Brexit: choosing which hearts to break

At 2:05 in the below video, at the corner of the shot, you can see Newsnight’s Evan Davis holding his head in his hand. The interchange with Leave campaigner Daniel Hannan on BBC Newsnight, following the UK’s vote to leave the European Union, was one example of how the frustrations resulting from a binary in/out choice will affect both sides.

Vote Leave’s slogan ‘Let’s take back control’ was a simple appeal to people concerned with a loss of sovereignty on a range of issues, principal among them immigration. Taking back control of our borders, with a points-based immigration system among the proposals, was a major feature of the debate. That one of Vote Leave’s most prominent politicians would be arguing for a Norway-like settlement where the UK can accept free movement of labour in exchange for access to the single market clearly presented a rowing back, if not a complete reversal.”The public have been led to believe that what they have voted for is an end to free movement,” responds Mr Davis.

But such clashes are inevitable. Voters on both sides of the argument made their decision for a wide, wide range of reasons, from wanting to protect our economy to not liking Jeremy Hunt very much. It is now up to our politicians to choose which hearts to break, while, overall, respecting the people’s democratic will.

Row back on immigration

It is also worth reflecting on Boris Johnson’s much-derided Telegraph article following the vote, in which he made a series of promises which seemed optimistic, to put it mildly.

“British people will still be able to go and work in the EU; to live; to travel; to study; to buy homes and to settle down. As the German equivalent of the CBI – the BDI – has very sensibly reminded us, there will continue to be free trade, and access to the single market…

“The only change – and it will not come in any great rush – is that the UK will extricate itself from the EU’s extraordinary and opaque system of legislation…”

Dreamland stuff. But clearly the government is hopeful that access to the single market can be retained despite the UK leaving the union and limiting migration from it. That is despite clear opposition from European leaders to the UK being able to retain the benefits of membership without any of its costs and obligations.

So one option is to accept, as Mr Hannan suggested, some element of free movement in exchange for a similar trading relationship. The Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn is already in this camp, preferring an impact fund for those areas where jobs are affected, as he explained on the Marr Show last weekend. Mr Corbyn is keen to avert a ‘hard’ Brexit where the country’s manufacturing jobs are harmed, and the UK is forced to become (even more of) a corporate tax haven on the edge of the union.

But any concession here would mean disappointing those voters who believed a vote to leave was a vote to keep our fellow Europeans out. This could be very damaging to the already pitiful political engagement among the electorate, intensifying anti-establishment feeling. But it might also prove the right thing economically, and in the medium term politically.

Hard means hard 

The other option would be to dash the hopes of those voters who believed Mr Johnson’s promises that the UK would not lose out economically in the short term, that it would retain ‘access’ to the single market. The free trade optimists such as Liam Fox, the man charged with negotiating the deals, present ‘hard Brexit’ as an opportunity for UK business, rather than a restraint.

Much was made of the economic forecasts before the referendum that tried to calculate how bad an impact this would have on the UK’s economic growth over the medium term. As we know, this negative message did not cut through, but that doesn’t mean the forecasts should be jettisoned. It would be inadvisable to ignore the weight of academic opinion on a matter of such national importance simply because of how this message was used in a flawed political campaign, or worse as part of a general rejection of ‘experts’.

What is fair to say is that the short-term expectations for what would happen immediately after a leave vote have been confounded by the UK’s economic performance, but this could be attributed to the immediate postponement of (even the) start of the negotiating process to some-time-next-year. Brexit campaigner John Redwood argues that there is no reason to expect a negative economic effect from the start of the exit negotiations, and that the market has already priced it in. This feels to easy: it is an incredibly difficult risk to discount, given we don’t yet know the UK’s starting position. The loss of purchasing power with sterling’s fall is a foretaste of what is to come.

But Theresa May’s administration may well decide a political obligation to exit the EU fully is worth some economic pain. It will prove hard thereafter for opponents to prove the how the counterfactual (that the UK had remained within the EU), would have played out, anyway.

You’re right from your side

It is very difficult to foresee an outcome where all sides can be pacified. Politicians can make statements about respecting the will of the people but ultimately they will have to take a position. Mr Corbyn’s stance will no doubt lose him votes in a general election but at least he knows who he will disappoint: those voters who object to immigration on nationalistic grounds, rather than because their jobs or communities are being affected. But his is a party that looks currently to pursue principle over power. Ms May, who has demonstrated her preference for the latter over the former, will soon have to choose which voters she can afford letting down.

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