Much of the world woke up on Friday morning to a state of shock. And I don’t just mean Remain voters, even Boris Johnson and Michael Gove looked worried now they actually had the result they fought for.
So, given it is what it is, how will negotiations unfold and what will be the final outcome?
The first answer is, of course, nobody knows. You might be forgiven for not realising this, given the forthright claims made before last Thursday, but no one has a crystal ball and if there is one thing we have learnt this week it is how right Harold Macmillan was to be wary of “Events, dear boy, events”.
Part of the problem lies in the fact the Leave campaign is a coalition encompassing a variety of different positions. Some are flexible on immigration, many are not; some insist on membership of the single market, others don’t; some want to keep a close relationship with the EU, others demand total divorce. It will prove a challenge to satisfy them all.
So which option is best for the UK?
From an economic perspective, the majority of experts believe we are likely to be worse off under most of the proposed options. Leave optimism may prove correct and some economists share it but most projections suggest a negative impact, short- and long-term.
If nothing else, uncertainty will restrict foreign investment for as long as the negotiations proceed. So we have an incentive for a quick solution. The closer we are to an ‘off-the-shelf’ package (eg, the Norway model), the quicker it will be and so the smaller hit to investment and the economy. Conversely, the more we debate specifics like banana shape and entry to the Eurovision Song Contest, the longer the process and the longer our economy will be side-lined.
Plus ça change…
So, the best option looks very much like where we are now. It will suffer the smallest economic hit and will, of course, be the quickest route too. Moreover, it is least likely to trigger further break-up of the United Kingdom.
In the eyes of Remain voters, at least, it is probably the least worst option available, a second referendum apart.
Indeed, Wolfgang Schäuble, the German Finance Minister, has suggested the possibility of an associate status which would not be too distant from our current position. The EU has long resisted a twin-track approach but maybe now the strains are so great and it is the only model that squares the circle where some countries think the answer is accelerated union and others claim we are hearing a big message from the people to slow down.
But, of course, they couldn’t do that without risking the wrath of the Leave voters, could they? There was a clear vote in the referendum for a solution very different to where we are now.
Enter Boris Johnson
Early in his career, Johnson was the Brussels correspondent for the Daily Telegraph and he took a famously dim view of the place, even if some of his stories were alleged to be made up. On the other hand, spending 8 years as Mayor of London would have probably given him a more positive opinion. A coherent view straddling the two positions might be one of close trading ties but minimal political union.
He has already used the time-proven language of ‘reaching out’ and ‘healing rifts’ and it could be that his preferred solution is that associate status that Schäuble has suggested. Britain will have access to the single market and will still have to pay budget contributions, albeit less than now. There will need to be negotiations on immigration but already we have heard talk about accepting ‘freedom of labour’ as opposed to ‘freedom of movement’. Time will tell what this means in practice but it will not be too far from current arrangements, whilst sufficiently different to claim a material return from the negotiations.
It means, of course, we will have to comply with EU legislation on trading matters without being able to influence them so, from a German perspective, there is a price to pay for the new arrangement. Boris, though, will see it as a price worth paying to ‘get our sovereignty back’. Perfect, now both parties can claim victory in the negotiations. And all of this can happen quickly so everyone can get on with ‘real’ things again.
Will this satisfy everyone in our diverse Leave camp?
Interestingly, Boris is probably the only person who could carry it off. Few other Leave negotiators would settle for something so close to the status quo. And if Theresa May or anyone else from the Remain camp came home from the negotiations with this result, the Leave voters would be up in arms for being sold so short.
Boris, however, as de facto leader of the Leave vote, is in the position where he can make more concessions than anyone else. He is also the least of all attached to the Leave agenda and, perhaps most importantly, he is the most capable of selling this outcome as a victory.
The bitterest pill
So Remain voters are left with a quandary. They hate him because they believe it is his ambition to become Prime Minister that has put us in the position we are now. On the other hand, given where we are now, realpolitik suggests it is only he who could deliver their least bad option available. Most galling of all to them is that it is, in their view, his flexibility with the truth that has brought us into this pickle but it is the same that will enable him to claim victory and get us out of it.
Who would think that Remain voters’ best hope now lies with the Right Honourable MP for Uxbridge and South Ruislip?