Cabinet softies should make honesty their watchword

by Hugo Dixon | 04.02.2018

Philip Hammond and his Cabinet allies shouldn’t pretend that their Brexit plan is great, because it isn’t. The best that can be said is that the hard Brexiters’ plan may be even worse. The two sides will lock horns in a Cabinet committee on Wednesday and Thursday.

The soft Brexiters’ plan has two main elements, InFacts understands. The first is to stay in a customs union with the EU covering goods but not services. The second is to keep our rules aligned with those of the EU and hence retain as much access to its single market as we can.

These two policies would ensure that our manufacturing industry could operate freely across the EU and that there would be no need for border controls in Ireland. But there are three problems.

  • The EU wouldn’t give our services industries full access to its single market unless we also agreed to keep free movement of people. It’s unclear how big a hit we’d take, but our financial services industry would certainly suffer.
  • We would become a “vassal state” – following both the EU’s trade policies and its internal regulations without a vote on them. Soft Brexiters hope they could agree a mechanism to let us diverge from EU rules on a case-by-case basis. That seems overly optimistic.
  • We wouldn’t in practice be able to cut our own trade deals with the rest of the world. Although we could in theory do services-only pacts, other countries wouldn’t be interested. What’s more, we might struggle even to mimic other countries’ deals with the EU, as they would be able to use Europe as a back door to export goods to our market without us having the right to export our goods to theirs. 

In pushing their plan, soft Brexiters should be honest about these problems. That’s not just because it’s unethical to pull the wool over voters’ eyes, though it is. It’s also because they would thereby differentiate themselves from the hard Brexiters’ practice of pretending everything’s going to be fine while ignoring the facts.

But surely, if the soft Brexiters are going to win the battle in Cabinet, they should lie and cheat like the hard Brexiters? Not so. If they fight on turf where the hard Brexiters are experts, they’ll be at a disadvantage. They need to embrace honesty as a tactic in asymmetric warfare, saying something like this:

“We respect the voters’ wishes and, unless they change their minds, we’ll try to deliver the best Brexit possible. But we’re not going to con the people. If we go hard, we’ll damage the economy and our precious United Kingdom. If we go soft, we’ll move from being one of Europe’s most influential powers to being a rule-taker. Neither is great but we think the soft option would make the best of a bad job.”

If they were really bold, soft Brexiters would add:

And, of course, if voters don’t like that, it’s not too late to stay in the EU.”

But even without that rider, honesty is the best policy.

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Edited by Luke Lythgoe