LIZ GERARD on how Leave’s biggest cheerleader chronicled the UK’s tortuous departure from the EU through rose-tinted glasses.
It was supposed to be the easiest deal in history. We held all the cards. They needed us more than we needed them. There was no question of our leaving without a deal in place. And now this.
If you took all the ‘nearly there’ summits, the ‘walk away’ plunges and the mind-boggling, stomach-churning switchbacks of the past four years and turned them into a theme park ride, you’d make a fortune.
Most of us have watched bemused or horrified at a distance, noting only the big moments – like this week. But spare a thought for readers of the Daily and Sunday Express, who have been forced to endure every dizzying twist and turn with front page after front page.
Former Express editor Hugh Whittow likes to take credit for the referendum result. If the printed press was decisive – and it may well have been – it’s more likely that it was the bigger beasts, the Mail and the Sun, that swung it. But Whittow did set the ball rolling a decade ago. After years of fulminating over kettles, hairdryers, vacuum cleaners and light bulbs, he urged his readers to send in a coupon if they wanted a referendum on leaving the EU. Nearly 400,000 did so. They cut out a piece of paper, filled it in, put it in an envelope and stamped and posted it. Ask any current editor – or any marketing person – if they could get people to do that today if there was no prospect of a prize at the end and they’d laugh. That response, with far more saying ‘yes’ than even buy the paper today, was staggering. Whittow’s crusade had begun.
As we know, he got his referendum and the result he wanted. He (and subsequently his successor Gary Jones) then made it his mission to nurture and protect his baby – or ‘our Brexit’ as the headlines had it – so that it has featured on more than half of Daily Express front pages since the vote, leading the paper 455 times. Of those, 90 have been specifically about the negotiations with Brussels about our future relationship.
That may not seem a high proportion, but there’s been quite a lot going on, not least a couple of Tory leadership races, and a brace of elections. Who can forget the protests, the court cases, the ERG, the fears of Brexit ‘betrayal’ and all the Westminster shenanigans as successive PMs struggled to get their homework passed by MPs? Certainly not TNE readers, who have withstood the even greater bombardment of every development, every rumour, every nuance, albeit viewed through a completely different prism – and without the leavening properties offered by statins, the weather, rising house prices and the Duchess of Cambridge. You get Brexit concentrate here, not the dilute stuff available in the daily prints.
But today, as the latest and possibly final round of talks begin, let’s put all that aside and consider what the Express reader has been told about previous efforts to reach an agreement.
It all began so optimistically, with a ‘Dash to seal Brexit deal’ three days after the result was declared. The Express didn’t much care who was in charge of sealing that deal; it would put its faith in whoever the Tories chose, from early favourite Boris, through ‘Gove: I’ll lead us out of the EU’, to May: ‘EU exit will work for Britain’. It would have been equally happy had Leadsom won the ‘Battle of the iron ladies’.
Nor was it much bothered about the shape of a deal. Even continued membership of the single market and customs union was seen as acceptable, just so long as we got out quickly and got our blue passports back. But there was no doubt there would be a deal and it would be good for Britain. ‘EU will give us what we want’ declared the Sunday paper in July 2017, based on remarks by B. Johnson Esq, foreign secretary. A couple of months later, the daily latched on to a report that 5.8 million people in Europe relied on Britain for jobs to proclaim ‘Why EU must give us a good deal’ on top of a story that gave the mantra ‘No deal is better than a bad deal’ its first airing in this context, courtesy of Leave Means Leave chairman and future Brexit Party MEP Richard Tice. Things soon soured – how could they not when we were talking to that arch-villain the EU ‘mafia’ – and we were being ‘bullied’. Or rather refusing to be bullied. We ‘put Juncker back in his box’. We had the EU ‘on the ropes’. We told them ‘You can’t frighten us’. They could ‘go whistle’ for the divorce fee (B Johnson again). Anyone puffing their chests and talking tough – from those like David Davis who were (supposedly) doing the negotiating to onlookers such as James Dyson – found a ready home on the front page.
And so it has gone on, for four long years, swinging from arrogant exceptionalism to playing the victim, from threats and deadlines to defiance and triumphalism. From the bigliest, best gold-plated deal in the whole wide world to gearing up, bracing ourselves and all guns blazing for a no-deal Brexit. At the latest headline count, No Deal was beating Deal 20-18.
Whatever happens, the future will still be bright for Express readers. They have been told at least 30 times since 2016 that there will be no stopping ‘booming Britain’ – even when facing the worst recession in history – with bonuses, boosts and bonanzas for all.
Candy floss at the end of the roller-coaster ride? Sometimes it makes you sick.