When the lengthy Brexit negotiations between Britain and the European Union finally end, no one is going to be entirely happy with the result. And that is just the way it should be.
No one, from the Thames Estuary’s most strident Kippers to Islington’s most diehard Remainers will get the perfect outcome they are hoping for. This is more an issue of practicality than anything else. We will struggle to get an agreement which allows us total control over our borders without compromising on market access for our exports. Any sweetheart deal for manufacturing or agriculture could prove a serious hindrance for financial services, higher education, or internet start-ups. If the government (led by Theresa May or otherwise) wants an outcome the country can get behind, they need to build a national consensus around our negotiating position, and the only way to do that will be to reach out to other parties and involve them in the process.
Bi-partisanship, let alone multi-partisanship, is not a skill that comes naturally to British politicians. Our first-past-the-post electoral system is intentionally designed to avoid such complications. It is meant to gift governments with working majorities that can hammer through legislation with ease. Unfortunately for the Conservatives, that hammer has now rebounded fatally against any hope they had of doing Brexit on their own terms. Theresa May was so desperate to control Parliament as they rubber-stamp these negotiations that she called an early election. This has proved a reckless gamble; the political complexion of the Commons is now in such an uncertain state that pandemonium is all but guaranteed once Brexit legislation starts to hit the floor of the House.
But Brexit does not have to become a legislative disaster. The British have long had a reputation for expediency, particularly when it comes to political affairs. And while it may have previously been considered drastic for the Brexit process to be overseen by a multi-party committee, ensuring that the views of the entire electorate are represented in the talks, it is now something of a political necessity.
If the election were indeed a referendum on May’s mandate to enact Brexit as her ministers see fit, then the answer has been a resounding ‘no’. So why not work with other parties to generate a negotiating position that has more robust national support? Such a move would not only be in the national interest but undoubtedly popular. Last week YouGov released a poll showing that over 50% of Brits want Brexit to be negotiated by a cross-party team. This clamour has been picked up among political circles too, with Tory grandees John Major and William Hague as well as Nicola Sturgeon and Keir Starmer all demanding a more pluralist approach.
Eurosceptic Tories have understandable – although misguided – reservations about such an approach. They claim that allowing Labour, the Liberal Democrats, or the SNP anywhere near the negotiation table would lead to a watered-down, ‘soft’ Brexit. They are right, but given the circumstances, it is difficult to see why this is such a bad thing. Regardless of what the more fanatical leavers say, there is no escaping the conclusion that a hard Brexit would prove seriously punitive for the UK economy.
Just taking the examples of Agriculture and Financial Services show that cutting all institutional ties with the continent is not desirable. Falling back on WTO trading rules could prove seriously damaging to the City. For example, banks would be unable to secure the same passporting rights that have allowed them to operate in 27 EU states without having to apply for individual state authorisations. A hard Brexit that does not guarantee passporting for British financiers would almost certainly lead to a slow bleed of banking jobs to the continent. JP Morgan has already announced plans to move hundreds of jobs to Europe as contingency for such a scenario, following the lead already taken by Goldman Sachs.
In Agriculture too, if no agreement is reached that puts British farming under EEC or EFTA rules, then all UK produce would likely be subject to a Common External Tariff that would make it difficult to export to the continent.
Extrapolate these problems as they apply to sectors across the economy – manufacturing, education, construction, real estate – and the big picture begins to emerge that a drastic change in plans may be needed to ensure a Brexit that works for our economy.
Bringing other parties into the negotiations is a route to greater legitimacy. We should not forget that Brexit was not endorsed by a landslide majority, nor that 48% of the electorate voted against it. Fundamentally, all political parties represent different blocks of voters, and these voters represent varying demographics, economic sectors and opinions on Brexit. MP’s are under an obligation to protect the interest of all of their constituents. By opening all-party-parliamentary groups to scrutinise the Brexit process, the people will feel more confident that their interests are at least being represented regardless of their political allegiance.
Fundamentally however, the need to stretch across political divides on Brexit is about far more than the Tories not being able to get away with doing it alone on their current numbers. Rightly or wrongly, our exit from the EU will define Britain for years to come. The Government has a moral responsibility to make sure the negotiations are conducted in the spirit of protecting the national interest and not partisan point-scoring.
If this is to be achieved, and if the likes of Michel Barnier and Guy Verhodstadt are to take our negotiators seriously, then our elected representatives need to learn to avoid the habits of obstruction and blame-shifting that have so undermined public faith in our political system. Such a move will not get Britain a deal that everyone will love, but it is our best hope of a deal that is rooted in national, not party interests. And that deal IS the best we can hope for.