Was a “soft” Brexit ever possible for the UK government?

28th April 2017

Is the Brexit which is to take place the only one possible? Was there ever a real chance that there could have been a “soft” Brexit? Is it even still possible?

One implication of the three-part series of posts at my FT blog this week (here, here, and here) is that the “hard” Brexit in prospect was the only one which could take place.

This is perhaps because of three things.

First, the EU has maintained since before the referendum that the decision would be accepted.  Brexit would mean Brexit. There would be no re-negotaion of the terms of EU membership. This meant whatever the UK’s terms of exit, and whatever is contained in a future agreement, it would involve the UK as a “third country”. A “soft” Brexit giving the UK full access to (and membership of) the single market would have to be fashioned with the UK firmly outside the EU.

Second, the EU within days of the referendum result adopted the absolute insistence that there would be “no negotiation without notification” and that the EU27 would be united.  This position has been held. This meant that any exploratory talks between the UK and the EU institution and with member states could not take place (at least no officially).  The absence of such talks meant that options to a “hard” Brexit could not be easily canvassed or considered before Article 50 was triggered.  This meant a “soft” Brexit became unlikely.

And third, of course, the EU also asserted within days of the referendum result (as well as before) that the “four freedoms” (of movement, services, goods, and capital) were indivisible and that any access to (and membership of) the single market would require the UK’s acceptance of those four freedoms.  This meant that a “soft” Brexit was only an option as part of a wider package, on a “take it or leave it” basis.

These three elements were in place weeks before Theresa May became prime minister and “Brexit means Brexit” became a commonplace political slogan.

Taken together, these elements suggest that a “hard” Brexit was the only one which was ever possible, regardless of who May appointed as key ministers or what she said at a party conference.  There was nothing the UK could do to stop this.  It did not matter what “Brexit means Brexit” meant to Mrs May or anybody else.  The meaning of Brexit had already been, in effect, determined.

If this was so then Mr May and her government cannot be to blame for any Brexit being a “hard” Brexit: there was no other choice.


These three elements, however, are indicative but not conclusive.

A “soft” Brexit was always difficult but it was not (and still is not) impossible.

The EU has adopted a consistent, united, transparent and coherent position but it remains only a position.  Political will could rebut the presumption of a “hard” Brexit, if such will existed.

The reason why a “hard” Brexit became inevitable (if anything is ever inevitable) after Mrs May became prime minister was because of what happened next.


In the crucial months following the referendum it is plain that the EU was getting to work on preparing for Brexit in terms of substantial policy and process.

By December 2016 the EU was ready to receive the Article 50 notification.  As this week’s series of posts at the FT sought to set out in detail and with links to sources, the EU knew what they wanted and how they would achieve it.

The UK, on the other hand, wasted time.

The civil service was already unprepared because of the former prime minister’s decision to prevent  any contingency plans being made in the event of a “leave” victory.

Mrs May then decided to spend the crucial early months creating two new Whitehall departments from scratch.  Before she was appointed, the Cabinet Office under Oliver Letwin was starting the job of preparing for Brexit (as he explained to a parliamentary committee).  But with the new departments everything had again to begin from scratch: weeks would pass before the departments were functioning.

This tinkering meant that by the time the key EU negotiation team TF50 was in place , the departments of Exiting the European Union and International Trade were barely up and running.

There were unsurprising reports of Whitehall turf wars with the the Treasury and Foreign Office.  But these tensions were not just the usual bureaucratic infighting: there would be natural conflicts between the two new departments over the relationship with the EU, as the terms of exit and new UK-EU relationship would affect new trade deals elsewhere.

So by December Michel Barnier and his TF50 team were ready; and by way of contrast, in January the UK suddenly lost Sir Ivan Rogers, its person in Brussels. leaving nobody in charge.

One reason therefore for the UK having to accept Brexit on EU’s terms was because of how it lost precious time with setting up conflicting departments rather than letting the the Cabinet Office and Foreign Office get on with it.


But more important that this administrative shot-in-a-foot was the Birmingham speech of Mrs May to Conservative party conference.

By ruling out freedom of movement and any jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, Mrs May closed down the possibility of a “soft” Brexit.

