Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Saturday 8 December 2018

MPs need to get real about Brexit

If, as is widely expected, MPs reject the deal that Theresa May has done with the EU, they will have put this country in a very dangerous position. I say this not to encourage acceptance of the deal, but to emphasise that this negative act needs to be accompanied by a collective positive one. If it isn’t then we either leave without any deal (an outcome that only the ill informed, the mad and the Brexiter wish for) or MPs will just end up accepting May’s deal.

Like annoying noise on a railway train, the best thing to do with complaints from Brexiters is to ignore them. Once May’s deal falls, they are no longer part of the equation. They will never get rid of the backstop unless there is No Deal. May extended the backstop to cover the whole UK and so now the UK is in the backstop until the EU says we can leave. The best way to look at what the Brexiters are doing is that they want to sabotage any solution so we leave with No Deal. Luckily we can ignore them if MPs, rather than May, is in control.

There seems to be a lot of talk about Norway plus a Customs Union as a potential way out once May’s deal is rejected. It is, after all, what any Prime Minister worthy of that title would have had in mind from the start, because it superficially appears something that could unite the 52% and 48%. But as I have argued before, thinking about compromises of this kind does not work with Brexit. Here is a not very pretty diagram that illustrates what I mean. It plots various options on two axes, economic welfare and sovereignty, in relation to where we are within the EU. (Staying in the EU is where the two axes cross i.e. zero on both axes.)

Leave voters wanted more control over events and a better life. That is what they were promised. That combination is just not possible by leaving the EU.

A compromise of sorts for Leavers would be to give them greater sovereignty at a very large economic cost to themselves and others. This is No Deal. It is not an option that most MPs can accept for very good reasons. Even if you believe the reports that some leavers would sacrifice everything for more control (I don’t), you cannot justify imposing that kind of cost on the other (more than) half of the country. It will only happen if MPs really screw things up.

May’s Deal is a large yellow square because it leaves many issues unresolved, partly in an attempt to keep Brexiters on board. Any deal May does will end Freedom of Movement (FoM), so you have a little more control if you never intend to work abroad, but a lot less control if you wanted this as an option. But any positive on this account is negated by making the backstop UK wide. By leaving the Single Market for services, it has a significant economic cost (details here, summary here).

The position of Norway plus a Customs Union, which is very similar to staying in transition or what I call Brexit in Name Only (BINO), is that it reduces as far as possible the economic cost of Brexit. However it quite clearly loses a lot of control compared to staying in the EU. In the EU we have a say and a veto over key issues, while with BINO there is no UK veto. I prefer to call this BINO rather than EEA+ or whatever because this name describes what it is.

To be clear, BINO is better than May’s deal (as the forward to this should perhaps have made clearer). They both give up sovereignty, but because BINO keeps us in the Single Market and Customs Union it is clearly better in economic terms. But once May’s deal falls at the first attempt, MPs need to come up with an alternative that commands a majority in the house if they are really going to take back control from ruinous May. Going back to renegotiate the deal, even if it were possible which seems unlikely, is not going to produce anything that is fundamentally different from the deal MPs reject.

If MPs want to take back control they will have to choose between a second referendum (or just revoking A50) and BINO. Which you prefer I suspect depends entirely on how you see the politics of Brexit. If you think the first referendum requires Leavers to have something to take away as a victory, then BINO is a price worth paying to avoid alienating voters. The problem with that argument is that the Brexiters and more importantly the press will be quick to point out that they now have even less control over their lives (they have been ‘cheated’), and for once they would be right. BINO can be seen as the ultimate insult to Leave voters: you asked to leave the EU, so we have technically done so, and we hope you do not notice that you now have even less of what you wanted Brexit to give you.


  1. Surely this analysis, while good, ignores the main political axis on which Brexit is actually to be measured, even though it goes largely unspoken: how much immigration is reduced.

    That's what May really cares about, and is also banking on most Leave voters really caring about too: that her deal will allow the UK to drastically cut EU migration and thus be sold as a victory in spite of basically any econonic or sovreignty consequences.

