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Raab the 'Realo'

Raab the 'Realo'

Conservatives' fundamental Brexit split

by Denis MacShane in London

Tue 24 Jul 2018

Dominic Raab, the new secretary of state for exiting the European Union, who took over after David Davis' resignation, represents an important generational shift within the Conservative party. 20th century eurosceptic Conservative ministers like Davis and Boris Johnson, the former foreign secretary, have gone.

After the 1997-2010 period of Labour hegemony, Conservative MPs elected in the 2010, 2015 and 2017 general elections are are now coming to the fore. Johnson's younger brother, Joe, a former Financial Times writer, now a respected minister and pro-European, will start to play a part. The higher end of the Conservative party can now be divided into 'tacticians' and 'strategists' rather like the Fundi/Realo (Fundamentalists – Realists) split in the German Green party in the 1990s.

The tacticians, or Fundis, want to get out of the EU at any price. They believe there is shining path to a better Britain as soon as the UK is fully amputated from the EU. The strategists, or Realos, are not possessed of such faith. But they believe they have to deliver the 'people's verdict' of the June 2016 referendum. Their goal is simply to leave the EU on 29 March 2019 and the terms of leaving are less important than being outside the political EU in a year's time. Once they are no longer members, they believe they can shape a new UK along ultra free market lines.

Michael Gove, secretary of state for the environment, is chief of the Strategists or Realos. Raab, the new Brexit secretary, is another Realo-strategist. Jeremy Hunt, Johnson's replacement as foreign secretary, was a Remain voter in the referendum though has since said he accepts the result. A rational, can-do manager he is a Realo as are a majority of ministers.

These differences emerged in the House of Commons votes on 16 and 17 July. MPs' bids to enact legislation to stay in the European Economic Area or customs union were defeated but so was the proposal of withdrawing the UK from the European Medicines Agency. The UK cannot stay in the EMA without de facto staying in the Internal Market. So MPs, including Conservatives, voted both for and against EU membership.

The internal fractures spread to the customs union vote on 17 July, turning it into a de facto vote of confidence in Theresa May. The prime minister's line was won by only six votes, including four veteran anti-EU Labour MPs. Had they voted with their Labour colleagues, the Commons would have agreed to stay in the customs union.

Evidence suggests there is no majority for a 'no deal-crash out' Brexit. The extravagant language from the vociferous hard-Brexit camp in the Conservative party suggests these people are panicking, as they realise their dream of a full amputation Brexit is fading.

The media are full of alarmist stories that the European Commission is now writing to all member states to urge preparations for a hard Brexit with flights disrupted, long queues of lorries at Dover and other ports and no data transfers between the EU and UK. At the same time, Raab, a much more energetic (and perhaps more intelligent) minister than Davis, is publishing 70 technical notes explaining to firms in different sectors – as well as the public at large – the possible impact of a 'no deal' Brexit. 

Raab's action is a typically clever Realo ploy. He seems to be appeasing one faction of his party by showing – in contrast to his more lethargic predecessor – that the Conservatives really are making preparations for walking away from the negotiating table should the Commission refuse to accede to final British demands. However, by appearing to accept the reality of a 'cliff edge' Brexit, Raab is actually making it much less likely. His catastrophe scenarios – and tacit admission that there is no time to put into place any mechanisms for dealing with them – are geared to scare off all but the most hardened Brexiteers.

When both the Commission and the UK government start to publish warnings about disruption normally associated with preparations for war or national emergency, the opinion of MPs and ordinary people is likely to change. The Realos may yet win the day. 

Denis MacShane is the UK former Minister of Europe and a member of the OMFIF advisory council. His latest book is Brexit, No Exit. Why (in the End) Britain Won't Leave Europe (IB Tauris).

Until the beginning of September, the OMFIF Commentary series will be published three times per week, on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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