Financial Times: Brexiters are refusing to accept their victory

05 March 2019

Hardliners now pose the biggest threat to the UK leaving the EU, writes Robert Shrimsley, for they stand in danger of losing everything by fighting on for a fiction.

[...] There were always fictions to the Leave campaign: that Brexit would solve the diverse grievances of its supporters; or that a deal would be easy. But the fiction now overshadowing all others is that Brexit was about restoring the UK as a great trading nation.

Free trade was never the big issue for most Brexiters. It was merely a useful response to the Remainer warnings of economic damage. If trade had been pivotal for them, they would by now understand the specifics of existing on World Trade Organization terms. They would know that the world is organising into trading blocs and that to be a mid-sized country outside one is to get the chlorinated end of the chicken.

If, in 2015, you had offered Leavers Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg the outcome now available through Prime Minister Theresa May’s agreement — an end to free movement of people and near total withdrawal from the primacy of European Court rulings — they would have accepted it with alacrity.

Yet they are now holding out over the UK’s right to escape the limits on trade that are part of the Irish backstop. They have turned an independent trade policy into the wheel on which their dream may be broken.

There are signs some Brexit insurgents can see this. The combination of a parliament ready to force a delay and a Labour support for a second referendum has persuaded many Brexiters that they need to find a way to back Mrs May’s deal. They also see the political danger in failing to deliver. “If we have to fight the euro elections, we would get walloped and it will revive [the UK Independence party],” said a senior Tory.

Hence the emollient noises coming from the Tory hardliners in the European Research Group. But the government should not get too comfortable.

Eight ERG lawyers stand ready to evaluate whatever the attorney-general Geoffrey Cox manages to wring out of Brussels. It might be a “joint interpretative” document. It might be an agreed exit process. They hope for something stronger, perhaps a plan under which both sides agree “reservations”, which then have some legal weight under international law. But none will offer the legal certainty they seek. The ERG will have to want to be persuaded.

The ERG has a point. The backstop is likely to bind the UK into a customs union for years, or force it to accept unsatisfactory trade terms in the next round of negotiations to avoid that. It leaves Northern Ireland subject to some EU law. It is far from ideal even for Remainers. For diehard Brexiters, as one said: “It’s the whole ball game”.

And yet, is it really the whole ball game? Another analogy would see the ERG as a blackjack player with a hand of 20, playing on to draw an ace. They are risking a winning hand in pursuit of a perfect one. They have persuaded themselves that the backstop negates Brexit, when it merely limits it. Fuelled by fictions and obsessed with betrayal, they can no longer see their win.

Events are too unpredictable to be sure that a second referendum or long delay will follow the death of the May deal, but ERG diehards are taking a huge chance. Remainers will be cheering them on in their defiance. They now represent the clearest threat to Brexit. [...]

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