Had she chosen not to put these cards on the table, there was the possibility that full access to the single market could continue to be an option, if the four freedoms could somehow be accommodated.

The EU had only said that the quid-pro-quo of full access was acceptance of the four freedoms, not that it was inherently not on offer. (And, as far as I can tell, that is still the theoretical position.)

A more measured approach would not have made a “soft” Brexit any more likely – there was always a presumption against it – but the October speech meant that a “soft” Brexit became politically impossible.


A “soft” Brexit was once possible for the UK.

But now, unless something exceptional happens, Brexit will be on the terms prescribed by EU27, and this will mean a “hard” Brexit.


My book “Brexit What Everyone Needs to Know” is forthcoming from Oxford University Press.

38 thoughts on “Was a “soft” Brexit ever possible for the UK government?”

  1. With respect, although I would certainly agree with the general thesis, the term “Hard Brexit” is one of degree. It is difficult to believe that the EU will not offer the UK some form of agreement even if it is restricted to certain sectors. And it is not beyond contemplation that the UK, perhaps under a different government, might choose the EEA route. This might be politically possible if it was put forward as a transitional arrangement with further movement after say four years. Of course this solution would have been far easier if it had been announced immediately after the referendum.

    1. As far as I know, EU and WTO regulations prevent sectorial arrangements
      EEA requires freedom of movement. Accepting freedom of movement would make leaving the EU pointless (EEA members cannot arrange outside trade agreements either as far as I understand). Moreover Norway opposes the UK’s entry into the EEA for reasons of size and risk of imbalance

      1. EFTA/EEA states (i.e. Norway, Liechtenstein, Iceland) absolutely can organise their own free trade deals, either as a bloc or bilaterally.

        I don’t blame you for not knowing that, but it is indicative of the level of misinformation around the EA that is out there

  2. Illuminating analysis and not one i can disagree with.

    Various folks are looking at “Game Theory” type analyses, sop here’s mine:

    Each side can choose to compromise (C) or not compromise (NC). any NCxC results in a complete win for the NC side as the compromisers will end up agreeing to the NC terms.

    There are four outcomes. One (UK NC, EU C) we can discount at once. Of the other three, the one most would like is CxC. But the EU seems to be going for (UK C, EU NC). In order to avoid that outcome, the UK has to pitch for walking away (NCxNC) in order to persuade the EU to go for CxC.

    So in this election Theresa May has to get a mandate for something she doesn’t really want to do, which is hard brexit. Only by threatening hard Brexit can she get a chance at negotiating a beneficial compromise with the EU.

    Or as a friend says, you don’t get a good deal on a Turkish carpet until you actually walk out the shop.

    1. I think its more useful to see May as being radicalised for hard brexit.

      She’s not threatening with it, she integrated it with her aims as a politician. Much like when she became Home Secretary she became radicalised against cutting immigrant figures at any cost. She’s an extremist in a sense, pure and simple.

      Evidence has been plain to see: go home vans, deporting thousands of students illegitimately, insisting on including students into figures despite nobody agreeing with her, putting immigration over economic concerns, rewriting reports she doesn’t like, interfering with the press and putting party over country. It’s a scary ideological fervency. And being PM brings out all her worst instincts: autocratic, uncompromising, authoritarian and controlling. Bad times for a free democracy.

  3. The EU has got used to setting out negotiating positions with the UK which they know are not politically acceptable to the British public opinion. For a while it worked with British governments caving in on ratification of federalising EU treaties. But it failed with the results of Cameron’s renegotiation being decisive in the 2016 referendum and I believe is going to fail again here with the EU’s negotiating mandate that would be unacceptable to any sovereign state. The mantra about the indivisible four freedoms (which were not indivisible when most of Western Europe refused freedom of movement to Eastern Europe for 10 years) was they thought going to result in May accepting freedom of movement in return for single market membership. May ruled out single market membership instead. The latest demands should mean the Uk simply walks out of exit talks and trades under WTO rules which will see the Uk collect more is customs duties than the EU does on UK-EU27 trade. For a deal to be worthwhile to the Uk it has to be better than the walk-away position of WTO most-favoured-nation status. Clearly the EU has made that impossible so it should be no surprise what happens next.

