More than a year after Britain voted to leave the European Union, Labour this week made its mind up on strategy: the official exit in 2019 is to be followed by a transition period where membership of the EU single market and customs union will be maintained. While the move has outraged Jeremy Corbyn’s traditional hard-Left support, who detest the single market as a neo-liberal project preventing state subsidies and nationalisations, the new strategy establishes Labour as the party of ‘Soft Brexit’ and may prove strategically shrewd. In the recent general election, Labour gained votes by being perceived as the party of Soft Brexit, though immediately after Corbyn showed his colours by sacking three frontbenchers for voting against the party line in favour of a Queen’s speech amendment calling for Britain to remain within the customs union and single market.
The shift in policy puts pressure on Theresa May. The Tories are divided, with Chancellor Philip Hammond privately calling for a strategy resembling the Labour policy though he recently committed, in a joint letter with Trade Secretary Liam Fox, to a limited transition period and no attempt to stay in the EU by the back door. The Tory strategy is not clear, but the Labour shift is thought to have emboldened pro-EU Tories. The mood in Westminster is clearly moving towards Soft Brexit.
The Leave camp cannot afford complacency. Since the victorious campaign, it has largely abandoned making the case for why Brexit can be a success, concentrating instead on utilitarian arguments about the feasibility of obtaining a ‘good deal’. At the same time, it is becoming increasingly clear that the EU is playing hardball and news from the negotiation room is reinforcing the view that the vote to leave was reckless and based on false promises. There is little hope for tangible positive results early on in the negotiations, and more posturing from Michel Barnier and other EU grandees only serve to portrait Brexit as a foolhardy project. Politics favour a move to Soft Brexit. A betrayal of the Leave vote and a waste of the historic opportunity is edging closer.
It is time for the Brexiteers to resume making visionary arguments in favour of Brexit and remind the 52% who voted to leave what they stand to gain. With Labour abandoning the playing field, the Tories should make the case for an open, freely trading, entrepreneurial economy, free from the constraining bands of EU bureaucracy. Remind the electorate that the apocalyptic economic consequences predicted to follow in the immediate wake of a Leave vote have failed to materialize. Use the arrogance of the EU bureaucrats in the negotiations to highlight the undemocratic apparatchik fiefdom that the EU has become.
The Tories have been running scared of the opposition since the general election, constantly attempting to align themselves with Labour policy and refusing to present an alternative vision. This is a strategy that will fail. Leave Labour to defend the EU bureaucracy if they so wish. The Tories should regain the momentum with a vision of Brexit with roots in the potential of free trade and enterprise, as opposed to the rules and bureaucracy flooding Britain from the continent. Allowing Labour to dictate the Brexit debate is not only bad politics, it is a betrayal of the electorate and a waste of a historic opportunity.