In these febrile political times since the UK’s General Election it feels like something could break any moment in Britain’s arduous EU departure process. Rather than the inexorable track towards a Hard Brexit (with the threat of “no deal”) that looked likely prior to 8th June, the past few weeks have been characterised by uncertainty, a lack of confidence among the Brexiteers, and a lot of staking out of positions by backbench politicians and commentators.
Everyone has interpreted what the election has meant for Brexit according to their biases – from today’s hollow Spectator editorial trotting out the line that more than 80% of voters at the General Election backed pro-Brexit parties (hence Brexit is more inevitable than ever), via centre right commentators in CapX acknowledging things are not right, through to a renewed assertiveness of Labour’s moderates to argue for a softer Brexit (with consequences for their own careers).
Today the CBI – comparatively quiet for so long – entered the fray, arguing the UK ought to indefinitely stay in the Single Market and the Customs Union. The softest of soft Brexits, for an unlimited time. One may wonder whether such a Brexit would even be worthwhile – which quite possibly was their point.
The only thing missing so far has been anything decisive from any top character in the government. Davis pottered off to Brussels to start negotiations before the Queen’s Speech had been delivered, and his and May’s public utterances have been strikingly similar to anything before the election. The miserly offer on citizens’ rights was a sign of that. Davis, and indeed Hammond as well, rejected the CBI proposal according to the FT this evening. The most critical has been Hammond pouring cold water on the value of the UK signing its own trade deals post-Brexit.
But what if that unity of the government position were to change? And who could change their position?
May is too invested in her anti-immigration and anti-ECJ line to be the one to shift. David Runciman in LRB on Theresa May makes me further think any change from her is unlikely. She could be forced out, or resign of her own accord for her own reasons, but she will not cite a change of view on Brexit as the reason. Davis is a Brexit radical anyway – he actually still agrees with the government line. So he will not move. Johnson does not seem to know his mind, so if he were to change his view it would be met with a shrug “oh, Boris!” and make him even more of a laughing stock than he is already. If any junior minister, or indeed most of the anodyne cabinet, decided they no longer backed the official line, nothing much would happen.
Which brings us then to the central character in all of this: Philip Hammond.
Spreadsheet Phil looks at the numbers. He knows how damaging Brexit (and especially hard Brexit) would be to the UK economy. He is defending the hard Brexit, quick transition if necessary line because he has to, not because he thinks it is sensible. He was a Remainer, a little more vociferous than May, but nevertheless still rooted in that little Englander-ness that May shares. He cannot be described as a wet or a liberal.
If Hammond were to break with the official government line – and resign as Chancellor at the same time (which would be necessary due to cabinet collective responsibility) – that would strike an almost certainly fateful blow to the government’s Brexit line. The government is not replete with political heavyweights – he is one of the few they have. To lose Hammond now would leave May’s government mortally wounded, and the whole Brexit approach wounded with it.
So why would Hammond change his position and jump? He surely knows its only a matter of time before the worsening economic situation leaves him with a major problem as Chancellor. The CBI’s approach today more or less spelt that out for him. Were he to jump now, history would treat him kindly – the canary in the Brexit mine before the explosion ahead. Yes, he would be politically toast short term, but this government is going to be politically toast medium term anyway.
So here is your chance, Philip. The future of Brexit and how it will go, and indeed even the future of Britain in the EU actually is in your hands. Get on with it – jump!