Knowing me, knowing EU . . . now Britain must choose between the Canadian and Norwegian models
Published 29/06/2016 | 02:30
Of the questions Britain now faces, this matters most: what does leaving mean? The referendum may have dealt a shattering blow to the political consensus over the European Union, but even as the broken pieces fall, a fresh agreement is quietly being constructed to answer that question.
In the Conservative Party, both Leavers and Remainers are settling into an understanding that actually, leaving means keeping quite a lot of the EU. In the coming weeks, Conservative European ambitions will coalesce around a Brexit involving tariff-free access to the single market and immigration rules that still allow many EU workers to come to the UK freely.
Narrowly defined, the British parliament has the right to pass such a deal, but practically, permission must be sought from the people. The future of British politics is a choice - made either at an early election or, less likely, another referendum - between emulating Norway (which pays to get most of the single market and accepts a liberal immigration regime) or Canada (which has a limited bespoke EU trade deal and its own immigration rules).
In other words, are you happy to end the formal membership of the EU but retain significant aspects of the relationship with it?
Will the EU offer such a deal? The warnings from Brussels are dire, but Brussels is not the EU: witness Poland's call for Britain to hold a second referendum on remaining in a "radically changed" EU. And remember how many ultimatums Greece flouted while staying in the euro; yes, the Greeks are paying the price, but all concerned accept that it's cheaper than the alternative.
Never underestimate the determination of Europe's leaders to keep this show on the road - as long as they have a willing partner. Recent German overtures are critical, which makes it all the worse that the UK doesn't have a functional government to respond. Propriety be damned: Boris Johnson should be on the next flight to Berlin.
The hardest issues to agree on, then sell to British voters, will be financial services and immigration. The new consensus says Britain needs to keep as many bankers as possible, and quite a lot of EU immigrants. The politics of that proposition are painfully obvious.
On immigration, it's often said there is no membership of the single market without the free movement of people. But could a distinction be made between people and labour? What about a deal that keeps Britain open to bankers and nurses, who have contracts of employment, but excludes self-employed plumbers and jobbing brickies who don't?
If the options for Brexit boil down to Norway and Canada, I'd take Norway every time: it would make the UK richer, and might just halt the latest drive for Scottish independence. But it's not me that has to be persuaded. It's the rest of the British electorate, especially the 17.4 million who voted Leave. The battle to convince Leavers it's in Britain's best interests to keep some bankers and some immigrants will divide and define our politics.
Nigel Farage will be against it, insisting that nothing less than an end to free movement will do. That could well see Ukip finally make its real electoral breakthrough, winning scores of seats in the Commons. Mr Farage may hope to peel off some Tory Leavers, but Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Dan Hannan and even Nadine Dorries are all signalling that they want Norway, not Canada.
If - and this seems entirely plausible - Ukip does grow into a real national force on an 'out means out' ticket, it will be at the expense of Labour in what used to be its northern heartlands. Labour itself would survive only in London and a few university towns, fighting for scraps with the last Lib Dems.
A Conservative Party that wants the country to accept an EU-lite Brexit will have to do much, much more to understand, represent and help white working class voters: something for Tories to ponder when picking a new leader.
Otherwise Mr Farage wins, Norway is rejected and Britain steps out into the cold and deep blue sea.
If Britain chooses the Norwegian path though, then in 10 or 20 years it will look back on the referendum and wonder what all the fuss was about, since life didn't, in fact, change very dramatically as a result: a fitting outcome for a country that, as many reactions to the referendum have shown, is not comfortable with the dramatic.
That's an awfully big 'if', though. (© Daily Telegraph, London)