Big decision has been made so just get on with it

Lord Ashcroft
Lord Ashcroft, a businessman and major Tory donor in the past, has become a leading pollster in recent years. - JULIAN SIMMONDS

For an event that was supposed to change everything, Brexit has made strikingly little difference to domestic politics. The single biggest reason, according to my latest research, is that most people, however they voted in the referendum, think a democratic decision has been made and needs to be implemented: even among remain voters there is very little appetite for trying to block or delay our departure.

Thus the Liberal Democrats are struggling to become the party of the 48 per cent (or even the 12 per cent, according to recent polls), and Labour’s confused stance on Brexit is the least of its problems.

I found Theresa May with a staggering 37-point lead over Jeremy Corbyn on the question of who would make the best Prime Minister, and there is no real opposition in sight for the Conservatives.

Prime Minister Theresa May speaks in Parliament as she announces that she has sent the letter to trigger the process of leaving the European Union in London. Credit: Reuters

Whichever way they went last June, my survey shows 2015 Tories are the most likely of all to say they will stick with their party in 2020.

Not a cloud on the Tory horizon, then – except that, in the next two years of Brexit negotiations, the hazards for the government are domestic as much as diplomatic. It has two problems.

The first is how to keep the monumental challenges of Brexit from overshadowing everything else on the public’s agenda, especially things that feel closer to home.

Both remain and leave voters agree that “negotiating Britain’s exit from the EU on the right terms” is the most important issue facing the country.

But when asked people what mattered most to themselves and their families, “improving the NHS” and “tackling the cost of living”.

The second is the expectation, especially among those who voted to leave, that they will indeed (contrary to the Chancellor) be able to have their Brexit cake and eat it.

The Europa Flag The Union Flag and Flag of Gibraltar. Credit: Paul Grover

I asked how important people thought it was to reach four potential outcomes – tariff-free trade, the right to pick and choose which EU nationals could come to live and work in Britain, no longer paying into the EU budget, and no longer being subject to the European Court of Justice – and how likely they thought they were to be achieved.

Leave voters thought all four very important indeed, but they gave the highest score to ending our budget contributions, followed by withdrawing from ECJ jurisdiction; these were also the two outcomes they thought most likely to happen.

They also thought tariff-free trade and control of EU immigration were more likely to happen than not. If the deal came down to a trade-off between immigration control and access to the single market, leavers would prioritise the former and remainers the latter – but for many, and again for leavers in particular, the idea of a trade-off sounded like a red herring.

Since new 2 barriers would hurt our European trading partners at least as much as us, they reasoned, surely they will want things to continue much as they are?

At the same time, many remainers demand more control over immigration – and just as they accept the referendum result, they think it would be wrong, as well as politically impossible, for the Prime Minister to agree to anything less than an end to free movement: she could not trade away one of the main reasons that Britain chose Brexit.

Demonstrators from pro-EU group Open Britain protest outside of the Houses of Parliament in central London in March. Credit: AFP

There is nothing the government can do to appease the arch-remainers; a relationship with the EU that was unchanged in all but name would be impossible to sell to the majority. Its challenge is to manage the expectations of the pragmatic middle who accept that Brexit must mean Brexit whether they like it or not.

Voters feel, quite understandably, that we will not really have left the EU – and that their decision has not been honoured – if we still pay into it, are subject to its laws and allow unfettered immigration for its citizens.

But those who also believe all of this can be achieved without affecting our trading arrangements or anything else will have to be disabused of the notion sooner rather than later.

If the new political landscape looks much like the old one, it is largely because the Conservatives have managed to keep their leavers and remainers under one roof. Unlike UKIP or the Lib Dems, the Tories do not have the luxury of becoming a party for one or the other.

Theresa May will not be able to please everyone, but the negotiations will say as much about her as she says about the negotiations. Voters will judge the Prime Minister not just by how robust they think she is with the EU but how straight they think she has been with them.

Lord Ashcroft, a businessman and major Tory donor in the past, has become a leading pollster in recent years

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