    1. So much to argue with in this post…

      “The EU has got used to setting out negotiating positions with the UK which they know are not politically acceptable to the British public opinion.”

      The EU has not negotiated with the UK for four decades. The UK has negotiated with other member states within the framework of the EU, and about the EU, but not quite WITH the EU. As an aside, it is perhaps also worth considering that many of the UK’s opt-outs and exceptions drew considerable ire in other EU capitals as well – it wasn’t as if the UK was singled out by the EU for bullying.

      “…would be unacceptable to any sovereign state.”

      How so? The only thing the EU has done is set out the logical conclusions of the UK’s decision to leave, in two stages: the exit agreement and the future relationship.

      The exit agreement is relatively simple. Like any divorce, an agreement needs to be reached with regard to the house, the money and “the children” (EU/UK citizens). The process is largely legalistic, even if there might be some acrimony about particular arrangements. Moreover, it is a process to which the UK not only agreed as a signatory of the Treaty, it helped create it (although perhaps not with the idea that it would be ever used).

      The future relationship is more political, and less legal. That means that options are much more open, as is the complexity of an arrangement. A problem that is largely been overlooked in British public discourse is the fact that there will be a considerable asymmetry between the EU and the UK. The EU merely loses a member state (albeit an important one). Its governance structures remain largely intact. Subject to the results of the French election, there ample political support for its continuation within the EU27. In the Netherlands and Germany, for instance, Euroskepticism declined markedly as the fall-out of Brexit started becoming clear.

      In contrast, the UK faces a triple loss. First, it loses the rule making capacity that is now being exercised by Brussels – on the whole effectively and efficiently. Those of us working in international law and regulation will know that nations around the world look to the EU for inspiration on how to govern their markets. One reason for this is the fact that the (admittedly often arduous) process of EU rule making actually tends to result in high-quality regulations. These are often found in unsexy market segments, such as phytosanitary standards, but nevertheless crucial in ensuring markets function. The UK will have to invest heavily to rebuild this capability at home.

      Second, the UK loses regulatory equivalence with the largest unified market in the world. For the life of mee, I do not understand why everyone seems to focus on the potential tariffs between the EU and the UK. Tariffs are relatively easy, relatively low, and therefore relatively unproblematic. In contrast, a lack of regulatory equivalence or recognition will mean that it is no a priori clear that UK goods and services can be exported lawfully to the UK at all. This will result in two possible consequences: (1) increased border procedures, with all the attendant problems (such as the M20 Car Park near Dover), or (2) their production will shift to an EU member. The only way to attenuate this bilaterally would be sector-specific commitments to regulatory equivalence, and this will likely mean the UK remains subject to EU rules and ECJ jurisdiction in those areas.

      Third, the UK loses the relationships with the rest of the world which were managed through the EU. This includes a raft of free trade agreements, but also bilateral and multilateral arrangements concerning, for instance, civil aviation rights. As with domestic rule making capability, the UK will have to invest heavily to rebuild those relationships.

      In short, for the EU, Brexit is a comparative nuisance, whereas for the UK, it requires a profound transformation of its political and economic structure. Note that none of the above implies the EU seeks to “punish” the UK in some way. It is merely an enumeration of the logical consequences of the British decision to leave the Union. It is quite amusing to see how Leavers will describe “Remoaners” as oversensitive snowflakes, and consequently launching tirades against the EU for having the gall to insist that headquarters of EU institutions be located in an EU member state.

      Now, once the UK has left the EU as per the exit arrangement, it is automatically and logically a “Third State” – that is what Brexit means. In other words, the EU will have the same legal relationship with the UK that it will with Chile, Japan or Tanzania. Any future formalised relationship will therefore proceed on that basis. Note that that period to that relationship doesn’t necessarily have to be long. Theoretically, it’s perfectly possible that, if negotiations on the exit agreement proceed well, a future relationship agreement can be hammered out that will go into effect a minute after midnight on Brexit Day.

