A simple metaphor captures the dilemmas around Brexit: some want white, others want black. To state the blindingly obvious, the two are mutually exclusive. In this post, Iain Begg (LSE) considers the two logically coherent positions on EU membership. It is hard to see how any in-between solution – any shade of grey – can prevail. 

Leaving the EU means, well, Brexit and can best be characterised as un-pooling sovereignty shared with our EU partners. It means respecting those totemic red lines, as set out in Theresa May’s Lancaster House and Florence speeches:  no longer being under the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice or sending money to Brussels; stopping free movement of EU nationals into the UK labour market; and so on. At a stroke, we would be free to do the best trade deal ever with Trump’s America.

Staying in the EU is acknowledged by the great majority of commentators to be economically rational and least risky, to facilitate cooperation in responding to security threats and other long-term geopolitical developments, and a way to preserve the status quo on the border in Ireland.

Instead of black or white, what is on offer from the position so painstakingly agreed at Chequers is grey. The chorus of voices explaining why it risks pleasing no-one has been loud and insistent, although far from consistent. One answer might be a second referendum, another to walk away with no deal; EFTA membership has reared its head; and various kooky schemes for customs arrangements have been put forward.

At around the time the youthful Theresa May was cavorting in wheat fields, provoking the ire of local farmers, Procol Harum had their smash hit, A Whiter Shade of Pale. Might she recall some of the lyrics? “She said, ‘There is no reason. And the truth is plain to see’”.

Yet the government plainly struggles to see that shades of grey are not going to work. On the contrary, the pursuit of grey could well be defeated by a hitherto unlikely alliance of advocates of “black” and “white”. In any case, it was widely assumed by all sides in the UK that a different shade of grey would have to be mixed to enable progress, both in settling matters with the EU and in mollifying the different factions inside the Tory party.

Image, CC0 Public Domain.

By the time Joe Cocker released his stunning 1978 version of the song, the Prime Minister had finished her studies at Oxford. Could she have “skipped a light fandango” at her wedding in 1980, oblivious to the travails she would inherit? Seeing ministers come and go (no fewer than eight from the Cabinet alone – more than a third – in the 14 months since the 2017 election), does the Prime Minister recall the line “I wandered through my playing cards” while thinking how to reconcile black and white?

Government attempts to do so have been almost comical. Within days of the Chequers deal (spun as a return to collective Cabinet responsibility after two years of dissent bordering on anarchy), not only was there the succession of ministerial resignations but also trimming to win parliamentary votes. The shade of grey on offer became lighter or darker depending on who was making the most credible threats.

The Labour party is, if anything, worse still, with so many shades of grey even E.L. James would be hard pressed to cope. The party wants a Brexit that is good for growth and jobs, but cannot say how to achieve this. It wants to be in the single market (or does it?) and in ‘a’ not ‘the’ customs union. Labour leaders are relaxed about workers arriving from other EU countries, but their voters are hostile.

MPs representing Brexit-voting Northern seats perform their own fandangos – not the dance, but what the Oxford English Dictionary describes as “an elaborate or complicated process or activity” – in vain attempts to square what their voters want with what they, at heart, believe. Except, that is, for Lambeth where the party apparatchiks want to defenestrate their Brexit-supporting MP, Kate Hoey.

Fearing who might replace her and yet more procrastination from the British side, Michel Barnier (the European Union’s chief negotiator), was careful not to pull the rug out from under Theresa May too abruptly. But it soon became clear that Chequers’ grey is not acceptable to the EU either.

Does the government still seriously believe that the Chequers deal and the White Paper setting out the UK position can survive? It may have been translated into every official EU language – even Maltese and Gaelic – but if the two camps in the UK cannot agree to it and the EU is dismissive, it is hard to see how any shade of grey can succeed.

Serious rethinking is now required, alongside a recognition that only one side can plausibly prevail. The song also has the line “…though we were miles at sea”. Quite.

This article gives the views of the author, not the position of  LSE Brexit or the London School of Economics.

Iain Begg is Professorial Research Fellow at the European Institute and Co-Director of the Dahrendorf Forum, London School of Economics and Political Science.

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