- New consensus emerges in Theresa May’s government for a lengthy Brexit transition.
- Labour calls for Britain to remain in the single market and customs union throughout transition.
- Yet long transition could make an eventual Brexit less likely.
- Britain is becoming more liberal, metropolitan and less Eurosceptic with every passing year.
- Brexiteers fear a long transition could lead to Brexit being cancelled altogether.
LONDON — One of the big fears among some Brexiteers is that calls for a transition period are merely attempts to thwart Brexit by pushing it ever further over the horizon.
These fears may seem paranoid. After all, those ministers calling for an extended transition are obviously not part of some vast conspiracy to block Brexit. Indeed, as the Financial Times reports this morning, the call for a more long-term phasing in of Brexit are now coming as much from Brexiteers in government as from Remainers. Those more sensible voices in government understand that an extreme and so-called “cliff edge” Brexit would be disastrous, not just for the economy, but for the very Brexit project they have spent their entire political lives pursuing.
But while the intention of a lengthy transition may not be to thwart Brexit, the result may very well be. In fact there are several good reasons to believe that a lengthy transition really could, just as the Brexiteers fear, ultimately lead to the end of the Brexit dreams.
One of the reasons that David Cameron came under so much pressure to hold an EU referendum from Conservative Eurosceptics was the fear that they were running out of time. Over recent decades Britain had become an increasingly urban, multicultural and liberal society, with public concern about Britain’s relationship with the EU reaching historic lows in the years running up to the referendum. At one point shortly, shortly after Cameron became PM, just 1% of British people saw Europe as one of the most important issues facing the country, according to polling by Ipsos Mori.
In many ways last year’s referendum was the last and best hope for the Brexiteers. Contrary to Cameron’s belief that a calling a vote would “lance the boil” on the issue of Europe, in reality it inflated the boil to a size not seen for decades.
The British public is now highly concerned about the issue of Europe but that concern is one created almost entirely by the Brexit referendum itself. Had Cameron ignored calls from his party to call a vote then Brexit would have remained a non-issue for the vast majority of the British people.
The Brexit vote is expiring
One of the many big mistakes made by Cameron in the run up to the Brexit referendum was to rule out allowing 16-18 year-olds to take part. All of the polling showed that younger voters were overwhelmingly in favour of remaining in the EU, while older voters backed Leave. With the final result so incredibly close, allowing younger voters could have been enough to switch the result the other way. However, it’s not just the coming of age of Remainers, but the expiration of Brexiteers, that threatens Brexit. To put it bluntly, one of the big threats to Brexit is that Brexiteers are dying off.
This can be seen clearly in the latest polling by YouGov which finds that a majority of voters under 50 believe Britain was wrong to vote leave with 64% of voters aged 18-24 saying the same. If Britain were to agree a four-year transition period with the EU then it will be the best part of a decade between the vote to leave and Britain’s final exit date. By that time Britain’s demographics could look dramatically different. Whereas Britain’s electorate was finely balanced in favour of Brexit last year, they are unlikely to still be so by 2023.
So far opinion polling has not shown any dramatic shift towards Remain since the EU referendum. However, this could easily change. With a pre-Brexit economic downturn now highly possible and with Brexit talks already floundering, it is highly conceivable that the British public will start to move away from Brexit. If we have learned anything from the past few years, it is that the public are in a period of high political volatility. While it may not currently seem likely that there will be a surge in demand to stop Brexit, it is easy to picture a scenario in which there quickly develops a widespread desire for a softer or more gradual Brexit. If over the coming year headlines begin to fill with reports of companies fleeing the country, with Brexit negotiations heading to meltdown, then calls for a delay or watering down of Brexit could easily gain traction. This combined with the demographic changes mentioned above could, over the course of a lengthy transition, turn the whole debate about Brexit on its head.
Change at the top
Labour’s announcement this week that they are now in favour of Britain remaining in the single market and customs union during a transition period and possibly beyond was also highly significant moment. Not only will it help unite the Labour party on the one big issue still dividing them, but it is also a clear sign of how the politics of Brexit are gradually shifting away from the hardline position previously taken by Theresa May and to a lesser extent Jeremy Corbyn. With Labour now the bookies favourites to form the next government, the future of the Brexiteer’s dream is looking more vulnerable than ever.
It is partly because of this reality that so many Conservative MPs remain so opposed to ousting Theresa May. The fear among Tory MPs is that any change of leadership would force an early general election, which in turn would both bring Corbyn to power and kick Brexit into the long grass. This belief, which now unites Tory MPs from across the party, is the biggest factor keeping May in Downing Street. Put simply, Tory MPs want May to remain, in the hope that in the meantime “something will turn up.” But simply clinging onto nurse out of fear of something worse is not normally a winning political strategy. And as the months and years pass, the forces that could yet remove May from Downing Street and keep Britain in the EU are only likely to grow.
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