We need to stop calling it hard Brexit. This is chaotic Brexit

Political language matters. The Tories understand this: that’s why they repeat the same messages over and over again. We’re clearing up Labour’s mess; we’re balancing the nation’s books; long-term economic plan, all repeated ad infinitum. Opponents mock this message discipline, play Tory bingo or are driven to distraction by it: meanwhile, voters can repeat back Tory attack lines verbatim on the doorstep. It works. The Tories excel at defining both themselves and their opponents. They have a frame for the opposition that they stick to with military discipline: “Labour can’t be trusted with the nation’s finances”. Whenever Labour comes up with a policy – however popular – here is the ammunition to shoot it down before it’s even taken flight.

That’s why the framing of Brexit is so critical. Opponents of the Tories’ approach to Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union call it a “hard Brexit”. This is a mistake. At best, it is abstract. It can simply mean reassuring many of those who voted to leave that Brexit really does mean Brexit, rather than “the Tories’ deal will slash your living standards”. It sounds tough, determined, unlike the wishy-washy “soft Brexit”. Hard Brexit cheerleaders are toying with their own clever frame: a “clean Brexit”. No mess, no fuss, no hassle: simple, efficient and pain-free.

So what for those of us who want a Brexit that isn’t economically and socially ruinous? According to leaked government papers, if Britain were to abandon the single market, the economic hit would be potentially devastating: £66bn lost to the Exchequer every single year, and a fall in GDP of up to 9.5% compared to the status quo. The pound is already collapsing in value. Fraught negotiations – in which Britain is in a position of weakness – will undoubtedly be accompanied by market turmoil. Now, the Tories’ reputation is this: people do not generally like them, and they regard them as principally standing up for the interests of the rich. But while many voters believe the Tories are nasty, they regard them as competent: they are to be trusted with big economic decisions.

That’s why opponents of the Tories’ position should settle on a “chaotic Brexit” (a disclaimer, if they’re reading: this was suggested to me by a fellow activist). The alternative would be, say, “a Brexit that works for Britain” and an “orderly Brexit”. Every time the pound plunges, a business suggests they’re going to withdraw, an international institution predicts economic instability: here’s the “chaotic Brexit” on display. 

Repeated ad infinitum by Labour figures and sympathetic outriders, it would frame the debate and force the Tories on the defensive. It would chip away at the Tories’ reputation for competence and economic credibility. It would appeal to people’s deeply held desire for security and stability.

Labour are finally crafting a clearer line on Brexit: this morning, the shadow chancellor warned that “losing access to the single market would be devastating for jobs, livelihoods and our public services”, that Britain didn’t vote for “economic misery and the loss of jobs”, and that the government was “abandoning Britain’s clear national interests by putting narrow party political concerns first.” These are good lines – and clarify that Labour’s priority is single-market access – but they will only cut through if repeated in similar language until people can hardly bear to hear them anymore. Here is Labour’s plan for an orderly Brexit that works for Britain. The Tories only offer a chaotic Brexit. This is surely how the debate must be framed.

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