THERESA MAY started the week in Canada and ended it in Florence. Predictably, her Florence speech was underwhelming. Its main substance was the proposal of a two-year transition period out of the EU with associated budget payments intended to ease the Brexit divorce.

With May stating definitively that the UK will no longer be a member of the EU’s single market or customs union after the transition, a hard Brexit is clearly on the cards by 2021. So her Canada trip was perhaps the most significant symbolism of the week – a Canada-style trade deal is now probably the best that the UK can hope for in its future relationship with the EU27.

May was keen to deny this – saying that neither a Norway/European Economic Area approach nor a Canada-style trade deal was the answer. But the EU27 have been consistent and clear – without free movement of people the UK cannot have the same access to the single market it has now. Some sort of free trade deal is the best the UK can aim for.

Loading article content

But a Canada-style trade deal would lead to major damage to the UK’s trade with the EU. And it would make it all but impossible to keep an open border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. Hard Brexit will be tough. Some estimates suggest, in a typical free trade deal, UK-EU trade in goods could decline by 35 per cent and services by a massive 60 per cent.

No wonder May continues to be vague and suggest there is some magic, bespoke deal for the UK. This is not just about bridging a Hammond (EEA-lite)-Johnson (free trade deal) divide. It’s about pretending the Brexit damage to trade can be avoided.

But, unlike May, UK opposition parties do not need to fudge the damage of a hard Brexit. The LibDems continue to argue for a second referendum once the terms of the deal are known in a year’s time. But if the destination is now clearly a hard Brexit – no single market, no customs union – then shouldn’t the LibDems start to argue for a second referendum as soon as possible?

Attempting to avert the Brexit crash at the last minute, at the end of 2018, may be too late to stop many businesses shifting staff and investment to the EU in the coming year. And the EU27, after another year of difficult Brexit talks, may be less than welcoming if the UK decides to change its mind at the last minute.

May’s speech should also put Labour on the spot. Brexit shadow minister Keir Starmer has remained vague as to whether Labour would support a soft Brexit beyond a transition phase. But now the government’s goal remains clearly a hard Brexit, it is surely time Labour came clean as to whether it supports that or not.

And if Labour did oppose a hard Brexit, will it vote against a Brexit deal in the House of Commons next autumn? And would it back the LibDems in their demand for a second referendum. For now, the answer would appear to be no. But, either way, Labour’s fudging of its preferred final UK-EU27 relationship needs to end soon.

In recent weeks the SNP have focused their Brexit attention on the EU Withdrawal Bill and its attack on devolved competences. But with the SNP’s compromise Brexit goal of the UK staying in the single market and customs union clearly rejected by May’s Florence speech, what will its strategy be now as hard Brexit beckons?

In a rather throw-away remark in her New Statesman interview earlier this week First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said that the case for a second EU referendum “may become very hard to resist”. If it chose, the SNP could, in line with its pro-EU stance, rather easily support the LibDems call for a second referendum. It could underpin a stronger cross-party push against Brexit. But if, instead, Brexit is seen as unstoppable then the lack of a political lead may indeed make it irreversible.

With the timing of any indyref2 pushed back, arguing for a second EU referendum, with the aim of halting Brexit, would be in Scotland’s interests whether it stays in the UK or eventually chooses independence. And a joint SNP-LibDem push could at least transform the current political dynamics of the UK’s desultory Brexit debates. This could challenge Labour too, both in Scotland and the rest of the UK, as to whether it will shift course on supporting Brexit before it’s too late.

May’s Florence speech also takes away some of the SNP’s argument for a delay in any second independence referendum until the Brexit deal is clear. The destination is now clear – it’s a hard Brexit destination by 2021. After that, Scotland will face – like the rest of the UK – all the economic pain it entails.

And it will be too late, by 2021, for a smooth transition into the EU as an independent country.

Soft Brexit is not on the cards. So the LibDems, SNP and Labour all need to update their Brexit strategies and make their choices – whether to oppose Brexit or go along with it.