So the polls were wrong about the election then. Erm, no, that’s an overly simplistic interpretation. Some polls (ICM for example) were very wrong, some polls (Survation, Yougov, Ipsos Mori to an extent) were right within the margin of error. The issue was that people expected the result to be a certain way and for the polling companies to repeat their 2015 error so they ignored polls that disagreed with those narratives as outliers. The election also didn’t fit another of the expected narratives, that it would be a battle between those wanting hard Brexit and “the sabateurs”.
The election started out as May saying “Give me a mandate to negotiate Brexit”. This put Labour in a tricky position, mostly because Labour’s position on Brexit is hard to communicate to the electorate. The Tories are in favour of close to the hardest possible Brexit, outside the single market with some sort of vague access to the customs union. Labour’s position is more subtle, there’s a promise to end freedom of movement (an idea supported by the Conservatives and some LibDems like Vince Cable) but the party is in favour of remaining in the customs union. This is often put across as “OMG, they say we must leave the single market”, but this position could be close to an interesting idea emerging from some in the EU, a Continental Partnership.
The Continental Partnership has been championed by the Bruegel Institute, a think tank with close links to Emmanuel Macron. The basic idea is for a group of non-member states participating in the single market but outside the political structures of the EU. Crucially this looser membership would also include a less stringent commitment to free movement, perhaps allowing a quota of workers to move either way each year. Others, such as William Hague, have suggested such a commitment could mean people would need to have a job lined up before moving. This Continental Partnership (CP) would be a good place for nations unhappy with deep political integration with the EU (UK, Switzerland) and also could incorporate EFTA members like Norway as the Bruegel proposal suggests a less one-sided relationship that the “do what we tell you for single market access” EEA deal that currently exists.
The EU’s “Brexit cannot be a success” position is not a vindictive statement about punishing the UK, but common sense. The EU can’t give the UK a better deal than current membership or other members may leave. However so long as it’s clear the CP would come with a possibly unattractive price, perhaps extracts a price in terms of contributions with little direct funding in return, limiting single market access for agricultural products and taking Euro clearing away from the City, then that requirement is fullfilled. The CP also has the advantage of a framework for formalising the UK’s relationship with Europe in a less awkward manner than the current Swiss set-up. It could also simplify the bundle of complex bilateral treaties with Switzerland if they were to also join the CP. Finally it would free the EU of UK influence on subjects where the UK is deeply irritating (integration, asylum) but keep economic links and security cooperation.
Domestically it would mean both parties giving up something they want from leaving the EU. The Tories would need to accept some EU regulations on products, Labour would need to dil back its plans for state aid.
This position, as you can see, doesn’t translate well to the side of a bus. It could however strike a chord with a large fraction of the UK population.
I am a freak. I went into the EU referendum strongly favouring Remain largely on the basis of European identity. The problem is, not many people agreed with me. Since the referendum, there’s been a move by people with similar beliefs to me to transpose their own identity on to all of “the 48%”. This is problematic, only half of remain voters in a recent YouGov survey supported resisting Brexit and fighting a second referendum. The other half grudgingly want to get on with it. Given how arguing for second independence referendum has undoubtedly harmed the SNP in Scotland I’m not sure arguing for another referendum is such a good idea at the moment. Also, the public are a bit sick of elections, as Brenda from Bristol memorably said “their’s too much politics going on at the moment”.
The YouGov survey however has a subtle bias, it assumes all Leave voters are hard Leave voters. I’m not so sure that’s the case. When presented with the prospect of a soft Brexit many will be receptive to the idea. Around a quarter of Leave voters prioritise trade over immigration and only 16% say immigration is their hard priority for a deal. That’s why I suspect a soft, Continental Partnership style deal could be a possible middle way between ignoring the referendum result and marching into the Atlantic yelling “No deal is better than a bad deal!”.
With the government depending on DUP votes, and thus being tied to a party that has a policy opposing a hard border in Ireland, no deal is dead. There isn’t the public appetite for another referendum. The threat of EU disintegration has also subsided, the Eurozone is growing, Macron and Rutte have dealt blows to the far right and Merkel looks on course to stay in power with either a Jamaica or Grand Coalition. Only Five Star in Italy look like a possible threat to the EU at the moment and they just got thumped in local elections. Perhaps now is the time to look for a middle way on Brexit that will satisfy as many as possible.