The Last of the Liberal Leavers (sort of)

I was once part of a small, but crucial group, now almost all of them have disavowed Brexit entirely

On June 23 2016 I, after hesitating in the polling booth for a bit, voted for Britain to leave the European Union. That immediate vote was incredibly difficult for me to actually cast despite the fact that I had (from quite early on) spearheaded a local effort on behalf of a Leave vote on my university campus. However, I had purposefully deviated from the messages being delivered by Vote Leave and Leave.EU, arguing for Brexit on much softer, liberal and gradualist grounds than the main campaign.

There were many like me, according to some estimates approximately 20% of all Leave voters, who wanted some form of Brexit that didn’t give up our access to the single market, who wanted something that either was (or looked incredibly similar to) the EFTA/EEA arrangement that countries such as Norway or Iceland currently enjoy. We are called many names: soft Brexiteers, liberal leavers, or (with the propensity to pontificate on our own solution) smug EFTArians.

But in the wake of the chaos of Brexit, especially in recent months, some of the most prominent voices for an EFTA/EEA Brexit came out to withdraw support for Brexit entirely: this includes Roland Smith (Adam Smith Institute fellow and my main influence on pursuing liberal Leave in the first place), Oliver Norgrove (RHUL Masters Student, commentator and former Vote Leave staffer who was indispensable in his insight into the technicalities around trade law especially) and Ben Kelly (Writer, commentator and one of the first people I came across articulating support for something like liberal Leave).

I could echo almost everything all of these three have said, I feel much the same regrets for my lack of attention to customs arrangements, for my underestimation of the shifts in parliamentary arithmetic towards a hard and unpleasant Brexit, as well as for my tacit support for the falsehoods, distortions and xenophobia peddled by the mainstream Leave campaign. I also no longer feel comfortable referring to myself as a “Brexiteer”, and have taken some steps to reflect that; for starters, I am a paid up and active Liberal Democrat- campaigning and working with the party in full knowledge that the party’s flagship policy is a ‘People’s Vote’ (or second referendum)- while it is far from my top policy preference preference, the fact that this isn’t a deal breaker might offer some insight into how wedded I am to Brexit these days.

I would rather not just repeat the same reasons Roland, Oliver and Ben have given towards their abandonment for Brexit as a whole, not just because it would be pretty boring to see similarly minded people express virtually the same things, but also because I still have the smallest glimmer of hope that despite the turbulence, a soft Brexit that looks something like an EFTA/EEA option is still possible, desirable, and may in fact be the most likely outcome despite everything. Now most likely is not the same thing as probable- I still see big chances for us to leave with no deal to basically succumb to May’s deal and there’s still an outside chance for a second referendum to manifest someway or another. Fundamentally though, even if it’s maybe only a 30% chance of happening, the most likely outcome of this mess will be something that looks like a Norway-style deal.

This article isn’t to solely demonstrate my declining lack of hope or enthusiasm for any form of Brexit, nor is it to try and sell reasons for backing the Norway option on its own merits (as I have done multiple times on this platform). Instead I want to tackle two things:

1) Why do I think a Norway-style Brexit is still likely?
2) Why do I still think it’s the least worst option ahead of us?

Liberal leavers are abandoning the cause faster than I can write up this article, but I still think there is a case to be hopeful and very cautiously optimistic, despite my own increasing reservations, regrets and uncertainties.

