Euan McColm: Don't buy the hard sell for a soft Brexit

The brilliant comedian Matt Forde has a routine during which he compares the response of Remain voters to the UK's decision to leave the European Union to the five stages of grief. It runs thus: 'Denial: we're not going to leave the EU. Anger: you f***ing racists! Bargaining: maybe we can stay in the single market. Depression: we can't stay in the single market. Acceptance: f***ing right. Send 'em back.'

Johnsons bravado was quickly rebuffed by the president of the European Council, Donald Tusk. Picture: Daniel Leal-Olivas/Getty

Many Remainers are, I think, currently flip-flopping in the swamp of confusion between the third and fourth points on Forde’s timeline.

This disorientation of thought manifests itself in talk of whether the UK faces “soft” or “hard” Brexit. Will we crash out of the EU with all ties broken or will the UK somehow manage to cut a deal that retains some of the things which, on reflection, might actually make sense both economically and socially?

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To those who wished the UK to stay inside the EU, any crumb of comfort is snaffled up; maybe things won’t be as bad as they fear.

Certain politicians are feeding this nonsensical notion that the UK can have its cake and eat it. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson is the worst offender. Johnson told MPs on Thursday he was confident the UK could, post-Brexit, strike a better trade deal than it now has with the EU. Good old Bo-Jo muttered and spluttered about our bright new future, a future where countries to which we have just shown an extended middle finger respond by throwing themselves before us, obsequiously encouraging us to take from them whatever we wish.

Even as the pound continued to tank, Johnson said those who had prophesied doom should the UK vote to leave the EU had been proved wrong and would be again.

This might have been more comforting had Johnson not been the leading figure in a Brexit campaign that made a promise – writ large on the side of a bus – that every week £350 million extra would be available for the NHS if only the UK would vote Leave.

Blustering Johnson’s credibility left town on that bus. His bravado, now, about a UK dictating the terms of Brexit is classic Johnson: it sounds good but it’s cynical and dishonest.

But Johnson is not the only politician exploiting the notion that there might somehow be “soft” and “hard” Brexits.

On the same day Johnson suggested it was entirely down to the UK to decide the consistency of the Brexit that suits us best, Scotland’s First Minister used the prospect of the “hard” variety to argue that a second referendum on independence is necessary. Nicola Sturgeon told the SNP conference in Glasgow that Scotland simply had to have the option of voting again on independence before the UK leaves 
the EU.

The Scottish Nationalists’ efforts are focused right now on describing an apocalyptic Brexit, with the Tory Party the equivalents of the Nazis (incredibly, that’s precisely the comparison SNP MSP Christina McKelvie made during a meeting at her party’s conference).

Sturgeon casts herself in this story as the heroic champion of the 62 per cent of Scots who voted to remain in the EU. She will do all she can to protect Scotland’s place in Europe, and if the Tories will not play ball in this regard, then she very much regrets that it will be game over for the UK.

Sturgeon’s quest, of course, is doomed to fail and she knows this. The vote on EU membership was a UK-wide one and it should not require pointing out that, no matter what Sturgeon or anyone else might have to say about a “democratic deficit”, the consequences of the result must be felt by every part of the UK.

Sturgeon’s position is as cynical as Johnson’s. It bears as little resemblance to reality as his does and is designed not to illuminate but to advance a political objective. When the First Minister is thwarted by the evil Tories, she will be able to tell Scotland that its voice has been ignored.

And that will only mean one thing, won’t it? It’ll be time for another vote on breaking up the UK.

That departure from the UK would mean departure from the EU, anyway, will be neither here nor there. The fine print will be ignored in favour of a grievance-fuelled narrative about Scotland denied, yet again.

The truth – and it would be as well for all concerned to accept this now – is that there is only one kind of Brexit, and that’s the hard and unforgiving one.

It is not in the interests of any remaining members of the EU to cut the UK a special deal. Our European neighbours hold all the cards.

Oh, you want to withdraw your funding, reject our regulations and still benefit from the single market do you? Well the answer’s “non” to that.

And you’d like to restrict immigration to the UK while retaining the right of your people to settle wherever on the Continent they want? That’s a “nein” from us.

Brexit will be defined not by the UK but by the EU and in the minds of those pro-European leaders who remain will be something that prompts anyone else who might have ideas about following our lead to think again. Pour encourager les autres, and all that.

The president of the European Council, Donald Tusk, also spoke on Thursday and his words help us cut through the Johnson and Sturgeon spin.

There is only, he said, “hard” Brexit or no Brexit. There is no “soft” variety and those who think otherwise should, he said, buy a cake, eat it, and then look to see whether it is still there.

It may be comforting for Remainers – and Leavers now burdened by buyer’s regret – to believe in a bespoke version of Brexit, but there’s no such thing. Any suggestion to the contrary is a lie so huge that it could have been painted on the side of Boris Johnson’s campaign bus.