In every battle there are die-hards, last-ditchers, merchants of death or glory. Forty Tory MPs are lining up like lemmings to race to the Brexit cliff edge. They are writing an open letter that demands no fancy transitions or economic areas, no single markets, no pseudo-Brexits. For them, Brexit is the second coming. On the appointed day in March 2019, the dark cloud of Britain’s European age will roll away. Britain will jump off the cliff and fly free, into the warm golden sun of global free trade. Along with Icarus.
With every month that passes, the cliff edge nears and its reality becomes more ominous. This week came an early shudder of what is in store, with the EU legislation repeal bill. Hard Brexiters cannot mess about. If they want to disengage at once, they must concede massive extra powers to Whitehall – so-called Henry VIII clauses – by the hundred. Sensible parliamentarians are appalled at what is now proposed. This is no ordinary “statutory instrument” procedure. It is a massive transfer of power from legislature to executive, without so much as a clearly defined sunset clause to restrict its duration. If MPs can hold their nerve, they can delay this nonsense and insist on an orderly transfer of power from Brussels under a sensible transition. All else is silly play-acting.
Earlier this week, the former EU president Herman Van Rompuy was asked by the BBC to comment on the Brexit talks. He gave the same answer to every question: just pay up. He is “real EU”, a classic corporate entity. It does not really care about Europe’s economy or its borders or its misbehaving eastern bloc. It faces losing 20% of its income when Britain leaves. It cares about its budget. Give it the cash, said Van Rompuy in as many words, and Britain can have any Brexit it wants.
What that is remains genuinely open. There is no constituency in parliament or in the opinion polls for hard Brexit. Even on immigration, the polls suggest the issue is not numbers but details, notably pressure on public services. Yet British politics is now so entrenched, so polarised, that soft Brexit still lacks traction, wandering between free markets, customs unions and Norway options. There must be some sort of parliamentary coalition for the duration. I repeat the maths: 40 MPs is not a majority of 650. What are the other 610 doing about it?