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Reality bites: Britain’s mind is changing as news worsens

The Leave trajectory has run into the sand, says JANE MERRICK. Now it is not just a ‘no deal’ that is on the cards, it’s a ‘no Brexit’

The morning after the referendum, after the initial shock of the result had subsided, the mood of Leave campaigners could not have been more confident or optimistic.

Grand plans were hatched to make June 23, a national holiday. Nigel Farage talked of Britain knocking the ‘first brick’ out of the EU wall – soon to be followed, he declared, by the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, Austria and Italy.

Because the forecasted Remain victory had been so unexpectedly overturned, the polls and experts caught out, ‘Project Fear’ defied, anything seemed possible.

In the weeks that followed, pro-Brexit ministers spoke of how easy it would be to forge new free trade deals around the world. Theresa May hailed what she called the ‘red white and blue Brexit’, as though draping the flag over our withdrawal gave it an added air of invincible Britannia. Warnings by Remainers were submerged by a seemingly unstoppable Brexit tide.

Now, 16 months on – as reality bites – that tide has receded, leaving only hardline Brexiteers marooned. The post-referendum confidence of Leave supporters, reflected by public opinion, is being replaced by doubts. Blind optimism has been overtaken by the reality of a government that cannot negotiate past first base.

To the Leave-supporting public, what seemed like the idyllic future of a free-trading, bureaucracy-free, border-controlled future is fading fast. In its place, the prospect of planes being grounded, food shortages and high prices in the shops is materialising. And with it, Brexit is becoming less likely.

A no Brexit scenario is not just wishful thinking by Remainers in denial. The last 16 months tells the story of Brexit’s progress – or lack of it: a downward trajectory into the sand.

The UK voted Leave because voters fell for a big picture idea whose detail had not been thought through or debated, and because they believed a £350m lie that has fallen apart.

The government incompetently goes into Brexit talks with no idea of how to get what it wants, to the point at which the Prime Minister is now openly discussing the prospect of a ‘no deal’.

Arch-Brexiters like Bernard Jenkin talk up the prospect of a ‘no deal’ so they can blame Remainers for Brexit’s failure. The pro-Remain camp talk of ‘no deal’ in the hope of shaking some sense into the public and our politicians that Brexit is going to be a disaster for Britain. Now it is not just a ‘no deal’ that is on the cards, but a no Brexit. To see how Britain inches towards this prospect, consider the way political discourse has changed since the heady days of the summer of 2016. The new Prime Minister, with three leading Leave campaigners in key positions of Foreign Secretary, Brexit Secretary and at International Trade, talked of ‘Brexit means Brexit’ and ‘we are going to make a success of it’.

These were not just simplistic mantras. David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, wrote in July 2016: ‘We can do deals with our trading partners, and we can do them quickly… I would expect that the negotiation phase of most of them to be concluded within between 12 and 24 months.’

Davis listed nations that he claimed were queuing up to do business with the UK as if he were an overly wishful child writing to Father Christmas: ‘Trade deals with the US and China alone will give us a trade area almost twice the size of the EU, and we will also be seeking deals with Hong Kong, Canada, Australia, India, Japan – and many others.’

This mindset, which seemed to pay no heed to how tortuous and long-running international trade negotiations are, or that the EU might not want to make it easy for a country taking its ball off the pitch but still wanting to score goals, was not confined to DexEU.

Liam Fox, the International Trade Secretary, wrote in summer 2016 that a free trade deal with the EU – one in which the UK would have access to the single market but without any of the onerous obligations of EU membership – ‘should be one of the easiest in human history’.

The Tory conference that autumn was bristling with similar self-belief. But as winter approached, the government got its first reality check when the High Court ruled that parliament should have the final vote on the triggering of Article 50, which would kickstart the Brexit process. The government appealed but in January this ruling was upheld by the Supreme Court. Brexit was not going to be so cut and dry after all.

A week before the Supreme Court ruling, the Prime Minister set out her vision for Brexit in her Lancaster House speech. It was a Hard Brexit plan, committing to leaving the single market and for the first time raising the prospect that the UK could walk away from talks empty handed.

‘No deal is better than a bad deal,’ she said. This attempt at hardball was designed to keep the Conservative Eurosceptics on side and send a message to Brussels that the UK would be a tough negotiator. But it was also an acknowledgement of how – in contrast to the optimism of her ministers six months earlier – Brexit was not going to be easy.

In February, the government won its vote to trigger Article 50 the following month, but that was largely thanks to the opposition’s decision to fall into line – Labour’s position has changed significantly since then to something altogether more sceptical.

As if Brexit, on its own, were not complicated enough, May called an election to give herself what she thought would be a stronger hand in negotiations with Brussels. She tried to use a difficult dinner with European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker in April, right in the middle of the election campaign, for party political purposes.

