Photograph by Annika Haas.
So, how long should the transition last? Should the UK remain in the single market as well as the customs union during the transition? Must the UK conform to new EU regulations enacted during this period? How far should Liam Fox be authorized to go in negotiating trade agreements with third parties? And what will be the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice? With so many issues in dispute, Hammond’s chances of getting his benign, painless version of the Brexit transition are slim to nonexistent.
Amid the gloom, there is one ray of hope. The Brexiteers have always argued that the outcome of the June 2016 referendum represented the unshakable will of the people. But that is in doubt. In a poll taken just before the referendum, a large majority of respondents said that their support for leaving the EU was conditional on its being economically painless. Asked if they would be “happy to lose any of their own personal annual income to tighten the control Britain has over immigration”—a central goal of the Brexiteers—68 percent answered that they would not be prepared to sacrifice a single penny of their income. A poll in July showed for the first time that if a second referendum were held, the Remain side would win, with 54 percent of the vote to 46 percent for Leave.
It now seems unlikely that the UK government will secure a transitional agreement with the EU in time for businesses to postpone their plans to start leaving the UK or cutting their investments there. If so, the percentage of British voters who come to realize that Brexit represents a real threat to their jobs and incomes can only grow. Even affluent Londoners are worried by recent news of falling house prices there. If the last year and a half has revealed anything about British politics, it is the instability of public opinion. If the polling numbers start to move strongly against Brexit, the political class will surely take note and start moving toward the only solution that makes sense for Britain: to abandon the whole disastrous project altogether.