The Telegraph: May’s monumental mistake is misinterpreting what Leavers want

Theresa May was once derided for saying “Brexit means Brexit.” This week – with gaping flaws in her Withdrawal Agreement exposed and little comfort in yesterday’s flowery declaration on future relations – we see what she meant. The results reveal a monumental mistake that drove her approach: misinterpreting what Leavers themselves wanted.

The Prime Minister’s withdrawal deal shows May considered the referendum result a narrow mandate to end free movement of people. In every other area, her backstop deal shows willingness to sacrifice Brexiteer aims.

Independently setting tariffs and signing new trade deals, diverging from EU regulations, fully removing the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice and the right to unilaterally exit a treaty: all are put on the chopping block to get the exit agreement over the line.

Even the sanctity of the UK’s own internal market is risked through what EU sources have called a “swimming pool model” – Northern Ireland facing deeper commitments on regulatory alignment than the shallower asks of Great Britain.

The proposed deal reveals May and loyalist ministers believe immigration the be-all and end-all for us Brexiteers. It is the one red line they will not breach – implicitly elevating its importance above economic policy, the integrity of the United Kingdom and democratic control itself. Little wonder that Government sources talk of the need for a “campaign mode” to sell the deal to the public. They are convinced that when political missionaries enlighten us on the proposals, we will be grateful that our immigration prayers have been answered.

The initial reactions to the deal should have dispelled these illusions. The Withdrawal Agreement has thus far proven anathema to Brexit leaders and voters. At the time of writing, 84 Conservative MPs have pledged publicly to vote against it. It is difficult to think of any prominent Leave campaigners, other than Government ministers, who support the deal with enthusiasm.

The verdict of voters is harsher still. According to polling from YouGov, three quarters of the public believe the Government is negotiating Brexit badly; with a higher 78pc figure recorded for Leavers. On the deal, 51pc of the general public oppose it against just 15pc who support. But even this hides the strength of feeling. Just 2pc say they strongly support the proposal, while 30pc strongly oppose. The distributions of opinion on this are almost identical for Remain and Leave voters.

This is not the result of some misunderstanding or lack of knowledge on what the deal entails, either. Even when the Withdrawal Agreement’s key features are explained (including ending free movement), the deal polls awfully. Twice as many Leave voters consider it “not good for Britain” as “good for Britain.”

What further evidence is required that Brexiteers care about much more than immigration? The sad truth is that the Prime Minister is another former Remainer with a caricatured view of Leavers’ desires. You see this every day. John Springford, from the Centre for European Reform, tweeted last week that “Britain began this process with immigrant bashing.”

Leading Remain politicians, such as Tony Blair, Nick Clegg and Chuka Umunna, have all, since the referendum, claimed that the EU might be willing to tolerate reforms to freedom of movement, implicitly suggesting that alone would be grounds for the UK opting to stay. May herself still thinks being hostile to migrants is a winner – this week with a ham-fisted and insulting jibe about EU citizens jumping some imaginary queue.

Certainly, free movement was important in the referendum. It may even have been the biggest policy concern. But surveys after the vote show that migration was a symptom of what Leavers saw as a bigger structural issue: the loss of sovereignty in policymaking. Lord Ashcroft’s polling showed the main motivation of Leave voters was “the principle that decisions about the UK should be taken in the UK”.

Sadly, the Prime Minister has never truly grasped this. Failure to recognise the referendum was not about “what policy should be” but “who should decide what policy should be” meant that she approached the negotiations as a technocratic conundrum rather than a constitutional imperative.

For her, it was all about ending free movement while ensuring as little short-term economic disruption as possible achieving that. Judged on those grounds, her withdrawal deal seems adequate. But it’s clearly not what most Leavers had in mind. And the lofty waffle of yesterday’s non-legally binding political declaration does not change the fact that our PM was willing to sell out on their desires, even as a fallback.

Indeed, under the Withdrawal Agreement the UK would find itself boxed in when debating future trading relations, because the default is so appealing to the EU. Already the new declaration talks of the desire to “build and improve on the single customs territory” outlined in the exit deal. At best, then, future trade arrangements might be loosely based on the backstop. At worst, we are entrenched in it with no escape, a helpless supplicant. Either scenario severely curtails our policy freedoms and erodes economic sovereignty.

As it dawns on Downing Street that a positive pitch to Leave voters on the deal will not work, they will talk up the risks of no deal or no Brexit. The Government is even said to be considering using an adverse market reaction to a parliamentary vote against the deal to shore up political support, especially from Remainers. Yet the call to mitigate unobservable no-deal risk, which many Leave voters would prefer to face, will not end prettily.

May just hasn’t understood what motivated Brexit. If Leavers’ desires to take back control are suppressed through this deal or Brexit not happening, it is impossible to predict where the resulting anger leads.

To read the piece in full, click here.

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