Theresa May must keep her nerve and push for deal on soft Brexit

Despite the fallout, the prime minister knows it is in the country’s best interests to keep close economic ties with its most important trading partner

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 14 July, 2018, 4:54am
UPDATED : Saturday, 14 July, 2018, 4:55am

More than two years after its people voted to leave the European Union, Britain remains conflicted between a hard Brexit and a soft Brexit – making a clean break or maintaining selected links such as a free trade in goods with the European single market to protect vulnerable sectors of the British economy.

The choice is between the wishful go-it-alone vision of the Brexiters and the realities of Britain’s best economic interests. It matters to Britain’s future and to a coherent relationship with Europe.

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And a strong Britain – as well as a united Europe – matters to their great trading partners, including China and the United States.

With weeks left to conclude complex negotiations with the EU for parting company next March, which are crucial to avoiding the economic and administrative risks of no deal, Prime Minister Theresa May’s plan for a soft Brexit has suffered a double blow.

On the heels of the resignations from her cabinet of foreign minister Boris Johnson and Brexit minister David Davis, US President Donald Trump has accused May of wrecking Britain’s exit from Europe and likely killing the chances of a free-trade deal with Washington.

For good measure, throwing diplomacy to the winds ahead of a visit to Britain, Trump also said Johnson would make a “great” prime minister. Johnson, a key figure in the Brexit referendum campaign, and Davis quit rather than accept compromises that May proposes as the price of maintaining links with Europe.

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Crafting a compromise deal in tortuous negotiations to satisfy both the other 27 members of the EU and May’s hardline followers was always going to be difficult and divisive.

The reality is that if Britain wants continued access to markets to protect British jobs and living standards, it has to cut deals on core issues in the referendum, such as the free movement of people across borders and partial jurisdiction by the European Court of Justice.

May herself faced the realities, reflected in a lack of political and public appetite for a hard Brexit, when she presented her cabinet with a “responsible and credible” proposal rather than the clean break she once talked of.

If Johnson and Davis could not support it, they were right to quit. That said, the confrontation with Brexiters was inevitable and, with hindsight, May should have brought it on earlier. Now her government stands shaken. She and her supporters must keep their nerve.

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There is no credible alternative that could lead to an orderly exit. She is right to assert that it is in the best interests of Britain to maintain close economic ties with its most important trading partner.

Given the limited time to close a deal, government MPs should rally behind proposals that balance economic interests with preservation of a measure of sovereignty.