Monday 3 October 2016 3:50 pm

Forget Hard or Soft – Theresa May is right to back a Clean Brexit

Brian Monteith is a former member of the Scottish and European parliaments

Defining the language of politics is crucial if you want to influence the outcome of events. That is why the Prime Minister is not allowing herself to be bounced into settling for either a “Hard” or a “Soft” Brexit.

These seemingly innocent and succinct terms offer a great advantage to broadcasters and headline writers, but the choice betrays an inherent bias against Brexit that May has called “a false dichotomy”.

Hard Brexit appears to be simply thumbing our noses at the EU and leaving immediately, irrespective of economic shocks. I mix with all sorts in the shimmering kaleidoscope that is the Brexit movement, but it is a position I have rarely heard advocated and carries no weight.

A Soft Brexit seems to mean we agree to open migration and forego bilateral trade deals in return for unfettered access to the Single Market and remaining in the protectionist Customs Union. This approach appears most popular with Remain campaigners who hope negotiating such a deal might take so long the UK never leaves the EU at all.

Last week, former chancellor Norman Lamont argued that what was really required was a “Clean Brexit” – where everyone would find a degree of certainty about what would happen, the time it would take and the opportunities available to the UK after the event.

Norman Lamont
Former chancellor Norman Lamont wants a Clean Brexit (Source: Getty)

By contrast a “Dirty Brexit” would be something that dragged on and on, giving no certainty to international businesses looking to invest here or UK firms waiting to see if overseas tariffs might be axed by a new trade deal. It would leave our ex-pats on the continent or EU nationals resident here none the wiser about their status and, despite all the assurances given to research scientists, universities, farmers, and fishermen about the future, there would be continuing doubts that politicians’ promises would be kept.

On the assumption that the democratic vote of the EU referendum will be respected, a “Clean Brexit” must surely be what we all want, irrespective of how we voted. Who could be against an optimal degree of clarity and certainty with an assurance of a time limit for it happening?

Read more: "Brexit means Brexit" means something very different to what people think

While the Prime Minister is correct in not wanting to give a running commentary to protect her negotiating position, there is nothing to be gained from our politicians being allowed to drift complacently on a sea of self-serving complexity and detail. Thankfully, since opening the Conservative conference in Birmingham, Theresa May and her ministers have sought to take us down the path of a Clean Brexit by laying down the process, some non-negotiables and a timeline.

We now know the negotiations proper will start by no later than the end of the first quarter of 2017, which means we can expect to leave the EU by 1 April 2019. May has assured us we will become a sovereign nation deciding our own laws with our own courts being supreme; that we will set our own taxes (that by definition must include our tariffs), and control our own borders – which means an end to free migration.

European Court of Justice
May's words imply leaving the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice (Source: Getty)

Last week the Leave Means Leave campaign published a report comparing the four practical scenarios that are the centre of internal government debate, known as the Norway, Swiss, Canadian and Global Free Trade Options. May’s double red lines rule out the Norway option, for that would require free movement of people and the acceptance of European Court of Justice rulings. It will make the Swiss option almost impossible, as its complexity would require too long to negotiate and its agreement on migration is now in dispute. This leaves the Canadian option, which is a negotiated trade deal to remove 98 per cent of tariffs but took seven years to conclude – and the Global Free Trade option, which is the default position of using World Trade Organisation rules, just like the US, Japan and China do.

The danger remains that, in seeking to get a preferential deal that satisfies critics, May sells us short of what Canada achieved when our economy is larger and more important to the EU. Far better then to accept “no deal is better than a bad deal” and go with the Global Free Trade option.

The result would be a Clean Brexit providing a position of strength from which to cut individual deals on financial services (including passporting), food production and aspects of manufacturing – retaining our sovereignty and controlling our destiny.

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.