But Juncker told aides he left the Downing Street dinner ‘ten times as sceptical as I was before’. The high stakes decision to call an election right at the start of the Brexit process backfired, thanks to a woeful Conservative campaign, and May lost her majority.

As formal talks began between Davis and Michel Barnier, it was becoming clearer that the UK’s Brexit plan – what had been revealed months earlier as ‘having our cake and eating it’ – was just not going to work with the EU.

After all, why would Brussels make things easy for a member state to exit the bloc whilst retaining some benefits without paying a price? Five rounds of negotiations later, up to this week’s EU summit, the talks have not progressed to the second stage of discussing a future trade deal because agreement cannot be made on the divorce settlement.

The statement released by Juncker and May after their dinner on Monday evening announced that both sides wanted talks to ‘accelerate’ – but there has been no real change in the negotiating position on either side.

May has gone from declaring in January that ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’ to making clear in the Commons last week that preparations are being made for a ‘no deal’ scenario. She could not even bring herself, in an interview with Iain Dale on LBC, to say she would vote Leave tomorrow.

To add insult to injury, the former campaign director of Leave, Dominic Cummings, has described Brexit negotiations as in a ‘dire state’ and accused May and Davis of ‘grotesque uselessness’. Parliament is much less willing to fall into line than it was when it voted for Article 50 back in February.

It is not only the Labour Party who are ready to oppose and amend Brexit legislation, but Conservative MPs prepared to side with the opposition – which is why the government’s EU Withdrawal Bill has been delayed in the Commons.

And as the political narrative has changed since June 2016, so has public opinion. Because this changes in response not only to what politicians say and do but how voters feel when they stand at the supermarket checkout paying for their weekly shop, or when they look at their monthly pay packet, or when the next fuel bill arrives, it has a greater power to change the course of Brexit.

If money – £350m of it – swung the nation behind Brexit, then the lack of it in people’s pockets is going to kill it off. Unemployment has been steadily decreasing, falling to its lowest since 1975.

But wages remain low: average weekly earnings increased by 2.1%, according to the latest figures, yet inflation this week hit a five year high of 3%, meaning there is a real terms fall in income.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies says because of the government’s benefits freeze policy, this inflation rate means a real terms cut of 6.7% in benefits.

A report by the Resolution Foundation this week showed that a ‘no deal’ on Brexit – which would leave the UK having to pay the same tariffs as other World Trade Organisation countries on goods imported from Europe – would force up living costs of millions in the UK, with the average household paying an extra £260 a year for imported goods, while the three million families who consume the most would see their costs rise by £500 a year. That report was followed by another, from the OECD, warning that ‘no deal’ would see investment seize up, the pound hit new lows and the UK’s credit rating cut. In contrast, the organisation said, reversing Brexit would have a ‘significant’ positive impact on growth.

The response of Brexiteers to such developments is meagre. When Chris Grayling, the Transport Secretary, said that Brexit would simply mean the UK growing more of its food, or importing produce from outside the EU, it seemed like a government clutching at straws, because the UK relies on the EU for 80% of its vegetable imports alone.

The public can see that Brexit is losing credibility. It can see through the government’s refusal to publish legal advice on withdrawal.

After voting 52% to 48% in favour of leaving the EU in June 2016, opinion has gradually shifted. As detailed by Peter Kellner in Prospect magazine this week, YouGov polling has picked up increasing scepticism about Brexit.

Between the referendum and the start of the election campaign, 20 out of 24 YouGov polls found more people believed the decision to leave the EU was right than those who thought it was wrong.

Twelve polls between April and August, says Kellner, showed public opinion roughly 50-50 on whether the referendum decision was right or wrong.

But since August, there has been a shift in favour of those who believe the decision was wrong. The latest poll, for the Times, shows 53% think the decision to leave was wrong, versus 47% believing it was right (the don’t knows were removed to compare directly with the original referendum vote) – the highest lead for ‘wrong’ since the referendum.

This shift is important because it underlines how May’s election result was as much about Brexit as it was with the troubled Conservative campaign and its ill-advised ‘dementia tax’. If the public really were in favour of the Hard Brexit, exit from the single market, prospect of a no deal vision that the Prime Minister has created, she would have won a majority. She did not.

Crucially, as Kellner spells out, it is the working classes whose minds are changing the most – because it is they who feel first how Brexit is impacting their household budgets; it is they who are the hardest hit by inflation and the prospect of food shortages because of queues at Dover. Kellner’s analysis reveals that while middle class opinion has barely changed on whether Brexit was the right decision – 60% believing it was wrong – working class voters have changed from 63% believing it was right in August to 56% now. The Prime Minister cannot hide from public opinion for long – even if another election is not until 2022. With negotiations in deadlock, parliament increasingly rebellious and the public losing confidence, Brexit is running into the sand.

Jane Merrick is a freelance journalist

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