The battle now starts to define what version of Leave won

Voters have given a verdict on the UK’s membership of the EU. What is less certain is their view of the future


The people have spoken and they have rejected the UK’s continuing membership of the EU. Now the battle to define what Leave should actually mean begins.

The results seem to show that while voters believed that there were some economic risks from leaving the EU, this fear was trumped both by the appeal to sovereignty, by ‘taking back control’ from the EU’, and more significant the belief that ending the free movement of EU citizens was the only way to tackle the level of migration into the UK.

Throughout the campaign we have had different views on what Brexit might look like. The double referendum idea first posited by Dominic Cummings, the lead strategists of the Leave Campaign, and supported by Boris Johnson earlier in the year, suggested a vote for leaving the EU as a mechanism to reopen further renegotiation of the EU’s relationship, and get a better deal because of the real prospect of the UK leaving, followed by a further referendum.

The approach shifted as the Leave campaign changed its focus to immigration. The Leave campaign clarified its approach as being one of leaving the single market and restricting freedom of movement and ending payments to the EU, while maintaining some sort of “access to the single market”.  Leading figures from the Vote Leave campaign talked about different option, including a Canadian model, or even the Albanian model  of trade agreement with the EU.

Nigel Farage and his Leave.EU campaign have suggested that the UK should be totally disengaged from the single market mechanisms, hoping to negotiate tariff free access. If that is not achieved,  trading  under WTO tariff rules.

We therefore have two broad visions of the UK’s position outside the EU – one that is focused on disengaging from political union, but prioritising access to the single market and maintaining some aspects of the status quo. The second, more radical option emphasises giving the UK the freedom to set its own tariff barriers and approach to regulation.

In the same way as we had more than one vision of the UK’s trading relationship with the EU, the campaign offered more than one vision of the kind of economy the UK would have post Brexit. One of the positive messages from Leave was that disengagement from the EU allows the UK to be more open to trading with the rest of the world, by developing free trade agreements with fast growing economies across the world.

Despite these promises of a new openness, the Leave campaigns also embraced populist opposition to the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), and promised that Brexit would create more opportunities to raise trade barriers to protect UK industries such as the ailing steel sector.

The campaign also promised to reduce immigration while at the same time as providing new opportunities for migrants from the Commonwealth to come to the UK.

The binary nature of the referendum means that it is unclear what version of Brexit the public was voting for. Consequently this means that defining the nature of Brexit will become the main dividing line in UK politics over the next few years.  With each side of that divide claiming to reflect the true nature of the people’s decision.

Leading Conservative Brexiters, such as Daniel Hannan, have been arguing for what could be described as a minimalist version of Brexit. In a column for Conservative Home on Thursday he wrote:

“A narrow leave vote is not a mandate for anything precipitate or radical. It is a mandate for a phased repatriation of power, with the agreement, wherever possible, of our European allies. Many of our existing arrangements will remain in place; and those which we want to disapply won’t be scrapped overnight.”

The Electoral Commission has made it clear that the referendum was advisory and it is up to Parliament to decide how to implement the view of the people. Given the fact that a majority of MPs were supportive of remaining in the EU, a minimalist Brexit position is one around which MPs from each side of the referendum divide could coalesce.

Given some of the claims about what Brexit might mean and the freedom that the UK would gain, supporters of a more maximalist Brexit, including Nigel Farage, will be quick to cry foul if Parliament is seen to be watering down what is their interpretation of the will of the people.

The Centre for European Reform has looked at  seven different models of future trading relations with the EU, reflecting different variations along the spectrum of ‘half membership ‘(remaining membership of the single market, but rejecting other aspects of EU membership) to a minimalist trading relationship, solely based on WTO rules. As the report points out, the most likely outcome will be a bespoke agreement between the UK and the EU. However, the final shape of that arrangement is far from certain.

The difficulty in defining what version of Brexit UK voters supported means that, while Parliament has the right to decide on the shape of the eventual UK relationship between the EU and the UK, different interpretations of what the voters were asking for means that it is likely be settled by a further vote, either by a further referendum or a general election.

It is also unclear what the vote means for our two leading political parties. David Cameron and George Osborne were clearly unable to persuade the British public of the importance of the UK remaining in the UK. Should the loss of the referendum and the Prime Minister’s resignation lead to the rejection of Cameron’s broader programme of modernising the Conservative Party? This question will dominate the up-coming Conservative leadership election.

In the same way the Labour Party will be questioning what the strong vote for Leave in many Labour constituencies means for the party’s pro-Europeanism and the current position on immigration. The Labour Party has started a period of soul searching, and the nervousness of Labour MPs representing areas that voted strongly for Leave seems to have precipitated a challenge to Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership.

The result of the referendum is likely to lead to one of the most significant revolution in British politics for the past 50 years.  A reshaping of our trading relationship with our biggest markets, a reshaping of the UK’s approach to foreign affairs, globalisation and immigration and a change of leadership and direction in one and most likely both of our main political parties.

All we know at the moment is that the outcome of this process is far from certain.