There will be no soft Brexit. It doesn't exist, and we shouldn’t have kidded ourselves that it ever did

Sean O'Grady
PA

One of the biggest and most pernicious myths in British history, perpetuated before, during and long after the 2016 EU referendum is that there is such a thing as a “soft Brexit”. This is the shimmering mirage of the “deal”, this historic compromise that, we’re told, is only prevented by the stupidity, obduracy and dishonesty of our MPs, or the EU.

Well it is plain wrong, as was long predictable and is perfectly apparent today. Like other things in life – pregnancy, say – Europe is a binary matter.

Britain has spent the best part of four years (counting David Cameron’s earlier attempt at “renegotiation”) trying to achieve a new deal with the EU, inside or outside it or half-in and half-out: something that means Britain gets to keep all the good bits and can ditch the rest. All the options – May’s deal, Johnson’s deal, the Norway option, Canada +++, Turkey, Switzerland etc – have been found wanting, one way or another.

The UK cannot keep the good bits of the EU (trade, travel) and ditch the bad bits (immigration, money). This is because the Europeans don’t see why the UK should get such a special deal; and because it is impractical and thus impossible anyway, as we now know.

We now realise, for example that we cannot keep all the wonderful frictionless trading advantages of the customs union and the EU Single Market without being members of the EU, or not being members of it and having to accept tis rules with no say in the matter (like Norway, Turkey and Switzerland, to varying degrees). Being a rule-taker but not rule-maker is not acceptable to the proud British, which is the political issue.

The logical issue comes over wanting to enjoy the exact same access to the EU’s markets in services and goods as we do now, but also being able to negotiate our own free trade deals with other countries. This is a logical impossibility. So is not being in the EU customs union and having frictionless trade across the island of Ireland and the same between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. You cannot be simultaneous inside a customs union and outside it.

Remember MaxFac? Remember “the joint customs arrangements”? And now Boris Johnson’s lorry parks located well away from the border? All incompatible with the Good Friday Agreement and the interests of Ireland and the wider EU.

We have spent too long trying to make two and two make five, and thinking that if everyone compromised and there was enough energy and goodwill, we could just pretend that two and two made four-and-a-half and it would all be OK.

We have tried to square circles, have cakes and eat them, cherry pick and found the results frustrating and humiliating. Blame has been sought and chucked around. It has been futile, because Brexit, or the soft, “deal” version is collapsing under the weight of its own contradictions.

At least we really have tested the notion to destruction. The only thing we haven’t tried is the Jeremy Corbyn version of a no deal, which would merely founder on different issues – immigration mainly and the acceptance (or not) of the free movement of workers across the UK and EU, and Barry Gardiner's mandatory presence at all international trade talks conducted by the European Union.

The Labour “deal”, the “sensible” one is no more realistic than the Conservative (May or Johnson) one.

So I agree with Johnson on this. Not Boris, but his wiser and smarter brother, Jo, the more clear-sighted one who didn’t get himself into a tangle about what he really thought about Europe.

When he resigned (for the first time, i.e. from Theresa May's government rather than his brother’s) he said this: “The Conservative Party's reputation for economic competence would be undermined by implementing a botched Brexit, especially one that the government's own analysis suggests will cause economic harm.

"Brexit is seen as a project driven by the Conservative Party and this half-baked, worst-of-all-worlds Brexit could trigger an electoral defeat on the scale of 1997, or worse, with this 'Tory Brexit' label an albatross around our necks for years to come."

For him, soft Brexit, the May deal, was the “worst of all worlds” and he was right.

The choice, then, was always going to come down to no deal or no Brexit, which, to her credit, May always pointed out when her deal was repeatedly rejected. The Brexit uncertainty, to that degree, is over, now that we know the chances of any kind of deal are non-existent, given the UK’s “red lines” and the EU’s requirements, and the simple logic of the situation. The choice is crystallising.

Politically too, perhaps sensing these realities, the public have gravitated towards the two outstanding, realistic options: No deal (i.e. Leave) or no Brexit (Remain). To put this choice to the people in a referendum now is the only honest thing to do.

A general election will be about many issues, and might result in a hung parliament, and would simply prolong the chaos. A Final Say vote would answer the question in the way a multi-party general election cannot. It is not a re-run of 2016 because the terms of Brexit – WTO trading, a “clean Brexit” as Nigel Farage calls it, and uncertain future trading options will be as well known and understood as they can be. So will the Remain option – with the knowledge that the EU may evolve towards more integration, and will be prone to intermittent euro currency and banking crises and continuing failures over migration (or at least that's how a lot of voters see it) as well as the rise of the far right. The future path of the EU is as known as it can be too, for good or ill, and with some uncertainties on that side, inevitably.

Since 2016 all the lies, half-truths, twisted facts, stats, exaggerations, distortions and dodgy practice have been exposed, and the arguments endlessly rehearsed. The British, in reality, never stopped having the referendum campaign – and are now the best educated and motivated electorate on the planet (something you might be proud of in a way).

Anyway, we can now have a Remain vs. Leave referendum that this time means something, the same thing, to everyone who goes along to the polling station. There will be no soft Brexit or “deal” option because it doesn't exist. It never did, and we shouldn’t have kidded ourselves that it did. The choice is clear, and we can make it quickly.