  1. It remains a logical compromise between May’s harder Brexit and Labour’s customs union focused Brexit. To me it appears to have always been an implicit second favourite for Remain-leaning Conservative MPs backing May’s deal and Labour MPs opposed to a second referendum. It is the only realistic way Labour could possibly obtain sufficient numbers of Conservative MPs to break ranks and support a Labour-led Brexit, or similarly the only thing that backbench, mostly Remain-leaning Conservatives could propose that Labour could back. Stephen Bush from the New Statesman agrees.
  2. Talks between the main proponents for a Norway-style deal (namely Nick Boles) and Jeremy Corbyn have already been under way with Corbyn explicitly mentioning “Norway plus” as an option in the aftermath of parliament voting to extend Article 50, and crucially, before any mention of a People’s Vote, suggesting it is a bigger priority to seek. Speaking of…
  3. Momentum for a People’s Vote is dying. Its death was (perhaps prematurely) declared by European Council President Donald Tusk and recently had only 85 MPs backing it in the commons as an amendment for extending Article 50. MPs appear to be focusing their efforts towards another direction, and since Corbyn seems to prefer Norway to a People’s Vote, he can use his big bulk of MPs, who did not defy the whip’s instruction to abstain, to vote for a Norway-style compromise. Some People’s Vote MPs (such as Anna Soubry, who spoke positively of Norway fairly recently) may hold their nose and choose it over May’s deal if that’s the only option on the table.
  4. As more Brexiteers rally to May’s deal, Norway becomes the only credible challenger in parliament. No Dealers are beginning to realise that it’s either May’s deal or something softer, and this push will inevitably create a move to motivate opponents to May’s deal towards an alternative. Before, MPs focused on their favourite option, now it has to whittle it down to only two or so options left, don’t expect Tory Brexiteers to be the only ones settling for second best.
  1. It holds a surprising level of support among the general public. While this relies on polling conducted in mid and late 2018, studies suggest that this would be the most tolerable option for the public, thus more likely to heal the current divide we are in. Any deal would not simply have to satisfy parliament, nor simply the 52%, but should be something that the vast majority of British can live with. As it stands, it’s the only option that does that.
  2. Remaining in the EU after all this will face more political turbulence than a soft Brexit. I am willing to live with a People’s Vote and, should it happen, I would almost certainly back Remain this time. But forcing the public to face a referendum which doesn’t appear to command much support to be held, as well as of course writing off the 2016 result, will raise a myriad of questions of legitimacy and trust that are already preemptively being aired before it has even happened. Regardless of whether you believe that a People’s Vote would be a betrayal, the idea that it is one already holds enough salience to make holding it politically difficult. Indeed, it may be better to remain in the EU than face the slow decline May’s deal would offer and the rapid decline no deal would offer, but it remains so riddled with uncomfortable political realities that pursuing a softer Brexit remains the option with the least political risk.
  3. The reason for May’s deal is struggling to exist. I believe that May’s deal is the softest possible Brexit that exists while still leaving both the single market and the customs union and, predictably, it is a fudge that pleases few people. The only red line of hers that isn’t at least partially crossed by her deal is the ending of Freedom of Movement- but polling over the last year has consistently shown that the public value access to the single market over more controls on immigration (scroll to the bottom). Coupled with increasingly liberal views on immigration, even in the run up the referendum, shows that the deal is pointless in attempting to achieve a central aim which isn’t even popular. A Norway-style deal would still allow Brexit to happen while actually respecting existing British views on immigration.
  4. We still need a long-term solution, not a stop gap. May’s deal (as it stands) remains incredibly vague about the future relationship and with the existence of the backstop and other arrangements, has a sketchy view of Britain’s future. Remaining in the EU also holds doubts over ever-closer union or how Britain can respond to the massive challenges the EU is currently tackling. No Deal is pretty much a by-word for uncertainty so that’s a non-starter. A Norway style option offers something that actually exists, and has exists since the EEA agreement entered into force in 1994. While obviously no option can provide certainty, EFTA-EEA are predictable existing institutional arrangements that remain Britain’s best option for post-Brexit stability.

My patience may be wearing thin, my hope may be extinguishing and my tolerance for abandoning Brexit entirely has grown commensurately. But I can’t see myself throwing in the towel, not when there are still a few weeks (possibly months) left. The parliamentary arithmetic I relied on for a soft Brexit is nowhere near as good as I had anticipated and hoped for back in 2016, and to my friends and allies in the Liberal Democrats and anyone who wants to avoid Britain hurtling towards a hard or No Deal Brexit I apologise for taking a gamble on our future. I pretty much had hoped that the nativists and populists would be make for dispensable foot-soldiers to an inevitable compromise in a nearly 50/50 vote in a predominantly Remain parliament that was nominally enthusiastic about Britain’s membership of the European Single Market, instead I became a useful idiot to a radicalised minority who seized the political process, abetted by an appeasing prime minister who has achieved nothing but to satisfy her Home Office era urge to drastically reduce immigration. I will always regret that it turned out this way, even if I square most of the blame at the feet of the prime minister for choosing national division and (predicted) party unity over national unity and (a risk of) party division.

We could still very well end up languishing under May’s deal and having years of further uncertainty and chaos, with Britain becoming a poorer and a significantly less desirable place to conduct business. We could still see a No Deal scenario erupt, which at time of writing is still the legal default in just 3 weeks time. If either of these scenarios occur I will remain incredibly embittered and full of regret. Make no mistake- I will always be a staunch fighter to return Britain to respectability and prosperity, fighting to undo my mistake to rely on parliamentary arithmetic and guesswork on the actions of people I have scarcely met.

But if, in the strangest turn of events, that very same parliamentary arithmetic secures something like the Norway deal I envisioned in 2016 and results in a re-united Britain, with the added effect of publicly revealing the ineptitude and impropriety of Britain’s domestic institutions and governing class in the process, then I can only apologise for the turbulence of the journey but not the ultimate destination.

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