      From the European perspective, the basic principles are clear:
      – More benefits need to be be matched with more obligations.
      – Some obligations are indivisibly connected (such as the Four Freedoms, or Single Market membership requiring ECJ/EFTA Court jurisdiction)
      – while its stance is obviously subject to internal bargaining, the Union acts in a united manner externally (in the same way that one doesn’t see California, Sichuan, Hokkaido or Saskatchewan turn up in international trade negotiations).

      These principles obviously have been acceptable to some sovereign states, Norway, Iceland and Switzerland among them.

      “Four freedoms (which were not indivisible when most of Western Europe refused freedom of movement to Eastern Europe for 10 years)”

      There were good reasons to have a period of transition after the ex-Socialist countries joined, in particular the enormous gap between living standards and salaries there and in the rest of the Union. Nevertheless, the objective has consistently been that all four freedoms would apply fully after that period of transition.

      “The latest demands should mean the UK simply walks out of exit talks and trades under WTO rules … For a deal to be worthwhile to the UK it has to be better than the walk-away position of WTO most-favoured-nation status.”.

      The WTO only covers trade. Trade is important, but it is far from the entirety of the current relationship. Solutions will also need to be found on matters as diverse as mutual recognition of qualifications and diplomas, the right to emergency healthcare, security cooperation, mutual legal assistance, scientific funding, etc. I’m not saying it is impossible, but it seems imprudent to either overlook the enormous complexity of the task or reduce it to simple soundbites.

    2. “The latest demands should mean the Uk simply walks out of exit talks and trades under WTO rules which will see the Uk collect more is customs duties than the EU does on UK-EU27 trade.”

      Are you sure about this?

      It will depend on the schedules that the UK submits. The UK could simply mirror the EU’s schedules, i.e. making it reciprocal – but I think that it unlikely because of WTO MFN rules. The UK is in a weak position, because it will have to agree on the divorce before it asks for access to the SM. The drgree of access it offers to the EU is its own choice, but under MFN rules, it cannot set different tariffs according to georgaphy i.e. the EU one rate and NZ another (unless there is a comprehensive FTA registeerd with the WTO).

    3. The 4 freedoms have become indivisible with the opening up of eastern Europe. To put it simply, these countries don’t have much to sell in the way of products and services but a lot in the way of labour. So the equation is simple, for the UK to access the Polish/Romanian market to sell its mortgages and life insurance policies, it must accept for these countries to be able to sell their labour on the British market. No freedom of people, no access for services, otherwise what would be in it for them?
      The UK, a main player in the EU let’s not forget, has pushed for this situation for 2 reasons
      a) Prevent former Eastern countries from falling back into the clutches of Russia
      b) Develop on the EU territory a low cost manufacturing area (by the mid-90ies, most of the UK manufacturing had gone), to compensate for possible future instability of trade with China and India
      As a result, Poland (and other neighbouring countries) became massive recipients of EU funds (in order to bring their infrastructure to standard)
      Incidentally, do not expect the UK leaving a £8bn hole in EU finances to be a major problem for France, Germany, Italy or Spain. Their industries will be only too pleased to get back some of the manufacturing that the UK pushed eastwards, for instance ; Poland might see its subsidies considerably reduced. Funnily enough, Euroscepticism has recently been growing in Poland, so, like in Sunderland, we might all soon witness the wonders of karma at work.

  4. Unless something exceptional happens. I.e. May loses her seat. Would other contenders for PM (Davis/Bojo) be so hung up on Freedom of Movement? I doubt it.
    If May at Home Office had enforced EU provisions against migrants without work the referendum might not have been so poisonous.
    My view is that she rather than the Tories as a whole is the biggest problem for the UK.

  5. … and I’d just add that May’s focus on scrapping Freedom of Movement is absolutely spot on. The European Commission predicted an increase in the UK population between 2013 and 2050/60 of 16 million to 80 million people, of which just over half is immigration. That’s an increase of roughly the population of the Netherlands (pop 17m) and so, one would think, would require an additional infrastructure roughly equal to the infrastructure of the Netherlands. That’s 5 cities over 250k, including one of 800k, its 7 major teaching hospitals, 10 other major hospitals, at least 10 universities, 400 train stations, hundreds of miles of motorways, a major international airport plus several smaller ones, and not forgetting 7.7 million households.

