In my article dated 22 February (and updated on the 24th), I explored the possibility that the Conservative government’s own hardline backbenchers might derail the ‘war cabinet’s’ compromise proposal of ‘managed divergence’ proposed as the basis for the UK’s future relationship with the EU. For now, at least, that appears unlikely following Prime Minister Theresa May’s 2 March speech which seems to have offered enough to placate, albeit probably temporarily, even the hardest of the hardliners, eg Jacob Rees-Mogg, the current chair of the pro-‘hard’ Brexit European Research Group (as well as easing some of the concerns of business).
However, events over the past week or so have got the press speculating that the real threat to Mrs May’s plans could come from the other flank, ie those who do not want to see a clean break with the EU. This begs the question of how serious that threat may be.
Certainly, the ‘clarification’ of the main opposition Labour Party’s stance in the speech delivered by its leader, Jeremy Corbyn (pictured), on 26 February is not to be dismissed. His call for the UK to remain in a customs union with the EU may have been based on sound politics — ie presenting a genuine alternative to the government’s position — rather than any real conviction on his part; but it still presents the possibility that sufficient pro-EU Conservatives might vote against their own party to defeat the government on this issue. However, contrary to what some claim, this would not necessarily bring down the government, thereby forcing a general election which (as I explained in my 22 February article) would likely result in a Labour-led government. And it is also an issue on which, with a bit of adept handling and good fortune, Mrs May can probably put off a real crunch point for weeks, if not months.
Second, and as expected, the EU has come out pretty stridently against the ‘three baskets’ basis which the government is proposing for managed divergence. However, I doubt very much that this will prevent agreement being reached to move forward at the 22 March European Council meeting — any more than European Commissioner Michel Barnier’s inclusion in the first draft of the exit treaty of the Northern Ireland customs union option (which was accepted as a fallback by the UK government in December) will even though it is anathema to the hard Brexiteers in the Conservative Party and to the Ulster Unionists on which the government depends for its majority in parliament.
Third, although there has been a certain amount of speculation that a (probable) bad result for the Conservatives in the English 3 May local elections could see a challenge to Mrs May’s leadership of the party, I think she did well enough in her 2 March speech to reduce, albeit not remove entirely, that threat. The risk being, of course, that a leadership contest could split the party and bring about an early general election.
All this being said, the opposition to hard Brexit does appear to be organising itself to an extent and to be gaining some momentum. But its proponents are probably not helping their own cause by being divided into three groups, ie those who (genuinely, ie in contrast to Mr Corbyn's probable politicking) favour a customs union, those who are pushing for the UK to remain in the single market, and a small minority who still believe that the referendum outcome can somehow be reversed.
Given these divergences, the single-mindedness of the hard Brexiteers and the now very tight timeline to which negotiators are working, I continue to believe that a hard Brexit is more likely than not — either by design in late 2021/early 2022 or, even though there is at least a basis for negotiation now on the table, by default on 29 March 2019. But this does not look to be quite such a high probability as it did even three weeks or so ago.