Weber Shandwick’s Head of Public Affairs, Joey Jones, asks if the election result really will mean a softer Brexit.
The promotion of former Remain supporters Damian Green, David Lidington and David Gauke within the cabinet coupled with the humbling of the Prime Minister is leading to widespread speculation that the “hard Brexit” line she championed might no longer hold.
The implications of a shift would be very significant for the economy, and there are a lot of businesses that would welcome it. However, the obstacles remain significant, and controversial arguments would have to play out to allow a change – arguments that business will need to engage in.
Above all, let us be clear about what “soft Brexit” entails. It points the way to continuing access to the EU Single Market, allowing for the free movement of goods and people.
It is quite plausible that “soft Brexit” might sound warm and fuzzy to the voters; but free movement of people, with the corresponding continuing high levels of EU immigration? The verdict on that point from the referendum was pretty unambiguous.
One course for politicians who want to see a soft Brexit is to be up front about the implications of what they are seeking. That would imply a proper discussion about the merits as well as the downsides of immigration, a discussion that no mainstream party has sought for a long, long time because it is electorally too dangerous.
Another course would be to weave a bit of magic with the immigration numbers (stripping out visiting students from the net migration figures is the obvious step, supported by almost everyone except the Prime Minister), whisper soothingly of “soft, soft Brexit” in voters’ ears and hope no-one notices that when it comes to immigration nothing will actually change. Remember, there is a good reason Theresa May opposed this plan – she calculated that the electorate would feel hoodwinked, and react accordingly.
The viability of a softer Brexit course may be determined by the attitude taken not by prominent former Remainers, whose views are well known and priced-in, but prominent former Leave campaigners. For example, what if Boris Johnson rediscovered his former mayoral enthusiasm for immigration? Or Nigel Farage accepted that a “Norway-style deal” implies freedom of movement? Then the parameters of debate would shift.
The sort of cross-party Brexit platform advocated by Alistair Burt MP on the Conservative side would allow for more of a thinking-the-unthinkable approach to immigration. But it is very much an outlying proposition at present, and would require an unprecedented degree of cooperation from MPs across parties and across factions when political logic and precedent suggests this is a vain hope.
A final thought for businesses. If they wish to see “Soft Brexit”, they cannot simply stand on the sidelines, cross their fingers and hope politicians – almost all of whom were diminished by the election – can somehow rustle it up. Engaging with the debate; arguing persuasively, but with an understanding of why so many people are hostile to immigration, offers their best route to retaining the trading relationships with the EU that many value.