In politics, there are Realists and there are Romantics, and Michael Gove and David Davis have just given a dramatic display of the difference. Boris Johnson, after a long struggle over which one he is, has finally proved he too is a Romantic — provided someone else is first. All were leading figures in the Leave campaign. All have fought hard for tough positions on the negotiations with the European Union (EU), and all were confronted with proposals they didn’t like at Friday’s Cabinet meeting at Chequers.
Yet, Gove went to the studios on Sunday morning to proclaim his eventual backing for British Prime Minister Theresa May’s plans, while Davis went to No 10 that evening to quit. The Realist decided to “not let the perfect be the enemy of the good”, while the Romantic could no longer be “a reluctant conscript”. The former believes that Brexit must be delivered and the Tories kept in power whatever the necessary compromises, and the latter thinks it just shouldn’t have to be like this. One feels we must try to master the situation we’re in, the other wants to escape from that situation. Dominic Raab, the new Brexit Secretary, is a highly capable Realist and his appointment amounts to a strengthening of the government. For the trouble with the Romantics, who dream of a cleaner or harder departure from the EU, is that they do not have an alternative plan for achieving that and are starting to endanger Brexit happening at all. One of the reasons the Cabinet, including most advocates of leaving the EU, rallied round the prime minister’s plan is that none of them, including Davis or Johnson, have been able to present any credible alternative proposal.
This is not because they are unimaginative — far from it. It is because there are three major limiting factors on any plan. One is the make-up of the House of Commons, elected after the referendum and with no government majority. The Commons as currently constituted does not support the harder forms of Brexit. That may be frustrating for the Romantics, but restoring the sovereignty of parliament was the whole point of leaving the EU in the first place.
The second limitation is the businesses that are crucially reliant on moving their goods seamlessly across our borders. It is theoretically possible to proceed with Brexit while ignoring the consequences for the likes of Airbus, BMW and Jaguar Land Rover. But it is unrealistic to try to do so. People did vote to leave, but they did so with assurances that the big manufacturing companies in the United Kingdom would be fine.
The third limiting force is the Irish border. Cleaner breaks with the EU are not compatible with a completely open frontier, unless we were to permit a new economic border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK as Brussels would like.
We should not be leaving the EU only to break up the UK. The achievement of peace in Northern Ireland and a settled relationship with the Republic has brought to an end conflict, bitterness and division that have plagued the British Isles for centuries. Hanging on to that is of massive and overriding importance.
The harsh truth is that once you have accepted that these are inescapable limitations, you are driven to the kind of Brexit proposals set out at Chequers. So any Conservative opposing those plans needs to explain how they would get round each of those problems.
Tories demanding a vote of no confidence in May need to think. The chances that such resignations will lead to the sort of Brexit they desire are about zero, but the possibility that they will give fresh momentum to demands for a second referendum or further weaken the negotiating position of the UK is considerable.
Are they actually going to vote against a deal at the end of this year if it looks something like the prime minister’s proposals? Since parliament is unlikely to sanction no deal unless provoked by further intransigence from Brussels, that would raise more seriously than any development since June 2016 the possibility of staying in the EU or much delaying the departure. A Tory faction becoming determined to oppose an agreement will put at risk not only the Government but also Brexit itself.
The best way forward is to join those saying that the EU needs to respond with flexibility and generosity. The absence of any statesmanship or vision on the EU side of the talks is striking, and a united Cabinet and party would be far better placed to focus attention and pressure on that. They could offer a more credible prospect that Britain, having made a constructive proposal, can’t just live with any deal imposed on it.
The worst way is to follow Davis and Johnson into putting at risk something they strongly believe in. The moment and the situation call for ruthless realism. Dreaming of a world that had turned out differently is not enough.
William Hague was the former UK Foreign Secretary. Source: The Telegraph Group Limited, London, 2018