The general election proves there is no appetite for a hard Brexit – and now is the perfect time to change our minds. After Theresa May’s disastrous election gamble, it is clear the British public have rejected her plans for an extreme job-destroying Brexit. MPs are now scrambling to find a softer option that includes staying in the free trade area. However, once the sad reality of this Norway-type deal becomes clear, who is to say the people won’t change their minds again? The option of remaining in the EU must be put back on the table.
Rewind one year to the EU referendum campaign. The Vote Leave team told us that Brexit didn’t have to mean the end of the single market membership. As fellow MEP and Tory Brexiteer Daniel Hannan confidently said: “Absolutely no-one is talking about threatening our place in the Single Market.” Both Switzerland and Norway were pointed to as examples of rich and successful societies that Britain could copy. Arron Banks, billionaire UKIP- backer, tweeted: “Increasingly, the Norway option looks the best for the UK”.
After the vote, they quickly changed their tune. Farage and his gang now say anything but an economically suicidal exit from our most important trading relationship as a betrayal of the people. In a desperate attempt to claw back lost votes from the far-right the Prime Minister tried to surf this wave of anti-EU feeling and became UKIP-light. Fortunately, on June 8th most British people refused to get behind the Tories and Mrs May’s Brexit plans lie in tatters. In her cabinet, voices calling for continued membership of the single market are gaining confidence and even senior Leave figures such as Michael Gove are now refusing to rule out cross-party cooperation on the Brexit issue.
In some ways, the Norwegian option does give back the control that some Brits were craving. Norway controls its own fishing, and it has more flexibility on farming exports and in its trade with other countries. However, there are serious problems with the deal they have struck with the EU. Most importantly, they pay their membership fees but have no say on the rules of the club. They must accept EU environment, energy, employment and social policies, budget decisions and product standards without any representation in the European Parliament or the Council of Ministers. For Norway, with its large oil fund and small-country mindset, this compromise is just about acceptable. However, for a country like the UK to be a rule-taker and not a rule-maker would be difficult to swallow for both Leavers and Remainers. It is a messy compromise that leaves everybody unhappy.
Theresa May has been described as a 'dead woman walking' by George Osborne (Photo: Stefan Wermuth/Reuters) There is, of course, another option. Whisper it, but we have not yet left the EU. Why not just stay where we are? That way we keep the economic benefits of the single market and get a meaningful say in its future direction. The EU’s economy, unlike ours, is starting to look up, and with the defeat of the eurosceptics in Holland and France there is a renewed swagger across the channel. Let us join our closest allies once again and forget this sorry period in British history. Of course, after Article 50 was triggered in the House of Commons back in March, the timer has already been set. Each tick brings us closer to the cliff edge. Lawyers are already bickering about whether we could turn around or not. What is clear is that it if we could change our minds, it would require the ok of 27 other EU governments.
But would they really say no to their third biggest member returning to the club, genuinely remorseful and with a renewed, positive attitude? What a political win that would be from their perspective - strengthening the EU for decades more. But hang on a minute. What about the democratic side of this? Surely, the UK voted for Brexit and it is our job as politicians to deliver it? Well I represent the people of Scotland who, as we all know, voted by a huge majority to stay in the EU. I am just doing my job.
As for my other British colleagues, I would argue that this last election has shown how politics is a fickle business. May’s slim majority evaporated in a matter of months, precisely because she embraced Brexit so warmly. Now that the dust has settled on the 2016 campaign and voters can clearly see the lies that they were fed, I am convinced that a second referendum, if held, could easily swing back the other way. The Tories’ defeat last week provides a unique opportunity to change Britain’s direction.
Obviously, in a choice between a bad Brexit and one that’s even worse, the bad Brexit wins out. But these are not the only two options. The people changed their minds on Theresa May, why not on Brexit too?
The Daily Record, June 17 1917