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Nick Clegg: The honeymoon will be short if Theresa May can’t tame the Tory Right As

July 31, 2016 1:47 PM
By Nick Clegg MP in The Evening Standard

Nick CleggWell, that didn't take very long, did it? Fresh from their victory in the EU referendum, the hardline Brexiteers are already preparing to cry betrayal at their new Prime Minister.

Earlier this week reports that Theresa May might consider a deal with the European Union involving an "emergency brake" on migration immediately brought the likes of John Redwood out of the woodwork in furious indignation.

Stories have emerged that the awkward squad on the Tory backbenches are organising themselves to oppose anything other than a "hard Brexit", whatever that means. And their outliers in the press, such as columnist Melanie Phillips, are already issuing breathless warnings that there will be a "revolt" if May doesn't do exactly as they say.

And there's the problem - these very same Brexiteers never spelt out to the British people what they meant by Brexit, so it's hard for May or indeed anyone else to know what they really want.

The campaign is over. The Brexiteers have won. With victory comes responsibility - and some really hard choices too. Instead, the hardliners prefer to wallow in a sense of grievance and mutter dark threats of betrayal.

The Brexiteer Right need to accept that they are no longer in a rhetorical debate.

Brexit is real, we actually have to do it. That means grappling with the challenges and dilemmas it presents, not retreating to the sidelines to throw rocks like they did when they were trying to force David Cameron to hold the referendum in the first place.

When I recently bumped into Douglas Carswell and Daniel Hannan - two arch-Brexiteers - I pointed out that they are now key members of the new Brexit elite which runs our country. They both looked startled.

They have spent so long acting as anti-establishment insurgents that they are clearly unprepared for the responsibility that comes with actually getting their way.

The Conservatives may have moved with ruthless efficiency to present an image of stability and authority, aided by May's stoic and unflashy persona, but let's be clear: there are some invidious choices on the horizon that cannot be ducked.

May, speaking on her visits to Germany and France at the end of last week, said she wanted Britain to have the closest possible economic relationship with Europe - and she was right.

Anything less would be damaging for our economy and the livelihoods of millions of people. But in doing so she has exposed both the rock and the hard place that the country finds itself in after the referendum.

The "closest possible" relationship can only mean the greatest possible access to the EU single market, by far the largest destination of our exports in the world.

It is worth remembering that even in the unlikely event that Liam Fox and David Davis manage to negotiate a flurry of new trade deals with the fastest-growing economies outside Europe - the BRICs - they would still fall well short of the amount of trade we do with rest of Europe: our trade with the EU is five times larger than our total trade with Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa combined.

Presumably the model May would like to emulate, if she truly wants the closest possible trading relationship, is Norway's.

Norway is outside the EU but has extensive access to the single market. The quid pro quo is that it obeys the rules of the single market, including freedom of movement and paying into the EU budget, without having any say in those rules.

Even if, in the end, she manages to agree a special agreement to limit freedom of movement, the commercial and regulatory rules of the single market will still be made in Brussels without our say-so. That, surely, can only be seen as a loss of control?

At some point, then, the square will have to be circled. For May to repeat that "Brexit means Brexit" may see her through the summer but it cannot persist for much longer.

At some point in the autumn we need to know what she prefers: to protect British jobs and investment by accepting the rules of the single market or to bend to the threats and imprecise ambitions of her hardline Brexit backbenchers. Her new Foreign Secretary may famously have a policy on cake that is pro-having it and pro-eating it, but it's not a policy a government can deliver.

For the Conservatives, the sabre rattling of the hardliners is ominous. The schism over Europe that has claimed the scalps of three prime ministers - Margaret Thatcher, John Major and David Cameron - is unbridgeable.

There are two sides to the Tory brain: the desire for untrammelled economic liberalism that created the City's Big Bang, embraced globalisation, sold off numerous state assets and drove the creation of the single market in the first place and the socially conservative, village-green Englishness that values tradition, defence of the realm and a 19th-century view of parliamentary sovereignty.

Nowhere is that divide more exposed than over Europe. And no deal can be struck over the terms of our exit from Europe that will satisfy both sides.

May will have to make those hard choices. She will have to come clean with her backbenchers, the Brexiteers and their supporters in the press.

f they react the way they appear to be preparing to, with dogma rather than patriotic responsibility, the present veneer of Conservative unity will soon give way to splits as stark as those within Labour.

The slender majority the Prime Minister enjoys will no longer give her much protection. As her three predecessors learned the hard way, you cannot fudge your way to party unity over Europe.

Her MPs may be cock-a-hoop when they look over at the Opposition benches and see Labour tearing themselves apart but they should watch with humility. Labour's day of reckoning may come sooner but theirs could be lurking just behind.