Nick Clegg knows the solution to Brexit – MPs should take note

The former Lib Dem leader sees three possible outcomes: firstly, total failure in the negotiations; secondly, extending the Article 50 talks or stopping the clock; thirdly, the UK staying in the single market and customs union

Andrew Grice
Friday 13 October 2017 13:37 BST
Clegg knows what he’s talking about, as a former European Commission trade official and ex-MEP
Clegg knows what he’s talking about, as a former European Commission trade official and ex-MEP (PA)

Can Brexit be stopped? It’s a question a lot of people ask me – including, remarkably, some MPs. In private, they believe the latest divisions among the Cabinet and Conservative MPs mean the UK is heading for a disastrous Brexit. I’ve lost count of the number of MPs who ask me, a mere journalist who’s always taken a close interest in the European Union, to put a percentage on the chances of halting this slow-motion car crash.

It is they who have the power to stop it, or at least cushion the blow. The problem is that many MPs with grave doubts are frightened to go public yet for fear of being accused of sabotaging last year’s referendum.

Perhaps I should set myself up as a Brexit therapist. As it happens, for any Remainers feeling as gloomy as Philip Hammond looks, I can prescribe a short, sweet book: How To Stop Brexit by Nick Clegg, the former Deputy Prime Minister and now ex-MP, published yesterday by The Bodley Head.

Clegg knows what he’s talking about, as a former European Commission trade official and ex-MEP. His press briefings after the referendum were the most insightful of those I attended. He was first to puncture the Brexiteers’ myth that leaving the EU would cut red tape. From the Government’s (still vague) position papers, we can now see that Brexit will tie us up in even more of it – customs is just one of many examples.

Jean-Claude Juncker: Brexit will take longer than initially thought

An upbeat Clegg spots a “silver lining” in Brexit. He is convinced the UK can still be reintegrated into a reformed EU, finding its traditional place in the outer ring of “a Europe of concentric circles” – alongside countries who do not want the single currency or free movement. He admits “the EU must look and feel different, if we are to stay part of it”.

It’s true that the EU needs to change for non-Brexit reasons, such as the eurozone and the migration crisis. But I think Clegg is a little too optimistic on this point. I rather doubt the EU27 would go this far: what would be the point of membership if they let the UK leave and then stay, and other countries to pick and mix?

Far from being anti-democratic, Clegg argues, stopping Brexit would be “more democratic”. He claims the narrow majority for it is disappearing as Leavers literally die out. Democracy means allowing people to change their mind, and holding politicians to account for their broken promises; he admits he has form on university tuition fees, but wonders why the Brexiteers get a relatively easy ride for their “false prospectus”.

Rightly, the former Liberal Democrat leader pinpoints the vital role Parliament must play when it votes on a Brexit deal (if there is one) about a year from now. “The most important person” will be Jeremy Corbyn, he judges. As I have argued here before, he believes Corbyn is unlikely to lead public opinion, but might follow it.

Clegg believes Theresa May’s shredded authority and the Cabinet’s bickering – both have got even worse since he penned his book – mean that time is running out for an exit deal with the EU. Despite this week’s headlines about “deadlock” and “no deal”, I still think on balance that there will be an agreement. Brussels sources tell me they recognise the need to give May at least some prospect of talks on trade at the EU leaders’ summit next week, in return for her offer on the UK’s divorce payment in her Florence speech.

Clegg sees three possible outcomes: firstly, total failure in the negotiations, which he says would suit a hardline Brexiteer “elite” who want “no deal” so the UK becomes a low tax, low regulation “Singapore on stilts”. Secondly, extending the Article 50 talks or stopping the clock and thirdly, the UK staying in the single market and customs union.

I suspect that Clegg’s third option – in effect, the proposed transitional deal becoming permanent – will be as good as it gets for Remainers. Some senior figures who served in David Cameron’s government think that this soft Brexit is where we will end up by default, as the complex exit negotiations run into the sand. It would certainly do less economic damage than “no deal”.

But we won’t get there without a fight. The hardline Brexiteers will oppose it tooth and nail and, if necessary, will threaten to depose Theresa May or her successor. To them, it would not really be leaving the EU, even though we would formally depart in March 2019. They want the hardest of hard Brexits.

So, as Clegg concludes, it is up to MPs to save the country from an act of economic self-harm. And, crucially, that will require people power – pressure on MPs to do their duty rather than sleepwalk to what many know will be a disaster.

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