How Britain Came to Accept a ‘No-Deal Brexit’

The debate over Britain leaving the European Union has polarized the country and normalized what was previously unthinkable.

People walk past pro-Brexit placards in central London.
People walk past pro-Brexit placards in central London. (Toby Melville / Reuters)

Brexit isn’t what it used to be. In the months immediately after Britain voted to leave the European Union in 2016, two flavors were on offer—“hard” and “soft.” A soft Brexit generally meant leaving the bloc’s political structures but not its economic ones, such as the single market for goods and services. The hard version meant leaving those, too. Crucially, both versions would see Britain formally agree to a new relationship with the EU.

“In the summer of 2016, everyone was a soft Brexiter, really,” Anand Menon, a professor of European politics and foreign affairs at King’s College London, told me.

Now no one is. The political landscape is polarized. What was once considered “hard” is now denounced by the loudest Brexiteers as a squalid compromise. Instead, “no deal” has become the purest, truest form of Brexit—“No deal is the best deal,” the official account of the Brexit Party, the most doctrinaire of Brexit-supporting groups, recently tweeted.

Advocates of a soft Brexit, meanwhile, have disappeared from the airwaves altogether, replaced by those who want to overturn the result and stay in the EU. Many Remainers who were once reconciled to the idea of leaving—arguing that the result of the referendum had to be respected—have now looked across the aisle and decided, They’re not compromising, so why should we? Campaigns to reverse Brexit through a second referendum have emerged and helped drown out the moderates.

How did we get here? It is a question that demands an answer, because Brexit has dominated Britain’s political debate for the past three years—and will do so for many more. The vagueness about what Brexit means has created a new political fissure that seems unbridgeable.

From the start, soon after the referendum result was announced, political logic bent the outcome toward a hard exit. What evidence could be flourished at voters to show that the government had accomplished Brexit, beyond symbolic moves such as changing the color of Britain’s passports back to blue, their color before the country joined the EU? Trade deals “were honed in as something that could be held up as a trophy,” Sam Lowe, a senior research fellow at the Centre for European Reform, a London-based think tank, told me. To strike trade deals, Britain needed to leave the regulatory and customs orbit of the EU—being a member means you give up the right to negotiate your own tariffs. And if some distance from Europe was liberating, wouldn’t going further be even better? In politics, it is hard to argue for half-measures.

Since then, events have followed a predictable pattern. Every potential form of Brexit has been denounced by the most vocal Leavers as insufficiently hard. The logical conclusion is that only the most disruptive form will do. To many Brexit voters, no deal sounds alluringly like a complete break, but it is a misnomer, because a chaotic exit would undoubtedly be followed by a series of deals to allow planes to fly and supply chains to function.

For an example of a politician whose Brexit position has hardened, look no further than Prime Minister Boris Johnson. As late as March 2016, three months before the referendum, he refused to answer directly whether he wanted Britain to leave the single market, the system by which goods and people flow without restriction within the EU, saying only that the country would have “our own British arrangements.” By July 2018, he had resigned as foreign secretary because he could not support Theresa May’s deal, even though it would see Britain leave the single market and customs union; he has dismissed it as merely a “semi-Brexit.” As recently as yesterday, he said Britain “cannot accept the current withdrawal agreement.” That deal, which would once have been considered a hard Brexit, has been referred to as “Brino”—Brexit in name only—by the Conservative lawmaker Jacob Rees-Mogg, echoing descriptions of moderate conservatives in the United States as “Republicans in name only.”

The disappearance of the Brexit middle ground should be a sobering and educational experience. If Britain ever again decides to settle a constitutional question with a referendum, the vote should be run very differently. To avoid years of bitterness and delay, the government must support the proposed change, rather than the status quo—thereby heading off questions of commitment to the result, as has been the case here—and produce something close to a manifesto for what that change should look like.

Manifestos are a cornerstone of democracy. Prospective governments lay out their plans; they are scrutinized by the press; the party with the most popular set of plans gets the chance to carry it out; its attempts are, in turn, scrutinized by the press. Once the next election comes around, voters can see any differences between what they were promised and what was delivered.

Leave had no detailed manifesto, just a series of vague pledges made by independent campaign groups. This was, in part, intentional. In a blog post from June 2015, Dominic Cummings, the Vote Leave strategist who is now Johnson’s top adviser, wrote: “Creating an exit plan that makes sense and which all reasonable people could unite around seems an almost insuperable task. Eurosceptic groups have been divided for years about many of the basic policy and political questions ... There is much to be gained by swerving the whole issue.” (Incidentally, one of the few concrete pledges made by Vote Leave, the officially sanctioned group campaigning for Brexit, was that Britain would exit the EU with “a new UK-EU Treaty based on free trade and friendly cooperation.” In other words, a deal.)

As a political adviser, Cummings combines strategic nous with the unfortunate instincts of a Bond villain revealing his master plan. The absence of “an exit plan that makes sense and which all reasonable people could unite around” might have helped Leave win the referendum, but it has made Britain almost ungovernable since. No one can agree on what Brexit means, and rejecting whatever is on offer is in the interests of many different groups.

May, Johnson’s immediate predecessor, must take some responsibility for the drift toward no deal being treated as a reasonable option. She repeatedly aired a sound bite—“No deal is better than a bad deal”—that she patently did not believe, since her government never seriously contemplated leaving without one. But her words removed the government’s ability to explain the problems with no deal. Into that vacuum jumped the Brexit Party and several dozen of May’s own Conservative colleagues. Hence the normalization of no deal.

This rejection of compromise has been driven by a small faction of the ruling Conservative Party. Those who voted against May’s deal each of the three times she proposed it call themselves the “Spartans.” Their quest for a “pure” Brexit saw May, who voted Remain, replaced as prime minister by Johnson, a Brexiteer. Many of the new leader’s key staff held senior positions on the Vote Leave campaign.

Let’s take a moment to reflect. In more normal times, no government would voluntarily flirt with a policy that its own analysis suggests might deprive citizens of food, medicine, or other supplies. World War II–inflected rhetoric around no deal—“war cabinet” and “Dunkirk spirit”—conceals the fact that a developed nation, in peacetime, is seriously contemplating the idea of cutting off important trading alliances and security partnerships overnight, no matter how severe the consequences. As the comedian David Schneider remarked: “The UK has a ‘war committee’ because it’s about to declare war on itself.”

Both Lowe and Menon told me they suspect that the talk of no deal is a bluff. By seeming at ease with a disorderly exit, the government hopes to spook Brussels into offering concessions and/or grumpy backbenchers into voting for a last-minute deal. But if it is a bluff, it is a dangerous one. Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party can win seats in Parliament only by outflanking the Conservatives on Europe. However tough the government is, Farage must be tougher. However inflammatory the prime minister’s language about treacherous “collaborators,” Farage’s must be fierier. “The best case for Farage is that he’s betrayed in some way so that he can spend 20 years moaning about it on television,” Lowe said.

It is hard not to agree with the Brexiteer David Davis, speaking in 2002: “We should not ask people to vote on a blank sheet of paper and tell them to trust us to fill in the details. Referendums need to be treated as an addition to the parliamentary process, not as a substitute for it.” In the case of Britain, the government is now pursuing a course that is more risky than anything Davis, himself briefly the government’s Brexit secretary, suggested was a possibility in 2016. Britain could experience job losses and an economic slowdown—while at the same time, a caucus of hard-core euroskeptics cries betrayal and insists that this is Brexit in name only. No one will be happy.

Three years ago, voters were given that blank sheet of paper—and the resulting confusion was therefore inevitable. What does Brexit mean? Anything you want it to, and nothing at all.