    I’ve not heard a single economist, journalist, or other commentator discuss how we go about doing this. What I have heard is lots of people moaning about the lack of houses, pressure on public infrastructure etc without connecting the fact that if you bring in the population of a city the size of Newcastle every year and don’t build the equivalent of a city the size of Newcastle, everything is going to creak at the seams.

    Perhaps its because Theresa May studied Geography that she is so keen on cutting immigration.

    1. As immigrants are net contributors to the economy, you take the additional money generated by their input to the economy and you spend it on the required infrastructure, and not use it for tax cuts.

      1. Si – “As immigrants are net contributors to the economy”

        Whilst this seems a reasonable statement I would say that lots of things that seems to be true aren’t when the facts are uncovered, so before we can take this as a statement we can rely on, some work needs to be done.

        1. We collect practically no data on EU migration, so have no idea who is here. The last ONS figures said a number of 50k was within measurement error.

        2. Given we have no idea who is here, the oft-repeated statement that its young people with no children cannot be verified. Local observation here in the SE would suggest they are having children, and their parents are coming over too, so the “young people” may just be a vanguard of wholesale migration.

        3. It isn’t enough to say an immigrant comes here and works, so that’s a net benefit. Their working may push a native person out of work, or lower wages meaning the state pays out more in working tax credits. There needs to be an overall calculation.

        4. If migration turns out not to be a net benefit but a net drain, then we are well and truly stuffed as we cannot undo this in any humane way.

        And another thing … when giving 500 million people FOM turned out not to solve our medical skills shortage, we recruited from the Philippines and Indonesia. Surely rather than just cherry-picking their skilled staff we should have given these countries a Freedom of Movement deal? After all, if giving 500 million people free access to the UK is good for the economy, then giving 1000 million people the same access must be a really good. Strangely, I haven’t heard anyone saying we should open up FOM to other nations as this would be a massive economic benefit. Hence, it is all about creating a European state, not about economic benefits.

        Finally, no-one anywhere has presented a realistic plan to build said cities, hospitals, etc, Labour have said they will build 1 million homes in 5 years, but no-one anywhere, not even Labour, believe they will do this. But this is what would have been needed with FOM every 5-year term for the next 7 terms. And the first million is the easy million.

  6. I think this reflect political reality, but it was far from inevitable.

    If Britain had indicated, during campaign or afterwards that soft Brexit was possible then the EU would have responded to that.

    EEA terms, with single market and “four freedoms” but outside EU, no ECJ would have been a sensible compromise and I cannot see EU refusing that. Perhaps Norway: in single market but outside Customs Union so David Davis would have his trade deals?

    But during the campaign it was clear that was impossible: immigration and control of immigration became a shibboleth.
    And EU responded to that clearly expressed red line.

    With a different leave campaign, or perhaps in future that might come to pass.

  7. Forget soft brexit, a reformed EU was not just on the table, it’s in motion as we speak. This makes it all the more painful that the UK has manufactured the very limiting situation it is in.

    There is plenty of appetite throughout Europe to modify the criteria around freedom of movement. Britain has not employed the right levers to achieve reform, an approach that required consensus building and aims that benefit the whole of the EU rather than merely existing to benefit political aims in the UK.

    Instead we have gotten a continuation of single-minded Britain-first politics and the UK just looks increasingly inept and childish as a result.

    How different things might have been if a strong and stable party leader would have talked to the British people in a firm but adult-like way.

    “We hear your concerns about immigration. Successive governments allowed our economy to shape around the benefits of freedom of movement, but we did so irresponsibly. We have to make some hard admissions. We did not properly anticipate the growth in population, or plan for it. Not enough houses were built, not enough money was invested in public services and the money that was invested was not managed as well as we hoped. We didn’t invest in our own people and offer the right level of training. Poorer communities were not given the tools to deal with changes. We didn’t do enough to instruct employers to offer fair contracts and fair wages. We got away with this because we had easy access to an excellent EU workforce. Our economy became dependent on it. Over the long term the side effects have now come to ahead. It requires a change in direction.

    Strong and stable leaders take responsibility and do what is in the national interest.

