Let's suppose Theresa May had actually wanted to keep the UK within the single market and customs union, in a Norway-style deal. It would honour the referendum result by leaving the EU, minimise damage to the UK economy, but also retain free movement and contributions to the EU budget. How could she have done it?
The Alternative Scenario
Here is roughly how a soft Brexit would play out:
First of all, the swivel-eyed fanatics in the Conservative party will not stand for it. In their minds, anything with "European" in the name will corrupt their precious bodily fluids. Having got their referendum vote, they want maximum separation from Brussels. They aren't a majority, but make up perhaps a quarter to a third of the parliamentary party.
May issues an ultimatum: Accept my plan, or leave the party. This forces a schism in the Conservative party, which successive leaders since John Major have done their best to prevent. In all likelihood, a number of hard-right Tory MPs will leave, perhaps defecting to UKIP. May loses her governing majority in Parliament and calls an early election, seeking a mandate for her preferred Brexit.
In England, the early general election is a contest between Labour, Tories, and UKIP; by taking on the soft-Brexit mantle, May pushes the Lib Dems to the margins. Given the shambolic state of Labour, and the knuckle-chewing weirdness of UKIP, it is not hard for May to pose as the voice of pragmatism and reason.
May probably wins a respectable majority, even a landslide. UKIP thrives in its own nasty way, as a hardline anti-immigrant party resembling the French National Front, and perhaps secures a breakthrough in parliamentary representation. The SNP keeps its grip on Scotland. Corbyn's Labour crumbles under the demands of a general election campaign, and there's no knowing who is left to pick up the pieces. May's new centre-right government proceeds to implement a Norway-style Brexit with a minimum of fuss.
Of course, the above is a best-case scenario for May; she could have found herself leading a minority government or losing power altogether. Elections are unpredictable things.
If this plan had succeeded, would it secure a better Brexit? Yes. Would it head off another Scottish referendum? For now, probably. Would a Tory schism be a price worth paying? I think yes, but the fallout would be significant. The hard right are despicable, but as long as they have a place in the Conservative party, they can be somewhat contained and managed. If they set up shop on their own, and held onto a significant number of parliamentary seats, it would change the balance of British politics for the worse.
Leading the UK to a Norway-style Brexit would have required audacity, a gambler's instinct, and an iron nerve. Few modern Prime Ministers would have been capable of it. Winston Churchill, and maybe Thatcher or Blair at their most determined, but no others. Theresa May, with her cautious, low-key and calculating style, is one of the last politicians to take this kind of bold action.
In any event, why would she want to? May and other mainstream Tories recognise the drawbacks of hard Brexit, but that's not the hill they want to die on. They share a great deal of common ground with the Brexiteers, in their wishes to cut taxes, slash public services, and victimise immigrants. There is no rush to fight a general election against Labour; it will be in no better shape in 2020 than it is now, and meanwhile it is such a feeble parliamentary opposition the Tories can largely do as they please.
Burn The Witch
The issue of immigration is key. It has become a general scapegoat for poverty, insecurity, and fear of change. Finding real solutions to these problems is difficult, and blaming immigrants is easy. As Home Secretary and Prime Minister, May has been more than happy to indulge anti-immigrant sentiment for the sake of cheap popularity. However, the British economy and public services, above all the NHS, cannot function without immigration.
It seems May intends to square this circle by allowing immigrants in to work, while treating them as harshly as possible. We can see this in the deportations of people who have married British citizens, settled in the UK and raised children here. The native-born may have to put up with foreign NHS workers saving their lives, but can take comfort in watching those workers live in fear. Indignity and insecurity will be the lot of immigrants, while all too many UK citizens look on with smug approval of May's "toughness".
The policy resembles a modern form of witch hunting. If the crops fail, we can blame it on witchcraft and sacrifice some innocent people. It won't have any practical benefit, but at least it provides a distraction.
It is for this reason that free movement will end. Allowing Poles, Spaniards or Austrians the right to settle in the UK, as free and equal citizens of the EU, is not compatible with harassing them as theatre for the mob.
It appears EU citizens are already voting with their feet, and have largely stopped coming to the UK to take jobs in the NHS. No doubt the government believes doctors and nurses from poorer countries can be paid enough to tolerate hostility in the UK. Time will tell if they are correct. (Who will care for the sick in Ghana or Bangladesh is someone else's problem.)
Business As Unusual
As a consequence of ending free movement, the UK will crash out of the single market, which will be unequivocally bad for business. Once upon a time, the words "bad for business" would have been guaranteed to make Conservatives stop and think again. The old guard, such as Kenneth Clarke and Sir John Major, are saying as much; but May is determined to ignore them.
May places party unity and hostility to immigrants above such considerations. The damage to the economy is regrettable, to be sure; but the well-off will have to content themselves with a larger slice of a smaller pie, as the Conservatives continue to cut taxes on the rich and slash public services. The Prime Minister is practicing the politics of sadism.
Under May's leadership, the Conservatives are united, and likely to remain in power until 2030 at the earliest. They might be blown off course if the Brexit process is a complete and total disaster; but evidently, that is a chance May is willing to take. The anti-European press will support her, and blame any negative consequences on perfidious foreigners or a fifth column of pro-European Brits.
It has a certain ruthless logic. May is content to buy off her anti-European colleagues with the hard Brexit they want, and in return she will get most of what she wants. All of us will end up paying the price; not just in finanical terms, but in becoming a meaner and more fearful nation.