WIth her Brexit speech yesterday, Theresa May killed the British Conservative party, the grandest centre-right party in Europe. Perhaps it is understandable. May was dealt a particularly bad hand of cards by her Conservative colleagues who campaigned to leave the European Union with big promises and almost no attention to the detail of how those promises were to be achieved. May, a cautious Remainer, has had to fill in that detail. Yet, May has gone all in on a hand with just two sevens.
May’s speech on Europe marked the departure of the Conservative party from pragmatism to a radical ideological vision of Britain at odds with the mildly centrist views held by the people who live here.
Leaving both the Single Market and the Customs Union is a political position advocated by no political party in recent British history: not UKIP, nor the Conservatives under William Hague, nor the Labour Party since 1983. Immigration is May's dividing line, and Britain's place in the world must be dictated by this single issue. In any year since Enoch Powell's River of Blood speech, sacrificing economic growth on the altar of immigration would be an extreme position.
Sacrificing the physical integrity of your nation state (as Scotland reconsiders her referendum decision), the economic well-being of your people, and the cultural relationship with your closest allies and your geographical neighbours to a mild reduction in immigration is the politics of Bedlam. Theresa May will make Britain poorer, less secure in the world, and subject to the whims of our new trading partners: the US under Trump, China under Xi and India under Modi. What could easily have become a Conservative century, will now be the century in which Conservatism dies.
The majority of Britons want to stay in the European Single Market. 90 per cent of Britons want to keep tariff-free access to the EU. Nearly 70 per cent want the UK to keep compliance with EU rules and regulations. Politically, the European Single Market is popular. The only reason we will be leaving the Single Market is a wish to “control immigration”.
“The majority of Britons would not give up a single pint of beer to reduce immigration”
It is true that controlling both EU and non-EU migration is an issue with significant public support. It is also true that when asked how much income voters would trade in order to reduce migration, the answer for the majority of voters is not a single pound.
The majority of Britons (62 per cent), while expressing a general concern about the pace of change, would not give up a single pint of beer in the course of a year to actively reduce it. There are of course a very small minority of voters – like there are in every country on earth – who wish to stop migration all together. Some of their concerns are legitimate: the UK has been a good European and has created more jobs than the rest of the EU 26 states put together in recent years (2013) and as a result has attracted more EU migrants than any other member state. We allowed Polish workers to come to our shores far earlier than the supposedly progressive Germans and French. The scale of contemporary migration is unprecedented in the last half century.
May could have suggested a compromise that kept the UK in the Single Market. The European Commission may be making tough noises on free movement, but the legal and political reality is different. There is an “emergency brake” that can be applied – a fudge could have been found to apply it for an extended period, perhaps five years.
There are also other precedents. Liechtenstein is a member of the Single Market and yet also caps migration from the EU. To say the country is small and therefore this is justifiable in just this instance is, as the Commission knows, a legal nonsense. Benefits for EU migrants could have been capped and immigration restricted to only those who have a job offer. All these measures, plus the falling pound making the UK significantly less attractive as a place for EU immigration, would have cut immigration figures to the tens of thousands foolishly promised by May and other Conservatives.
Yet May did not even try to negotiate this. The truth is, May has capitulated to the most extreme voices in her party. Brexit could have been a success – we could have remained in the Single Market and left the Customs Union and found the new trading partners promised. Britain could have continued as the entry-point for the Commonwealth into the EU with our Single Market access, while creating our own bespoke customs agreements. In the Single Market, out of the Customs Union, would have satisfied economic liberal leavers such as Daniel Hannan MEP and also triangulated the wishes indirectly expressed in the referendum.
“Britain will be culturally diminished in the world”
Now, we face huge uncertainty. It is commendable that May has outlined her Brexit position in such detail. No longer is she a Prime Minister defined by what she has not said. Yet, It is hard to envisage any of the negotiating positions outlined by the Prime Minister coming to fruition. It is unlikely the EU will grant the UK a trade deal more extensive than the Canadian free trade agreement which will do little for our service sector. The trade deal promised by Trump will not materialise from a US Congress with rather more pressing issues to deal with. The focus on migration, above the economic well-being of the UK, bodes badly economically and culturally.
Here is the rub. In her speech, Theresa May did not say the Single Market was in itself a bad idea – how could she: it was a major free market achievement of her predecessor in No. 10, Margaret Thatcher? Instead, she ruled the UK out of the Single Market because it does not give us the flexibility to really control immigration. We are leaving a free market of 500 million consumers because of perhaps 80,000 unskilled migrants per year. This is the great mistake. By framing the argument in such a narrow way, and by not even trying to secure an immigration deal, May has opened herself up to a change of public mood. If the economy collapses in a few year's time as we rebound onto WTO rules, will the people of Britain blame a small group of Polish plumbers and Romanian nannies, or the ruling Tory party? If you think your countrymen are prejudiced enough to pick the former, you do not truly know them.
The Tory party has picked the most extreme form of Brexit imaginable. It has made a number of political decisions, which at any time since 1973, would have been seen as political suicide. I do not believe all the fundamentals of British politics have been turned upside in the last 18 months. The British people want to exit the European Union, they want a relationship outside of Schengen, outside the Euro and outside the political institutions of Europe. Yet, Britain is also a country which prizes openness and free markets. Unless Theresa May can get access for British services to new markets with more than 500 million people, she and her party are bust. It is not inconceivable that in five years the Conservative party will go into a general election with a Britain relying on WTO rules to trade and not a single free trade agreement. Our economic growth will go from the fastest in the G7 to that of Italy or Greece. As the Office for Budget Responsibility pointed out today, our public debt will peak at 234 per cent of GDP if we don’t get our books in order. Our economic position would be Greece today, plus a figure close to Italy today. Britain is sleepwalking to bankruptcy.
As importantly, Britain will be culturally diminished in the world. Playing hard will antagonise countries we have grown to like, even love. It was the embarrassment of the sheer state of post-Imperial Britain in the 1970s that spurred our enthusiasm for the Common Market. Do not be surprised if the Easyjet generation find our rogue outsider status just as embarrassing and vote on it. Brexit taught us that elections are rarely won in the year in which they are fought. The rules of politics do not change that quickly.
Mike Harris the publisher of Little Atoms and founder of Save the Single Market