    We recognize that the country and the economy needs to reform itself to better support its people. A strong and stable economy is a corner stone to this. Much is at stake. Leaving the customs union and the single market now would make the country poorer and make it all the more difficult to enact the kinds of changes the public needs, as the transition would exact a heavy price. It also risks harming the people in Europe and their economies. But I, as your strong and stable leader will start the process of correcting the failings of previous governments. It starts by admitting there are no easy solutions.

    We will go to our European partners and make one more concerted effort to seek measures that will assist the UK and fellow member states in allowing it to rebalance its economy and public services in the face of rapid population growth (temporary emergency break, reduced access to public funds for EU nationals, additional requirements to enter the UK), while launching new policies to help communities and workers across the UK. With a mandate from the electorate to affect a departure from the EU, we will have employed every effort and allowed every opportunity for our partners and Britain to achieve the most desirable scenario going forward.”

    Of course this is fantasy drivel. Instead our strong and stable leader is indulging in the oasis described by lunatic brexiteers. A world were European courts magically cease to matter and far-away economies trip over themselves to make uniquely pro-British trade deals in the space of a few days.

    It’s more appealing than dealing with reality and having to convey such realities to the public. There only defence is that the public hasn’t shown it can’t be told hard facts and accept it. And the vicious circle of lies and distortion continues for another generation. And it will probably involve the EU being the baddies.

    Brexit, in a nutshell, is the country and its political class holding the EU accountable for British failings. For all the reasons to leave the EU, the UK is leaving not because of its biggest faults (of which there are many), but because one of its biggest successes was poorly managed.

    1. One can even go further with regard to immigration: the UK had and has considerable powers to limit free movement that it has not, or not fully used.

      At the time of the 2004 enlargement, “old” Member States were permitted to institute migration safeguards and limitations for seven years. The UK (as well as Sweden and Ireland) chose not to avail themselves of those powers.

      EU law also provides considerable continuing powers to manage free movement. Most importantly, EU migrants have to be self-supporting after three months in situ, and member states are permitted to order those who’re not to return to their country of origin. However, the UK does not track or register EU migrants, and consequently has never used this power. Moreover, in the case of fraud or abuse, migrants can be prosecuted and removed as well. Again, the UK does not track EU migrant use of its welfare system, and so has not used this power.

      Most in the UK seem to be be unaware of these powers. However, when David Cameron decided to tackle what Guy Verhofstadt called “a catfight in the Tory Party” with the “renegotiate” bit of his political theatre, it meant that he sabotaged his own potential for succes: the other members could not give him what he wanted because he had it already.

    2. Perfect comment Peter, that’s exactly what should have happened. The worst thing about Brexit for me is how disappointing so many of my fellow citizens are, I thought we were a sensible and pragmatic nation apart from a lunatic fringe. Sadly this seems not to be the case.

  8. The implications of the October speech were not — as you imply — an unintended consequence or a mistake. They were obvious at the time. I remember watching it and being delighted.

    What you call “a more measured approach” would have been, in substance, an attempt to ignore the referendum result.

    1. How so?

      The 51.8% of voters who opted for Leave was a mish-mash of Lexiters (“Leave to get a better deal”), folks who wanted a reversion to something like the old EEC, some who wanted £350m/week for the NHS, some who actually believe in lies like Bendy Bananas, and, of course, some Little Englanders.

      Your final point is entirely fallacious; Theresa May’s Brexit pandered primarily to the latter group, ignoring everybody else. Far from negating the referendum, a more moderate position, or leaving avenues to soften the position futher down the line, would have been far more in keeping with the result. She put us on this path because she wanted to secure her own position against her BlueKIP Europhobe back benchers, and pander to that side of her voter base.

        1. It sounds like you only remember the bits which appealed to you – ‘Debates’ about immigration that basically amounted to Farage & co demonising anybody who didn’t look or sound WASP enough (and the substantial uptick in hate crime reports that followed)

          Did you forget the £350m bus already? Or would you rather ignore that particular deception, because it might force you to accept the landfill of lies (and pledges that were reversed less than twelve hours after the result was in), which Leave made a substantial plank of its campaign?

