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Twisting on 17: the hardline Leavers’ great gamble

September 12th, 2018

Picture credit @DelMody on twitter

“Vote Leave, Take Back Control” was the slogan.  This conjured up a vision of a democratic army peacefully occupying Downing Street and resetting the priorities of government to be aligned with the needs of everyday people. 

The vision turned out to be a fata Morgana.  The referendum was won by Leave but poor people didn’t rise up and take what’s theirs.  Rather more surprisingly, rich Leavers didn’t rise up and take what’s theirs either.  Some prominent Conservative Leavers joined the government but were striking by their passivity, languidly drifting with the currents until they discovered that they were stranded on a reef far from their intended destination.  At this point, in time-honoured fashion, several rats left the ship of state.

It appears that the type of control that nearly all Leavers sought was not the control of an activist but a much more passive concept.  They envisaged their control being the control of a diner in a Michelin-starred restaurant, regally ordering from the menu and loftily sending back dishes that were not to their liking.  They had no intention of sweating in the kitchen.  The hard work could be done by others.

This approach has comprehensively failed.  It turns out that if you want a result that fully satisfies you, you need to get stuck in.  Even now, hardline Leave politicians have been unable to agree on something positive that they can put forward.  While Steve Baker MP has suggested that up to 80 MPs will oppose the Chequers plan, the idea of putting forward an ERG-approved Brexit proposal has been apparently shelved as the purists fell out among each other, amid suggestions that the draft included a slash-and-burn tax strategy and plans for an expeditionary force to defend the Falklands and a missile defence system.  The lack of focus is palpable.  In the meantime, the affiliated interest group, Economists For Free Trade, has put out a brief paper dealing with limited aspects that is long on assertion and short on detail.  Its reception has run the gamut from polite scepticism to rude scepticism.

As a result of this failure to come up with positive proposals, the hardliners have been left with nothing to do other than oppose the constructive plans of others.  They appear not to appreciate just how risky a strategy this is.

Chequers was always going to be embattled.  Remain supporters hate it because it effects Brexit.  The EU sees it as crossing its own red lines.  So if it was going to have any chance of public acceptance, it was going to need the full-throated approval of Leavers as the best that could be done in the circumstances.  They didn’t give it.  As a result, it is seen as a bad deal by an absolute majority of the public and by 3:1 of those who express a preference.

So now we can expect one of the following outcomes.  The ERG might succeed in defeating Chequers.  This would probably topple the Prime Minister, but that’s incidental.  At that point, all hell would break loose.  There might be an early election as the Conservative party dissolved into chaotic recriminations. 

Even if not, Parliament would not quietly accept a no deal Brexit.  It might be the end result, but there must be a substantial chance that the majority of MPs in Parliament who have never been convinced by Brexit get their act together to seek to extend the Article 50 period while an alternative resolution to the crisis was found.  Alternatively, they may secure a fresh referendum given the unexpected turn of events.  Everything would be up for grabs.

More likely, the ERG will not succeed in defeating any deal.  When it comes to the crunch, the government can probably rely on the support of enough of its own MPs combined with enough of the opposition MPs to secure support for an orderly Brexit, if that can be negotiated with the EU.  (Indeed, ERG members themselves may well when it comes to the crunch hold their nose and vote for it.) 

For presentational purposes – Theresa May needs her dignity – such a deal will probably be badged as a modified version of Chequers, whether or not that is true.  Having declared their strong opposition to Chequers and helped to ensure that plan has lost public support, the ERG would in all probability find themselves in those circumstances leaving the EU on terms that commanded no legitimacy.  With the final terms yet to start to be negotiated, the public would be in for an endless relitigation of the merits of the original decision. 

In these circumstances, Brexit would have failed to have become fully embedded.  It would be constantly on the political agenda, with a constant shrill clamour from articulate and alienated Remainers for a rethink, in turn stoking Leavers’ defensive paranoia.

Against the odds, Leave won the referendum vote.  You would have thought, after such an unexpected success, that the main goal of Leave supporters would be to get that converted into Britain actually leaving the EU.  Even at the time you could hear Leave supporters muttering darkly how they doubted that would happen.  So you would have thought that done was better than perfect. 

It would have been very difficult, but not impossible, for Leave advocates to reach out to Remain supporters seeking to address their concerns and bind them into a new settlement.  This would have firmly entrenched Brexit.  No one tried.  Instead, Leavers went out of their way to alienate erstwhile Remain supporters and treat them as the enemy within.  Unsurprisingly, many Remainers have continued to put their energies into disrupting what they see a malign and mad endeavour.

Less ambitiously, it would have been possible for Leave advocates to come up with a realistic approach to Leaving that recognised some of the hard choices that needed to be made and to have fallen in behind the necessary compromises.  This at least could have bound the Leave coalition, if not Remain supporters, together behind a positive prospectus.  But it would have required effort.

Instead, the hardline Leavers find themselves with just over six months to go before Brexit bites opposing every constructive plan that has been put forward, with the public pessimistic about how Brexit is proceeding, hoping that they can come up with some kind of a vision from the negativity of a no deal Brexit. 

Even if successful in its short term aim of crashing any compromise, it looks likely to be highly disruptive and risks entrenching opposition to the Conservatives among many voters for many years to come, potentially contaminating the very idea of Brexit in the minds of a generation.  This looks like a colossal gamble at poor odds.  All of us look likely to suffer as a result.

Alastair Meeks