Alastair Campbell on the growing power of the People’s Vote campaign events on Westminster and public opinion.
If it isn’t already, make sure October 19 is in your diary. Yes, another big march. Yes, London again, groans from some I know, but it is the best way to get the big numbers, and make a big noise MPs and the media cannot ignore; added to which it is the culmination of a series of People’s Vote campaign events that have taken place all over the UK all through the summer.
So London, October 19 – be there. And make sure you bring at least one person who wasn’t at the last big march. OK, make that two.
There is no scientific way of measuring their precise effect, but I am in little doubt that the marches and rallies organised by the People’s Vote campaign have had a considerable impact on public and Parliamentary opinion.
When the campaign was launched, few took it seriously. The MPs who felt it was even worth bothering with could squeeze, if not into the back of a black cab, certainly the lower deck of a red London bus, with plenty of room to stretch their legs. Fast forward to Theresa May’s ‘indicative votes’ process, and the second referendum came top, short of a majority, as with every other option, but with the scale of growth in support for the idea once derided as impossible suggesting such a majority was not out of reach.
For some time, the media largely ignored the campaign, and so the main parties felt they could too. Yet rallies targeted at Party conferences helped shift policy. Previous marches in London – two of the three biggest such events of modern times – showed the nationwide strength of feeling against both government and Opposition frontbenches and, as deadlines came and went, the idea of a Final Say referendum moved from fringes to centre stage. October 19 will keep it there.
It will come just 12 days ahead of what Boris Johnson repeatedly promises will be our departure date. He may be more of a gambler, more cavalier and less responsible, than Theresa May, and we have to accept he might well be prepared to put the country through the kind of chaos, risk and decline revealed in the Operation Yellowhammer papers leaked to the Sunday Times. Indeed, as ministers still in the government sought to pin blame for the leak on those who had recently left it, a part of me wondered whether Johnson’s team might well have been responsible, in the hope that on Crash Out Day, the total chaos will not be immediate, and he can play the ‘not as bad as feared’ card. My suspicions were increased by Michael Gove’s jokey little tweets patting himself on the back for the additional preparations made since he was put in charge of No Deal planning.
A bigger part of me, however, believes we will still be in the EU on November 1. Though Mrs May never said the words ‘do or die,’ she did say dozens of times that we would be out by March 29. She is the one who is out – out of office. We are still in – in the European Union, and just because Boris Johnson says we will be out, that does not make it a fact, any more than her repeated assertions did.
Indeed, we should take heart that so much of what Johnson promises turns out to be false, and so much of what he predicts turns out to be wrong. Would his do or die bluster be any more believable if, for example, he had said that he would lie down in front of a bulldozer and allow himself to be steamrollered in the event we didn’t leave? Never forget this about Johnson – he believes in nothing but himself, and the game of politics and media (not necessarily in that order). If his own survival requires the pieces on the board to move, or the rules of the game to change, he will do it. It is why ultimately, I believe, he will fail, for democratic politics at the highest level, without a clear compass rooted in at least some values and principles, will come unstuck.
Remember too, that the Parliamentary arithmetic has changed for the worse, and not just because the recent Brecon and Radnorshire by-election further ate into his tiny, DUP-dependent majority. The number of MPs who have actively spent the summer studying how they can use Parliamentary debate and procedure to stop a no-deal Brexit has grown, with a number of relative heavyweights like Philip Hammond and David Gauke among them. Labour’s position, while still far from ideal, is a lot better than it was, and both Tom Watson and shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry have now stood on People’s Vote platforms, which they would certainly not have done – we did ask – at the outset. Also, for all the focus on what leaders and MPs from the other parties said about Jeremy Corbyn’s letter suggesting he lead a short-term anti-no deal government, it did represent a further step in the right direction in terms of Labour’s overall Brexit policy.
The next few weeks are as important as any we have lived through since David Cameron set this awful ball rolling with the referendum. The stakes are so high it is hard not to feel anxious because everyone is looking for some form of certainty, and there is none. The Brexiters want to be certain we will be out, but they can’t be. We want to be certain this madness can be stopped, but we can’t be. We want to look at our leaders and our MPs and will them to be different people, with different views. But they are the people who have been elected in the systems we have. We despair perhaps that at this moment in our history, Boris Johnson is prime minister and Jeremy Corbyn leader of the opposition and therefore, whether we like it or not, the first person called upon to see if he can form a government in the event of Johnson falling. These are facts. The facts may change – after all, it is not that long ago that Theresa May as prime minister was a fact. But where we can make a difference, as we have shown, is in changing opinion.
The Brexiters and their media echo-chambers like to pretend opinion has not shifted. It has. Only if you read the bent reporting of the bent polling in papers like that Johnson fanzine, the once serious Daily Telegraph, will you see anything other than a consistent truth – this is a majority Remain country, and a massively anti-no deal country.
So while the anxiety is inevitable, we should still be confident. Partly because we have come so far and made such progress across an enormously difficult landscape. Also because, for all the bluster, however anxious we are feeling right now, it is as nothing compared with the sick feeling in Boris Johnson’s stomach as he wakes each morning and realises, ‘this is all a lot more complicated than I thought it would be.’
See you on the march. And, as I say above, make sure you bring at least one person who wasn’t at the last big march. OK, make that three. There’s a war on – Johnson said so, so it must be true.
One of the best things about the anti-Brexit campaign has been the emergence of youth groups like OFOC (Our Future Our Choice), and FFS (For Our Future’s Sake.) They have brought a lot of energy and passion and ideas to the cause.
But it has also been interesting to see the impact that political veterans of a very different age have had when they have spoken at our events, and in particular Betty Boothroyd, now in her 90th year, and Michael Heseltine, who is 86, looks and sounds a hell of a lot less than that, and is taking an ever more central position in the campaign.
When Heseltine spoke at the last huge march in London, young activists were on stage behind him, and it was fascinating to watch from the sidelines backstage, and see the effect his oratory and his broad historical analysis were having on a new generation. It was exactly the same when Betty Boothroyd spoke at Westminster Hall. I am all for giving youth a shout, and we will not win without it. But Hezza and Betty are both showing that age has its place, and its power, too.
So finally, Johnson got round to seeing Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron. Ahead of the meetings, I asked one of Merkel’s team how he thought the encounter would do. “As you know,” came the withering reply, “she is not very good with non-serious people.”