          1. Yes, the ability to limit EU immigration and end EU budget contributions are good examples of arguments premised on Brexit being a “hard” Brexit. But so are all the economic arguments made by the remain campaign (the mainstay of their case) which would have been meaningless if people were voting for “soft” Brexit.

            As a result both sides were clear that Brexit meant leaving the single market https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=9fDn0MvcHQ4

            This is why I said that T May’s approach should not be seen as a failure to take “a measured approach” but as her respecting the referendum result.

  9. I would suggest a further reason why a soft Brexit was not possible, it would be pointless. A soft Brexit would not be very different from what we have now, at least in key issues such as free movement of people and the ECJ. One key difference is that we would have no seat at the decision making table. Now why would anyone go for that?

    1. I suspect that a hard Brexit will leave us less control as we will still be governed de facto by EU law in order to deal with our main market with no control over that law. As for free movement, either our economy will contract or we will need equal numbers of immigrants but instead of being largely expats staying here for a certain time they will come from poorer countries seeking to re-settle and instead of coming from countries with broadly the same historical culture they will be from more alien and probably predominantly Muslim nations. All we will gain will be a few trade deals which will be dangerous (USA and China) or limited.

  10. The irreparable loss of Sir Ivor Richards was indicative of what happened, a deliberate lurch to the Right by Theresa May so great as to leave many convinced Brexiteers saying she was going much further than they had ever wished… all to hold her irreconcilably split Party together. She cannot mean much of what she says. This cannot be in the national interest. She has presented soft Brexit as an illogical possibility. It never was. She asserts that the vote (which was advisory only and on a single issue) confirms the will of the people to repatriate all decision-making from Europe (even on Euratom, Europol, etc.?!) and reduce immigration, almost it seems at all costs. Really? I do not think people are generally so stupid.

  11. Jack, another illuminating analysis. As you say, until May’s “shot-in-the-foot” speech (as you put it) at the Tory conference, there was the option of the UK aiming for a softer solution, for instance adopting either of the Norway or Swiss models or something similar. She chose to interpret the referendum as a categoric instruction to end to free movement and the jurisdiction of the ECJ. She did this, in my view, to appease the 20/30 hardliners behind her. A stronger, more confident PM would probably not have done so.

    It’s interesting that she justified calling the election by claiming that the Brexit process would be hindered by mischievous opposition parties (whereas so far they’ve voted like lambs in support): what she was really afriad of is that the ultra Eurosceptics would rebel at the hint of any compromise.

    Keep up the posts please!

  12. This is a very useful addition to your excellent three part Brexit series in the FT.

    Your use of the source material to demonstrate the extent to which the possibility of a Soft Brexit reduced early and quickly is very effective and I think correct.

    I also agree that the PM’s message at the Conservative Party Conference regarding FoM and the ECJ needlessly closed the door on a Soft Brexit.

    A few additional points.

    1. It is noteworthy how quickly the Brexit debate moved from Hard / Soft Brexit to Hard Brexit / No Deal. The abject failure of Labour — overall to be a credible party of opposition and specifically to define a coherent and detailed Brexit position — is partly responsible.

    If Labour was more popular and more organised, would be where we are today?

    2. The logical consequence of your analysis is that the two most likely outcomes are No Deal (a disaster) or a Mediocre Brexit (i.e. some degree of compromise leads to a sub optimal FTA).

    The BEANO scenario seems much less likely.

    (A caveat — I continue to believe that ongoing payments can help in this regard, although this is politically unpalatable.)

    3. If my point 2 above is correct, the UK is heading in a direction that will most likely result in a period of economic decline.

    The only questions then are

    A) Whether this occurs quickly (No Deal), or

    B) Over an extended period of time (Mediocre Brexit) and

    C) The extent and scale to which new trade deals can offset.

    4. Finally, while I’m sure this is not your intention, the logic of your analysis is supportive of the Reverser case. This is for two reasons.

    A) Because a “Good Brexit” may well not be achievable, and

    B) An attempt at reversal may in any case be the only way to break out of the EU’s negotiating parameters.


    1. Regarding Reversers: It’s interesting that where olive branches have been held out by EU reps, they’ve all been couched in terms of reversal… And, foolishly, those in power and in the media have chosen to see those as signs of weakness of position.

