When Labour backed a three-line whip for Article 50, there was uproar among the liberal commentariat. Predictions were made of a Lib Dem surge as Tim Farron’s party, we were told, were now the “real opposition” who represented the 48 per cent. Of course, it later transpired that the 48 per cent was a mythical electoral demographic, as even the vast majority of Remain voters believe that the result of a democratic referendum should be respected.
Labour accepting the result of the referendum and not obstructing Article 50 prohibited Theresa May from fighting an election over Brexit and swallowing up the entire Ukip vote, which would have handed her many constituencies in the north of England and guaranteed her a Conservative majority. Labour’s position on Brexit gave Jeremy Corbyn a platform to win seats in places like Peterborough, where the Ukip candidate even stood down to back the Conservatives.
In terms of what is politically viable, the two choices this country faces are not whether we leave the EU or whether we remain, that question is now settled, and if anyone is angry about this they should direct it at David Cameron for calling the referendum in the first place. But having called it, the vast majority of people accept that the result should now be respected.
So now the question is about which path Britain takes having left. This is why the “Hard Brexit” and “Soft Brexit” framing is unhelpful. To the casual observer, “Soft Brexit” often sounds as though it’s a compromise on leaving the EU, when all it amounts to is maintaining a tariff free trading relationship with the rest of Europe so people don’t lose their jobs and we are not then forced to go down the other path – of turning Britain into a tax haven.
There is a real risk that, without ensuring a trading relationship with Europe, Britain would be forced to cut taxes for big business to offset the high tariffs that exporters would have to pay if we did not have at least a transitional trade deal. Doing otherwise risks businesses relocating abroad, taking our jobs with them.
Without maintaining a trading relationship with the EU, the Conservative government could end up sacrificing workers’ rights, regulations and environmental protections in order to persuade businesses to stay in Britain. Further corporate tax cuts would decimate the tax base, leaving the NHS even more vulnerable to privatisation, and our public services and security at risk.
But for many Conservatives, this is their real agenda: to turn Britain into a small state, low tax, low wage, corporate tax haven. And Brexit gives them the perfect cover to implement that. They can simply say that they tried to get a trade deal, but weren’t able to, so now we have no alternative but to push through these reforms. So when many Conservatives say “no deal is better than a bad deal” it is because the consequences of “no deal” would enable them to implement their preferred agenda, an agenda which would be unpalatable to the British people in a regular context.
Conservatives have form for using shocks to convince the British people there is no alternative but to pursue their ideological course. Take George Osborne’s fraudulent argument that we needed to cut public spending to eliminate the deficit in five years. This created a context where the Conservatives were able to drastically shrink the state, while they convinced those who were hardest hit that this was absolutely necessary.
So it should concern all of us that we are sending Conservatives, many of whom think no deal would be the best deal, out to negotiate a trading relationship with Europe to protect jobs in Britain. But if we want to ensure the Conservatives ensure Britain has a trading relationship with Europe after leaving the EU, it will help our case to leave the “Hard” and “Soft” Brexit framing behind, and start talking about a Brexit that protects jobs.
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