that free movement is not the zero sum thing it’s often presented as. there are a variety of ways members states can “take back control” of immigration in ways that successive British govts either didn’t exploit at all or applied too late. This article is good but not exhaustive: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/jul/31/britain-take-back-control-immigration-eu-directive-brexit

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Totally agree – was having this debate with my other half last night about what the EU can and can’t do. There is the ability to have different tweaks on free movement for different states; and if anything what’s happening among EU member states on free movement now makes that a glaringly undeniable reality. My own thought of where a compromise may lie is in going back to Cameron idea of a notional cap – which could be quite high – giving us (notional) “control” but actually more or less keeping free movement in reality.


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