So nostalgic and moleskin-trousered by stereotype, Britain’s Eurosceptic right is actually mesmerised by technology. In the referendum campaign, Leavers espoused the power of digital communication to collapse geographic distance, and make India as viable an export market as France.
Now, faced with the riddle of how to leave the customs union without compromising supply chains or peace along the Irish border, they bank on unspecified inventions to finesse the problem over time.
This vein of techno-optimism does not run through Brussels, where “ maximum facilitation” has few supporters, or even London, where Theresa May, the prime minister, tries to sell colleagues on a simpler customs partnership with the EU. Such is the minutiae behind an intra-Conservative party war fought in increasingly public view.
The mystery is why, with a hard-ish Brexit so close, Leavers would choose to die in this particular ditch. The customs partnership would not prevent an independent British trade policy. Britain would have to collect tariffs on behalf of the EU, but this seems a small nuisance next to the prize of exit. And if the technology really does emerge, partnership can be swapped for max fac later on.
Yet Boris Johnson, whose survival as foreign secretary is a daily reproach to Mrs May’s judgment, calls her idea “crazy”. Jacob Rees-Mogg MP goes with “completely cretinous”. Ministers whom she has asked to war-game the policy will do so with clothes pegs on their noses and expressions of distaste.
There is something forced, almost thespian, about their complaints. After all, their dream is near. Why imperil it? Leavers did not just win the referendum, but the interpretation of the result, too. Britain is leaving the customs union and the single market, despite the closeness of the vote and the ambiguity of its meaning. We have lived through the gradual normalisation of a type of exit that was held to be “hard” in the days after the referendum.
Mrs May has been a gift to the Leavers. As a rookie prime minister, hemmed in by advisers who failed to last the course, it was she who drew the red lines that left little to negotiate with the EU. “Trust me,” she wrote in The Sunday Times last weekend, but they should trust her implicitly by now.
Why, then, this struggle among Leavers to take yes for an answer? Perhaps it is sincere, and they read into the difference between max fac and customs partnership a significance that is worth delaying an exit deal for. But with various pressures against them — time, the House of Lords’ enthusiasm for the single market — a passionate Leaver would surely compromise at this stage.
Which is why we must entertain a more cynical theory. A good number of Leavers do not want to be associated with the exit deal that Britain eventually strikes with the EU, whatever its content. To that end, they are inventing grievances. Disavowal of the agreement allows them to escape blame if economic life deteriorates after its implementation, or voters feel no compensating thrill of self-government. “If only we had left properly,” would serve as the Leavers’ defence against popular anger.
The betrayal narrative writes itself. A cabinet resignation or two would help it along. Mr Johnson’s behaviour is consistent with that of a man who wants to be fired. Having won the referendum as rebels, endorsement of the official deal would turn the Leavers into apologists for a new status quo overnight, with all its imperfections and disappointments. Not just MPs, but newspapers too, would have to explain away the non-materialisation of Shangri-La on British soil. Neither temperament nor experience equips them for life as pragmatic defenders of a flawed but liveable reality. They will do what they can to prevent the change in role.
And if their vexatious complaints prevent any deal being agreed, then, for some of them at least, so much the better. A certain kind of Leaver has always loathed the idea of exit talks, as though European permission were needed, and hates even more the prospect of entanglement in budget payments, regulatory agencies and the like.
If all this seems implausibly calculated, then remember what the alternative explanation is. You have to believe that people who have devoted their adult lives to the cause of EU exit would, on the brink of their dream’s orderly enactment, become immovable on the details of customs regimes that merited no mention before. I do not believe it. Even their language (“crazy”, “cretinous”) suggests the histrionics of a ham actor. Leavers demand everything from a Brexit deal except their names on the paper.
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