The triggering of Article 50 marks the end of the political stand-off that has been the dominant feature of British politics since the Brexit referendum last June: a stand-off between our elected representatives on the one hand and “the will of the people,” as expressed in the referendum vote, on the other. Between the end of June and the end of March, any party with something to lose has had to go along with a show of respecting the referendum result, whatever they thought of it. Scotland too, although this has a different tint there. (The obvious exception is Tim Farron’s Liberal Democrats, but in 2016-17 they have nothing left to lose.)
So politics can start up again now, with differences on the terms of Brexit, and we saw this as early as last Sunday, when Labour’s Keir Starmer popped up on the Andrew Marr show to make a robust defence of “soft Brexit”, and on Wednesday when by all accounts Andrew Neil gave May the toughest interview of her Prime Ministerial career.
It’s also the last point at which May has any control of her Premiership, and there must be a question about how many of her senior civil servants have pointed this out to her and her ministers over the last few months.
This is because the Brexit negotiations will stretch British governance capacity to its limits. If you doubt the balance of the negotiating expertise, it’s worth reading the two Brexit documents produced by the EU and Britain. One of them is a coherent, thought-through, credible and fairly tough negotiating position, with clear red lines. The other one looks as if it was cobbled together by advisers in Number 10 at the last possible moment, despite having had months to think about what they have to say. There’s something of the same whiff about the Great Repeal Bill white paper: there’s less to it than meets the eye. (On the capacity issues for the British government, Buzzfeed had a useful list.)
Perhaps this is also the reason why ministers have started to row back from all that hard Brexit posturing: even David Davis has had to concede that the immigration numbers might not change much, because (who knew?) there are some sectors of the economy that would collapse without them. Indeed Matthew d’Ancona suggests that the trio of Brexit ministers are now more emollient on this point, for economic reasons, than the Prime Minister.
According to a senior government source, a wonderful irony is now manifesting itself around the cabinet table in the contributions of Liam Fox, David Davis and Boris Johnson: “There’s no doubt that Theresa wants to bring down immigration. But the three main Brexiteers are suddenly becoming more and more vocal about the need to keep the numbers sufficiently high for the needs of the economy. You hear Liam saying: ‘We mustn’t do anything that threatens prosperity.’ It’s becoming more and more clear to them what’s at stake.”
At the same time, the FT points out (in its essential daily Brexit briefing) that now Article 50 has been triggered the newspapers–not just the usual suspects–have moved on to the ballooning crisis in the UK public sector. If ever there was a “Black elephant,” or predictable surprise, it is this: that George Osborne’s monomaniacal obsession with debt reduction and therefore austerity would create and then leave behind a huge problem for his successor to sort out, or get dragged under by it, and this would have been true regardless of the referendum outcome. This particular elephant seems to be turning into a herd.
Today the FT and [Guardian](https://www.theguardian.com/society/2017/mar/31/nhs-surgery-target-operations-cancelled-simon-stevens) report that the National Health Service has axed the 18-week target for operations. This is one of the NHS’s most important waiting time targets but scrapping it is essential if the service is to survive continued austerity. Meanwhile, [The Times reports](http://www.thetimes.co.uk/edition/news/forces-face-shortfall-of-10bn-after-costs-soar-wqxts8hn2) that the armed forces face a £10bn shortfall amid escalating costs for new ships and aircraft. Service chiefs are scrambling to make savings elsewhere. The Daily Mail reports that cash-strapped local councils are fording middle class pensioners to pay higher care home fees in order to subsidise others with no savings. The Sun focuses on how Britain’s police forces are now able to solve just one-in-ten burglaries.
Maybe just worth spelling this out a little further: some of these papers are strong supporters of the Government and of Brexit, and some of these issues are ones that older and more conservative voters care about.
In the meantime, the proportion of British people who think that Brexit will be bad for the British economy has increased steadily since the referendum, as Simon Wren-Lewis points out, while the views on the vote are pretty stable.
Wren-Lewis’ explanation for this is, broadly, about the British sense of fair play: we’ve had the vote, and now we need to get on with it. I think there’s a different explanation. People gauge social facts and social hypotheses differently, which is one of the reasons that it’s often hard to get people to act on futures’ insights. The vote is a social fact, and the prospects for the economy are still a hypothesis. (BritainThinks’ Brexit research project also finds that, so far, “what unites ‘leavers’ is that the economic arguments, sacrosanct to so many politicians simply don’t matter.”
The BritainThinks research finds four groups of voters on Brexit, not just Leavers and Remainers. Leavers split into ‘die-hard’ enthusiasts and ‘cautious optimists’, while Remainers are ‘accepting pragmatists’ or ‘devastated pessimists’.
Significantly, so far, with the exception of the ‘devastated pessimists’, three of these groups remain optimistic about the outcome of Brexit. This includes optimism about the future of our public services:
One typical ‘leaver’ said “I am looking forward to it. This is a fantastic opportunity to rebuild the country: more police, better hospitals, more schools and more teachers”, while even a ‘remainer’ observed “This is a chance to explore a different avenue for Britain.”
It’s an open question as to how long cognitive dissonance will survive pessimistic news on the economy or continuing crises in the public sector, but it seems possible that at least two of these groups might change their views. And the demographics of the Brexit vote haven’t gone away.
As Anthony Barnett reminded us, Brexit is a project for the elderly English:
Within the generations, the differences remain as striking as they were in the vote itself: there is no majority for leaving the EU amongst those under 55. Those between 55 and 64 favour Brexit by a mere 52%. It is the over 65’s who swing the outcome as they break 59% for Leave…. Brexit is government of the old, by the old, for the old – and it will perish with the old.
In fact the profile of Brexit voters looks a lot like the profile of Conservative party supporters and voters, and Brexit is clearly a Conservative party project, whatever the “Lexit” arguments. But time is not on their side, and nor is the likely range of outcomes.
A combination of being outsmarted by EU negotiators, adverse economic news, and a looming public sector crisis, including on issues such as police and Armed Forces funding that are traditionally Conservative issues, could do quite quickly do for the Government’s current reputation for competence.
One view of the whole referendum fiasco was that it was a strategy to try to hold together a party that has been fractured on Europe since the 1950s, and which looks as if it is in long-term demographic decline. You can never predict how politics will turn out. But even given the current state of the Labour party, as it wrestles with the challenge of how to move beyond the crisis of social democracy, the Brexit negotiation process and the stored up problems from the Cameron/Osborne assault on public services seems likely to be a fundamental challenge to the health of the Conservatives.