In the long-running British soap opera that is Brexit, we have become accustomed to two regular developments: dramatic political reversals and confident predictions that the issue has now finally been settled (at least in prospect). Both were on display earlier today in London. The morning’s Daily Telegraph carried a scoop that Chancellor Philip Hammond, a dull but passionate Remainer, accompanied by four other senior ministers, had briefed business leaders to the effect that, following the defeat of the government, he would quietly assist other parties and Remainer Tories in Parliament to take a no-deal Brexit off the table. Only one minister dissented mildly, on the grounds that this would weaken the U.K.’s negotiating tactic in Brussels. That report led to a fiesta of speculation that “No Deal” was now dead and that the eventual deal would be a cosmetically revised version of May’s defeated deal, arranged between the government, other parties, and about 20 Remainer Ultras on the Tory benches.
As always on these occasions, the scoop and its accompanying speculation were immediately contradicted by official spokesmen, anonymous ministers, and MPs on the side of the form of Brexit discounted by the speculation. Andrea Leadsom, the leader of the House, quietly distanced herself from Hammond’s comments, and there were calls from Euroskeptic MPs that prime minister Theresa May should rein him in. That sounds like an entertaining daydream for Brexiteers with odd sexual tastes, but not the way May’s mind seems to be moving. Both the Telegraph scoop and the guesswork about a Brexit softer even than May’s first deal were given long legs by her decision to appoint Europhiliac deputy prime minister David Lidington as head of a three-person team to conduct negotiations on building a Brexit consensus with other parties.
That task faces several difficulties. One that should have been anticipated is that Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, an old Bennite Euroskeptic, doesn’t seem very keen on helping the Tories out of their quandary. He wants the Tories to settle Brexit for him, ideally with disastrous effects on their unity and support in the country, so that he can move on to more congenial topics such as spending more money and imposing higher taxes on the few. But the central problem with it is that no consensus is possible between Brexiteers who want a “clean” or “full” Brexit and Remainers in all parties who hope to keep the U.K. inside the EU in light disguise. If such a deal were to be agreed, it would almost certainly break apart the large consensus inside the Tory party between Brexiteers and moderate Leavers that there has to be some kind of Brexit worthy of the name.
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