      While I think the Lib Dems are on the right track with a Final Deal referendum, I worry that a combination of apathy and MSM railroading would sink it, like the last time the LDs tried to have a referendum on constitutional change.

      But would it be better to have Parliament “decide”? A Tory party with a 50+ majority and a three-line whip would make the entire process worthless

      (Incidentally, in what I personally believe was one of the most convincing arguments in the original RCJ Article 50 hearing, Dominic Cooper QC pointed out that a logical consequence of A50 By Perogative was that any deal subsequently presented to Parliament for a vote would be a fait accompli, and unacceptable. This is why I’m following Jolyon Maugham’s Irish case so closely)

  13. You do not define what you mean by ‘soft Brexit’. But if you mean continued membership of the single market, this was politically impossible after the Referendum, regardless of the preferences of whoever happened to be Prime Minister.

    Why? Well, continued membership of the single market would mean continuing to accept the rules of that market even after the UK had lost its say (through its representatives on the council of ministers and through its MEPs) in what those rules would be. That was politically impossible, given that the Referendum had been won on the slogan ‘Take back control’.

    Attempting to stay in the single market would also have raised basic questions of democratic legitimacy. It is one thing for Parliament to agree to the UK’s being part of that market in circumstances where UK ministers and UK electors (through EP elections) can help shape its rules, which is the present situation. It would be quite another for Parliament to accept that the regulation of significant sectors of the economy would be entrusted to bodies on which the UK has no representation. I appreciate that Norway and Switzerland accept something like this but: (a) this is a source of deep controversy and political tension in those countries; and (b) however it may stand elsewhere, such an arrangement is wholly incompatible with British democratic traditions.

    These matters cut far deeper than questions about the organisation of Whitehall departments.

    I lament the result of the Referendum and fear that the economic outcome will be bloody. But the PM is to be commended for not wasting time seeking a halfway house which is politically unfeasible and philosophically untenable.

  14. “By ruling out freedom of movement and any jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, Mrs May closed down the possibility of a “soft” Brexit.”

    And by the same token ruling out freedom of movement is precisely what Labour has done. Starmer has been explicit. FoM ends on Brexit day. Labour is a hard Brexit party too.

    So we actually do have a Brexit coalition consisting of May’s Conservative Party and Corbyn’s Labour Party. The only opposition to hard Brexit is from minor or nationalist parties.

  15. I fear that the UK’s options diminished rapidly once the only feasible replacement PM turned out to be the Home Secretary of 6 yrs standing. One who had presided over what to her must have been a deeply embarrassing period of empty promises and failures concerning immigration. The nation has been really short of statesmen or stateswomen for far too long. I don’t even see any promising candidates appearing now. Brexit won’t be a car-crash. The car will rattle more, leak more, cost more to operate and its performance will disappoint.

  16. There was a possibility of a soft Brexit but it died quickly because of internal issues in both main parties, in U.K.

    At the time of the referendum, the official position of almost all UK apolitical parties was remain. UKIP With a single MP and DUP from Northern Ireland with 7 were the only united Parties in favour of leave.

    2 of the 4 countries of U.K. Voted remain, (3 of 5 if you count Gibraltar), the overall vote was legitimate but close 52:48, in the first few days Brexiteers like Dan Hannan made noises about how to unite the country and taking into account the views the remainers. At the point of the result you have a remain PM and Chancellor and (in theory) leader of opposition and devolved leaders in Scotland Wales and NI, grab the agenda and set out a vision based on Norway, or something like that, we get control of Fisheries, out of CAP. The UKIP single MP would have complained, the Mail and Express would have cried betrayal, but I suspect the Sun and Toygraph could have been brought on side as it is at least confirmed we are leaving.

    Of course what really happened is Cameron resigned almost overnight, both political parties descended into internal leadership battles, May as remainer was looking for the votes of leavers and Corbyn became more convinced the pro-EU Blairites were the enemy, meanwhile the pro-UKIP press set the agenda of out means out in every last detail and any compromise would be seen as betrayal. Yes May could have taken a different attitude at the time of the Tory conference in Sept but by then the agenda of what would be seen as politically acceptable had already been set.

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