Britain’s Brexiteers surprise us with their realism

UK Politics: Leavers have been on what a Californian life coach might call a ‘journey’

Consider the sheer Britishness of Theresa May's latest predicament. Earlier this year the prime minister offered US president Donald Trump a state visit to London. His subsequent behaviour, including last week's retweet of far-right videos, guaranteed a hostile public reception.

So, rather than cancel the offer, May avoids the subject. Like every good Briton who invites you to visit one day, she does not mean it and hopes both parties will forget. Nancy Mitford, the chronicler of society etiquette, could not have designed a more decorous solution.

May’s premiership is devoted to the elegant undoing of its earliest deeds and statements. The Trump visit, the reintroduction of selective schools, new funding arrangements for social care, the froideur with big business, even her choice of advisers: all have gone or passed into abeyance.

It is a wonder that the largest of these capitulations has not ended her career. Having once entertained an EU exit with no formal deal, she is now doing whatever she can to avoid that fate. She has softened her rhetoric (compare the Florence speech in September with the jingoism of the spring) and her policies.


The mystery about Leavers is not, as it was for so long, why they are so angry. The mystery now is why they are not angrier

Britain will pay a separation fee that some of her own ministers once thought larcenous. It will seek a phased exit that entails the survival of free movement and European jurisdiction on terra Britannica into the next decade. In return it is gaining, at maximum, passage to the second round of talks. That is, the second round of concessions.

The mystery about Leavers is not, as it was for so long, why they are so angry. The mystery now is why they are not angrier. They made previous Tory leaders suffer for any perceived weakness on Europe. Their opposition to hers feels tokenistic by comparison. There are open letters from a core of recalcitrants, conspiracies to remove her that amount to so much shadow boxing and an incessant drawing of red lines that are subsequently breached without consequence. Even the conservative press is restrained in calling betrayal.

One theory is that May is a deceptively patient and sinuous politician who feeds morsels of disappointment to people who would never accept the whole thing in one bite. Her concessions have rolled out over the course of so many months that Tories have no sense of their combined magnitude. The alternative view attributes the political patience to the MPs, who know they can vote down the final deal and force Britain out, messily but absolutely, in 2019.

Leavers no longer believe  Britain is evenly matched against the world's largest trade bloc, and therefore able to demand the moon on a stick

Explanations that lean on strategic guile tend to do too much justice to politics as a trade, though, which is more like Whac-A-Mole in its minute-by-minute improvisation.

The more plausible theory is that Leavers themselves have been on what a Californian life coach might call a "journey". A decisive number of them have found the reality of the negotiations chastening. Their commitment to exit remains sharp. In fact it is their will to see it through against various prospective obstacles – a Labour government, a change in public opinion, the sheer passage of time – that disciplines them as supporters, or at least non-enemies, of May.


However, they no longer believe that Britain is evenly matched against the world’s largest trade bloc, and therefore able to demand the moon on a stick. Nor do they regard an exit without a deal as something to contemplate lightly.

This intellectual conversion is embodied in David Davis. Almost everything the Brexit secretary is going along with – the exit fee, the transition, even the sequencing of the negotiations themselves – contradicts his bluffness of less than a year ago, which envisaged Britain all but naming terms to a pitiful giant called Europe.

Another politician who salvaged so little from his original vision might have quit out of embarrassment or principle. But there is a kind of maturity in his uncomplaining deference to diplomatic realities. Better a sheepish adjustment to the facts than vainglorious resistance as the clock runs down on the negotiations.

The question is how far this ideological flexibility will bend. In the next round of talks Britain will probably have to choose between a limited trade deal – the “Canadian” option, they call it, eliding Britain with a country that does 10 per cent of its trade with the EU – or something close to single-market membership, with all the concomitant duties.

It is hard to imagine Leavers wearing the second option. At some point, though, they will see that the middle way of an enhanced trade deal is far-fetched, just as their earlier demands were. May’s survival is the highest proof of their underrated realism. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017