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The Political Logic of Hard Brexit

PARIS – Little more than three months after the United Kingdom’s decision in June to leave the European Union, Brexit politics are careening out of control in the UK. An almost revolutionary – and very un-British – dynamic has taken hold, and, as British Prime Minister Theresa May indicated in her “Little Englander” speech at the Conservative Party conference this month, the UK is heading for a “hard Brexit.”

That outcome would run counter to British public opinion, which remains moderate on the question of fully breaking with the EU. According to a July BBC/ComRes poll, 66% of respondents considered “maintaining access to the single market” to be more important than restricting freedom of movement. In an ICM poll the same month, only 10% of respondents said they would prioritize ending free movement over maintaining access to the single market, while 30% viewed the two as equally important and 38% considered maintaining full access to the single market the priority.

These findings will surprise only those who buy into the narrative that the West is confronting a large-scale xenophobic revolt against the elites. While the “Leave” camp certainly included many hard Brexiteers whose primary motivation was to end free movement, it also comprised people who believed Boris Johnson, the former London mayor and current foreign secretary, when he promised (as he still does) that the UK could have its cake and eat it.

In fact, despite Leave’s large faction of angry white working-class voters, middle-class trade-friendly Brexiteers, together with the “Remain” camp, constitute a clear majority of everyone who voted in the June referendum. Under normal circumstances, one would expect the government’s policy to reflect the majority’s preference, and to aim for a “soft Brexit.” Instead, a classic revolutionary pattern has emerged.