The Guardian view on Brexit options: time to speak for Britain | Editorial

Hardline leavers offer a choice between no deal and a deregulatory free-trade option. That is no choice at all

Yet again, and probably not for the last time, Britain’s hardline leavers and media mouthpieces are knowingly trying to sell the public a lie about Brexit. Their old lie – there were lots to choose from – was that leaving the EU would mean massive new spending on the NHS. Their new lie is that Britain now has only two choices: no deal or a last-minute free-trade deal. The truth is very different. Britain still has time – not as much as it would have if the process had been better handled – to do what it chooses about Brexit, with a range of options from no deal to remaining in the EU. Time for cool heads.

At every turn in the debate, however, hardline leavers have failed to say what they want Brexit to entail. All they have offered are lying slogans and cynical insults. On Monday, to be fair, this changed a little. A report from the rightwing Institute of Economic Affairs set out the case for the free-trade deal – sometimes called the Canada option – in some detail. Boris Johnson tweeted his support for a “fine piece of work”. Jacob Rees-Mogg even suggested that the IEA version would be popular with the public and would be passed by the House of Commons if Theresa May buried her Chequers plan.

These are ludicrous claims. They should be called out for what they are. The IEA document is a deregulators’ charter. In the name of market competitiveness, it sets itself against EU (and thus existing UK) regulations and thinking on issues from farming and fishing to pharma and finance. The document is too dishonest to admit the IEA would be willing to get rid of things like workplace rights, food standards, environmental protections and data privacy rules. But such purges are implicit in the report – and occasionally explicit. The report envisages a Britain in which wages, job security, taxes and public spending could all be aggressively lowered as part of a direct offshore challenge to the EU. Holiday pay could be a thing of the past, warned the TUC in its response. Far from getting an extra £350m a week under this Brexit, the NHS would be lucky to survive at all.

Mr Johnson’s description of all this as a fine piece of work shows how shamelessly he has lurched to the extreme right, or that he has not read the document – or both. Mr Rees-Mogg’s lofty claim that the plan would be popular insults the public’s intelligence. His idea that there is a Commons majority for such a blueprint is simply untrue. Look at the parliamentary arithmetic, as the Conservative MP Nicky Morgan did this week. There is no majority for no deal. No majority for the free-trade deal. What there is, on the other hand, is a latent majority (largely dependent on the resolve of Ms Morgan and other Tory remainers) for a European Free Trade Association-style relationship – the so-called Norway option.

This week’s hardline proposals should be seen as what they are: an opening volley in the warfare over Brexit to be expected next week at the Tory conference. The hardliners are trying to stampede the cabinet and Mrs May into abandoning the Chequers plan or anything based on it. They could not care less what happens in Ireland or to employment or environmental protections in the process. Even by the shabby standards of Brexit, this is a display of doctrinaire politics at its most irresponsible.

The Tory party now seems beyond all reason on Brexit. But Britain can do better than this. It is crucial for the future of the country that evidence-based policy reasoning holds steady. Another set of government papers on the dangers of a no-deal Brexit yesterday helped to supply a corrective, spotlighting the disruptions that might face airlines, holidaymakers and road haulage in the event of no deal. They will be brushed aside as mere propaganda by the fanatics. Labour, which debates Brexit options in Liverpool on Tuesday has its own doctrinal divisions over Europe to grapple with. But the party has rarely been presented with a better peacetime opportunity than now to speak for Britain in its hour of need.

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Editorial

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