    What the public would actually make of it ten years down the line when the economy is in tatters but hey, at least there are fewer migrants, remains to be seen. But it's bizarre to me that what I see as a central part of the actual grassroots politics of Brexit keeps getting left out of the conversation.

    (For clarity I myself am pro-immigration, and also pro-Remain).

  2. BINO pronounced as Beano does sort of of sum it up.

  3. If a second referendum happens, could Labour alter the franchise to have sixteen and seventeen year olds vote as well as those British citizens who have been abroad for more than fifteen years, and those EU citizens in Britain who did not get a vote in the 2016 referendum?

  4. are you sure that a no deal Brexit gives more control?

    It would mean less control by the EU, but more blackmail by large corporations and a worse negotiation position for any international treaties including trade deals. Going into such negotiations you may have more control over your initial demands, but less on the outcomes of the negotiations.

  5. Well the sensible thing in this situation would surely be unilaterally to revoke A50, spend the next three years or so getting all our ducks in a line, and then leave again (if that's what we still wished to do), when we were much better informed and prepared.

  6. Dear Simon,
    Spent the weekend with some leavers (smart enough). On that very small sample I conclude and the split in opinion polls

    (1) We will go No deal before we go May deal, and May before anything else. Free movement is the lat touchstone.
    (2) Leavers dont believe No deal will hurt them, it will hurt only those that they think have it coming. (You, me, educated people who sneer at them and the young (put pride back into the country etc)
    (3) If it does hurt them, it will be someone else fault.

    There is no good outcome here.

    If we remain; these people will cry treason and fraud. We will have a dangerously volatile 40 % of the voting population who will vote on a single issue; there lies the route to fascism.
    If we remain, the remainers will not form such a block, we will split into factions as now. (See Labour, SNP, LibDem etc; all with their own variants).
    Sooner or later a majority will appear in parliament of leavers representatives, it will create a cancer that will eat democracy (see republican party).

    If we leave and as I believe we will with no deal, all hell breaks loose.
    1 Economy tanks, short lived euphoria of sticking it to elite vanishes. Total chaos at ports, severe effects on food supplies and some unexpected missing component will lead to 'deaths'
    (2) Scotland votes to leave the UK, in a no deal shit show, this is nailed on. (Whether its a good long term idea is beside the point, given the performance of Westminster who will defend it). Scotland like England will continue be riven into two warring factions.
    (3) Border poll in NI, if Scotland votes out, I see the poll given the unique nature of NI to be close fought (that may be literal)
    Each of these will fall like hammer blows on the UK in the space of months, well before any equilibrium after Brexit is established. It will be chaos on steroids.
    In such a scenario, the EU and the rest of the world will be in rush to deal with the UK, nor will UK be in a position to deal.

    The sense of betrayal will only further inflame passions here until such time as we are ungovernable.

    I think remain is disaster in medium term, leave now is disaster in short term.

    If we leave, remainers will be pissed and angry but once again unable to unite (unless Labour shifts its ground dramatically but I dont see that). As things turns south, they will be tempted to wash their hands of it, leading to increasingly concentrated fanaticism.

  7. This farce has turned into another farce, whilst we concern ourselves with the machinations of the two rightwing factions pretending to negotiate with another right wing faction, the real agenda is quietly continuing to dismantle the state. The real argument here is how long do we have to wait to get rid of this corrupt government so that we can rebuild our economy what is left of it of course.

    The longer the Tories remain in office the more damage they do to this country, and any sane person can see it all for what it is.

  8. "Leave voters wanted more control over events and a better life. That is what they were promised. That combination is just not possible by leaving the EU. "

    Well, unless one did leave the EU the smart way; first agree with France on reforms, then leave together to form EU 2.0 and invite the others to said EU 2.0 that got rid of some deadweight and old compromises that the two don't agree on.
    That would have required a diplomacy skill that was absent from Europe if not the world after von Bismarck's retirement, though.


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