Argument

How Brexit Was Radicalized

Euroskepticism was once the purview of policy wonks. The Leave campaign changed all that, and in doing so may have undermined Britain’s Conservative Party for a generation.

A papier-mâché Theresa May is seen during a demonstration outside the Houses of Parliament in London on Jan. 15.
A papier-mâché Theresa May is seen during a demonstration outside the Houses of Parliament in London on Jan. 15. Jack Taylor/Getty Images

Last Friday, Theresa May announced she would step down as British prime minister. Before her political obituaries were even written, the current favorite to succeed her as leader of the Conservative Party, Boris Johnson, set out his own Brexit strategy. “We will leave the EU on 31 October, deal or no deal,” he said even before she announced her pending resignation, pandering to his party’s extremists who yearn for a clean (but likely devastating) break with the European Union.

During the 2016 campaign leading up to the referendum on leaving the EU, talk of a so-called no-deal Brexit was markedly absent. Since then, however, it has become an increasingly popular option. The majority of Leave voters back it, and absolutist Brexiteers now argue that it’s the only true form of Brexit. How did the aims of British Euroskeptics get so extreme so quickly?

For nearly three decades—from the birth of the modern Euroskeptic movement in 1988, when U.K. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher declared in her famous Bruges Speech that “we have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain, only to see them reimposed at a European level with a European super-state exercising a new dominance from Brussels,” to Leave’s shock victory in 2016—Euroskeptics overwhelmingly pushed a Norway-style relationship with the EU. They wanted to see Britain leave the political structures of the EU while remaining in the European Free Trade Association and retaining access to the single market.

Leading parliamentary Brexiteers such as Jacob Rees-Mogg now dismiss EFTA membership as “Brexit in name only,” because it would require Britain to accept the continued free movement of EU citizens and restrict the government’s ability to strike independent trade deals. But the country’s leading Euroskeptic think tank, the Bruges Group, has long advocated the “Norway Option.” So has Daniel Hannan, a Conservative politician and intellectual figurehead of the Euroskeptic movement. “EFTA comes close to realising the dispensation that most British voters always wanted from Europe,” he wrote in 2005, “free trade without unnecessary regulation or political union.”

Right up to the day of the referendum, Euroskeptics were still promoting EFTA membership as a viable Brexit blueprint. In March 2016, the Leave Alliance published a 41-page policy paper titled “Flexcit” that outlined a six-step process for leaving the EU. The most detailed exit plan devised to date, it advocated interim EFTA membership as the first step in Britain’s departure. The United Kingdom would then slowly and meticulously extract itself from the EU over many years—perhaps decades—as it tries to reform the single market.

Three years later, though, such suggestions would be anathema to most Leavers. And the fault for that lies with the referendum campaign itself, which had a radicalizing effect on British Euroskepticism.

Between Thatcher’s Bruges Speech and the rise of former UK Independence Party Leader Nigel Farage in 2009, the Euroskeptic movement was largely driven by policy wonks like Hannan, who liked to theorize on the technicalities of extracting Britain from an ever-closer political union without jeopardizing free trade. But policy-paper Euroskepticism was fundamentally divorced from the politics of selling Brexit to the electorate. Technocratic abstractions about trading blocs and European federalism were never going to win over the politically alienated working-class voters whom the Leave campaign relied on.

In fact, the 2016 referendum was won not by the wonkish Euroskeptics but by a different breed who fought their campaign on a separate terrain. Sequencing details were replaced with grand, emotive narratives. In his own account of how the referendum was won, Dominic Cummings, the campaign director of Vote Leave, wrote that the overall theme of the campaign, “take back control,” “plays into a strong evolved instinct—we hate losing things, especially control. … Would we have won by spending our time talking about trade and the Single Market? No way.”

The likes of Cummings, Johnson, and Farage could devise and sell a grand vision, but they could not formulate a plan on how to realize it—nor did they feel any need to. Cummings admitted as much on his blog: “the referendum was very useful for many Out-ers: it provided a much simpler political focus than figuring out a complex positive agenda, removed the need for difficult thinking and action, and gave people a chance to pose on the side of ‘democracy.’”

The referendum campaign set the tone of the debate that followed. Compromises were trashed as a betrayal of the will of the people. The Irish backstop, a plan to prevent the return of a physical border in Ireland by entering the United Kingdom into a temporary customs union with the EU until an alternative solution could be found, was framed as a trap designed to restrict Britain’s ability to strike its own trade deals. And the EU’s refusal to simply give in to British demands and hand the United Kingdom some fantasy post-Brexit deal that would undermine Europe’s own interests was castigated as a “punishment beating.”

Reverting to Flexcit in a climate so stripped of nuance isn’t possible—or, for No Dealers, desirable. After such overheated rhetoric, it is hard to ask the public to accept a variation of the status quo while their country makes a negotiated exit. There’s also the risk that the public could lose interest, leaving Britain stuck in EFTA permanently. That’s why hard-liners continue to campaign from the sidelines, sabotaging negotiations with catchy, but ultimately hollow, slogans such as “no deal is better than a bad deal” and promoting mythical “technological solutions” to the Irish border problem that only exist in the imagination.

In the meantime, policy-paper types have been marginalized. Richard North, an architect of Flexcit, says that after several meeting with Cummings, the Vote Leave director “went dark” on him. “I was ‘no platformed’ by Vote Leave and was excluded from any role in the campaign,” North writes.

In a way, Britain’s drift toward no deal was inevitable. For decades, Euroskepticism was a niche interest on the fringes of Conservative Party thought. The only way of persuading the electorate to make such a radical departure from the status quo was to inflate it into an existential battle. The Brexiteers chose to ride a tiger, now no deal is the only way they know how to get off.

Although six of the 11 contenders to replace May as Conservative Party leader promise to drag Britain out of the EU at the end of October come what may, only time will tell if this is just bluster designed to appeal to the party’s constituents. But whoever comes out of the contest as prime minister will face the same political arithmetic that thwarted May. The Parliament is so opposed to a no-deal Brexit that Tory moderates, such as Chancellor Philip Hammond, have threatened to bring down the government by siding with the opposition in a vote of no confidence should the next leader make a serious attempt at forcing it through. Yet, by virtue of the number of zealous No Dealers in the leadership mix, the risk of a catastrophic crash out feels greater than ever.

Whichever path the next prime minister chooses is likely to spell electoral doom for the Conservatives: Compromising with the opposition and pursuing a soft Brexit will drive much of the Tory grassroots toward Farage’s Brexit Party. But a no deal carries such a high risk of devastation that it would alienate the rest of the country and tarnish the Conservative brand for a generation. Two separate Tory leadership contenders have described the party’s Brexit dilemma as a choice between “extinction” or “political suicide.” For the Conservatives, then, the real challenge facing them isn’t leaving the EU but surviving the fallout that will follow after.

Aleks Eror is a Belgrade-born journalist whose work has been published by the Guardian, the New Republic, Vice, Slate, the Telegraph, and others. Twitter: @slandr

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