Brexiteers have little to fear but battles loom large for May
British PM has confidence of her party but she should savour her popularity
A pedestrian shelters from the rain as they walk near the Palace of Westminster, London. Photograph: Justin Tallis/AFP/Getty
Six months after Britain voted to leave the European Union, London’s restaurants are buzzing, hotels are full and the cash tills along Oxford Street are ringing cheerfully.
Britain’s services sector, which accounts for nearly 80 per cent of the economy, has been powering ahead since the referendum – fuelled, in part, by tourists attracted to the low value of sterling.
Manufacturing and construction are less buoyant than before the vote for Brexit but the “immediate and profound” shock to the British economy promised by the Treasury has so far failed to materialise.
The Treasury’s prediction of a swift rise in unemployment of 500,000, along with lower wages and house prices and a shrinking economy, could yet come to pass but there is no sign of it, yet.
The relatively benign economic news has done little, however, to cheer up the two rival referendum camps, both of whom remain grumpy and mistrustful.
Most Remainers have by now abandoned hope of reversing the outcome of the referendum, pressing instead for a “soft Brexit” that would keep as many links as possible with the EU after Britain leaves.
Few Brexiteers allowed themselves a moment to savour their victory before going back on the attack against an Establishment they feared would somehow rob them of their triumph.
This paranoia reached its nasty nadir in November when the tabloids identified three high court judges as “enemies of the people” because they ruled that the law required MPs to have a say before Theresa May triggers article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty to start formal withdrawal negotiations.
In fact, the Brexiteers have little to fear from MPs – only a few dozen of whom have shown themselves willing to vote against triggering article 50.
Most of these are from the Scottish National Party, whose vote reflects Scotland’s opposition to leaving the EU, and the Liberal Democrats, who have found a niche as the most enthusiastically pro-European party.
Most Conservative MPs and the overwhelming majority of their Labour counterparts opposed Brexit, but just one Tory – veteran Europhile Ken Clarke – and a handful of Labour MPs are prepared to oppose article 50.
Labour MPs from English constituencies outside London are especially fearful of being perceived as seeking to thwart Brexit.
The party’s wipeout in Scotland, following that country’s independence referendum, has taught Labour that tribal party loyalty can be trumped by nationalism.
More than two out of three Labour-held constituencies in England voted to leave the EU, with many working-class voters who failed to vote in the 2015 general election turning out to back Brexit.
MPs in many of these seats feel vulnerable to Ukip, which has promised to target Labour under its new leader Paul Nuttall, a Liverpudlian who comes across as a more plausible working-class tribune than Nigel Farage.
Ukip has its own problems – from a chaotic party organisation riven by sulphurous feuds to a severe shortage of cash.
But even if Ukip fails to capture many seats in the next election, senior Labour figures fear Nuttall’s party could win enough votes to tip dozens of Labour seats over to the Conservatives.
The Conservatives are far ahead in the polls, buoyed by Theresa May’s popularity and the public’s lack of confidence in Jeremy Corbyn as an alternative prime minister.
Despite mutterings about the prime minister’s control freakery from Conservative backbenchers, including some disgruntled former ministers, May continues to have the confidence of her party.
Her political skills will be tested in the coming months, however, as she will have to decide on Britain’s negotiating stance with the EU.
Little appetite to sweeten the pill
Most of the political pressure is pushing her towards a hard Brexit, which would see Britain withdrawing from the customs union as well as the single market.
Resistance to such a clean break is being led within the government by the chancellor Philip Hammond, whose bland demeanour obscures a steely determination.
Much of the debate in the coming months is likely to focus on the need for transitional arrangements after Britain leaves the EU in 2019 and about how comprehensive they should be, as well as how long they might last.
Until now, the debate about Brexit, since the referendum, has operated in Britain as if it is primarily a question of deciding what Britain wants.
Once the negotiations begin, it will become clear that there are two sides to the negotiating table and that the Europeans on the other side have little appetite for sweetening the pill of Brexit.
The history of Britain’s negotiations with Europe has often been an unhappy one, particularly for Conservative leaders.
As the prime minister enjoys her Christmas break, she should savour her popularity – it may not survive the turbulent months ahead.