The political reality that the UK’s Brexit referendum was always as much about controlling immigration as leaving the EU has finally sunk in. Optimists, mainly among domestic Remainers but also across this side of the Irish Sea, had hoped that a “soft” Brexit, with our neighbour remaining part of the single market though not EU decision-making, and accepting free movement of labour, would be a real runner. They held out the hope that UK prime minister Theresa May’s strategic silence on the options was a sign that she was inclined to the “soft” alternative, the one that best suits this country’s strong interest in minimal change.
May, however, has now come off the fence and defined in outline the meaning of her previous promise that “Brexit means Brexit”. At the Tory conference in Birmingham, she announced that Article 50 would be invoked next March with a likely severing of EU membership then set for spring/summer 2019. In a clear indication – seen as such by the currency markets – that she intended to take the UK out of the single market, she insisted that she would take back full control of immigration and refuse to accept the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. Ministers also hinted that the UK would be out of the customs union. Control of immigration trumps all.
Her announcement of a great reform Bill to transpose all EU laws into domestic legislation is largely and simply a sensible housekeeping measure to make eventual transition smoother – it avoids any discussion at this stage of which laws will be jettisoned after Brexit.
So “hard” Brexit it is, with all the complications and costs implied for the Irish-British relationship and the North. The greater certainty about the destination and the timetable are welcome, even if the means is disappointing. And May’s refusal to be more specific, and her insistence that there will be no running commentary from her on the talks, is hardly surprising. Any precise outlining of her aspirations, say to keep open tariff-free access to markets, would set a high bar for the talks that she must inevitably fail to reach in the give and take of negotiations, a rod for her own back.
May’s firing of the starting gun gives added urgency to the internal preparatory work being done by government departments here to assess the likely effects of Brexit sector by sector, while the continued depreciation of sterling will play an important part in budget considerations. Businesses are already hurting. And the added certainty that the “hard” option is on, should also prompt renewed creative diplomatic thinking about how the Government can help to mitigate its effects. Is there a possibility, for example, of making a case for a differential approach, a “soft” Brexit for the North and Scotland which the Scottish Nationalists appear set to advance?