At a crucial moment in the American Revolution, Alexander Hamilton confronted Samuel Seabury, a cautious bishop who dithered over his attitude to the British. In the wonderful musical Hamilton, its eponymous hero tells Seabury: “I’d rather be divisive than indecisive, drop the niceties.” The words are those of a twenty-first-century hip-hop artist, but the sentiment reflects Hamilton’s view precisely.

Peter Kellner
Kellner is a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe, where his research focuses on Brexit, populism, and electoral democracy.
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In her stance on Brexit, Britain’s prime minister is currently acting more like Seabury. She is trying desperately to keep on good terms with both wings of her Conservative Party—those who want a relationship with the European Union as close as possible to full membership, as well as those who think the United Kingdom should repatriate all the powers it has handed to the EU. To keep her party together, Theresa May has been dithering like Seabury. Her proposals for life after Brexit are vague at best and impractical at worst. The clock for the negotiations is running down, with most of the serious issues nowhere near being settled.

At some point, Mrs. May will have to drop the niceties, stop being indecisive, and take a divisive stand—either facing down those who put British sovereignty above all else, or confronting those who want the softest possible Brexit in order to keep trade flowing freely and the Irish border completely open. If she plumps for the first, she will be accused of betraying the 2016 referendum by favoring “BRINO”—Brexit in name only. If she chooses the second, business leaders and virtually everyone in the center and center-left of the political spectrum will accuse her of damaging Britain’s economic prospects in pursuit of nationalist dogma.

Which way will she jump?

One clue comes from a private meeting that three former cabinet ministers held last week with the prime minister. All three are pro-EU; all three were ministers until the last few months. One, Damian Green, has been a loyal friend of Mrs. May since they were students together. Like the other two, Justine Greening and Amber Rudd, he was active in the Remain campaign two years ago.

They have not joined the dozen or so Conservative MPs who are supporting pro-soft-Brexit amendments to bills now going through Parliament. The trio’s declared aim is to build consensus within their party. They call theirs a “sensible compromise.”

Now, sensible is one of those words that sound comforting but are ultimately meaningless. Who has ever described their own position as stupid? The significance of their intervention is not the label they attach to it, but the form of compromise they propose. It is far closer to the Conservative Remainers than the party’s Leavers. The trio believe in the overriding importance of maintaining frictionless trade with the EU. To achieve this, they want the UK to sign up to the EU’s Single Market rules indefinitely—and to a Customs Union that will stay in place until and unless new technology, which does not yet exist, makes border controls unnecessary.

Someone else who has come to a similar conclusion is Sir Ivan Rogers, who was the UK’s ambassador to the EU until eighteen months ago. He understands the complexities of Brexit better than almost anyone in Britain. On May 23, he delivered a speech to the Policy Scotland think tank that dissected Mrs. May’s options in detail. His conclusion is that the only feasible Brexit agreement that does not result in economic ruin is one in which the UK signs up to all the EU’s Customs Union and Single Market rules, at least for goods. He sees less of a problem for services—from education to banking— as these invisibles, as economists call them, do not cause enforcement problems at the Irish border or ports such as Dover. The main difference between Sir Ivan and the three ex-ministers’ “sensible compromise” is that he doubts whether there will ever be a technology fix acceptable to the EU that would allow the UK to devise its own customs rules.

All that said, Mrs. May has so far not given any indication that she agrees with her former colleagues—far less with Sir Ivan. However, the logic of the prime minister’s position is clear. She is hemmed in by the slow progress of the Brexit negotiations in Brussels, the very real dangers of a deal that damages business and causes problems at the Irish border, and the risk that Parliament will reject anything other than the softest of Brexits.

In the end, her likely response to the Hamilton dilemma will be to confront the Brexiteers, back the “sensible compromise,” and keep the UK in big parts of the Customs Union and Single Market. If this analysis is right, she may be able to satisfy Parliament and the business community; she could be defeated only if the Labour Party joins forces with the hardline Tory Brexiteers, which is possible but unlikely.

That, though, will not be the end of the story. She will then have to secure the agreement for her new plan from the EU’s Council of Ministers and the European Parliament. This may not be easy. What if they impose conditions she finds unacceptable, such as a continuing role for the European Court of Justice in British life—or decide that her plan won’t work at all?

That is a question for another time, and another blog.