Tim Walker talks to the former attorney general who is now eloquently making the case for a People’s Vote.
If Boris Johnson were to finally succeed Theresa May as prime minister, and – in the interests of unifying the Conservative Party – he decided to offer Dominic Grieve a place in his cabinet, the answer would be unhesitating and terse. “It would be a ‘no,'” says Grieve, with an uncharacteristic coldness in his voice.
“It would have nothing to do with our opposing positions on Brexit, but I’ve made an assessment of him over many years. He is a shallow populist – manifestly unsuitable for high office – who would undoubtedly be a disaster for the country and bring doom to the Conservative Party.”
Grieve, a Queen’s Counsel and former attorney general, has confined himself to talking in terms of the facts throughout his legal and political career, and clearly he abhors the kind of “pub patriotism” that Johnson and some of his fellow Brextremists, such as Nigel Farage, have come to embody.
“They plugged into something that is very deep in our national psyche – this sense we have of wanting to be independent and finding it irksome having to be just another member of a much bigger union – but none of this ever really made much sense. Even at the height of our imperial grandeur, we were constrained by the international legal order, and, even then, a multiplicity of treaty commitments.
“Johnson likes, of course, to see himself in the mould of Sir Winston Churchill, but he should go off and read what that great man was doing between 1945 and ’50. In that period, he realised the best hopes he had for the United Kingdom could only be achieved in cooperation with our European partners. Churchill was the principal agent in creating the European movement, and also the Council of Europe. These Brexiteers, like Johnson, who keep invoking Churchill’s name, should read his famous Zurich speech of 1946 which ended with the rallying cry ‘Let Europe arise.'”
Grieve can’t actually see Johnson becoming prime minister, and says, in any case, he would have to be “certifiably insane” to want the job at this juncture, as he would have to end up carrying the can for Brexit. It is clear Grieve feels nothing but sympathy for the current unhappy incumbent of No.10, whom he has met with privately to discuss Brexit on a number of occasions.
“I am surprised that Mrs May hasn’t gone over the heads of the Brexiteers and levelled with the people about what lies ahead if we continue with this policy. We now all know a lot more about what leaving the EU means than we did two years ago, but she still thinks the referendum result means that she has to press ahead with it. She has boxed herself into a position it is very hard for her to get out of. She is an honest person, however, and it is significant that whenever she is asked if the country will derive any benefits from leaving, she refuses to say, as she knows very well we will be a lot worse off.”
Grieve does not support her Chequers deal – any more than Johnson’s ‘Super Canada’ plan or the Norway or Switzerland options – as they are none of them, in any shape or form, preferable to the existing deal the country has with the EU.
He knows that the weeks ahead will be difficult, but doubts very much that even the Brexiteers would be mad enough to make good on their much-reported threats to vote down Philip Hammond’s Budget as it would, of course, create a massive political crisis.
I ask him what he would do in the event that the country ended up leaving the EU with no deal, and, for once, the accomplished lawyer seems lost for words. “That is a very difficult question to answer. The Conservative Party I’ve belonged to in the past has always been pragmatic and this would transform us into something that is very inflexible and ideological. If we were no longer able to operate as a cohesive party – which I rather fear would be the case – then that would probably result in a general election and the installation of Jeremy Corbyn as prime minster. I don’t see how any Conservative could want that to happen.
“We have never had a Labour leader quite like Corbyn before and it is quite clear to me that he is pushing Brexit because he sees how, in the chaos it will bring about, he could overthrow the capitalist system. I think the combination of a hard Brexit with his policies – I see the latest idea under consideration is a four-day week – would be catastrophic for the country.
“The irony is that the Brexiteers – if they could only see it – are making a Corbyn premiership almost inevitable. They talk, for instance, of Singapore-lite being the answer if we leave the EU without a deal. I have no doubt that it would probably take some extreme measure like that to keep us going economically in those desperate circumstances, but this country is not Singapore and it wasn’t created in the way Singapore was. We’d be into no public services to speak of, and, while that may be a fantasy of a tiny minority of libertarian economists, I can’t see it being what the electorate would want, and, finding themselves in such a fix, they would undoubtedly turn to Corbyn.”
Grieve believes exiting the EU would almost certainly result in the break-up of the United Kingdom, with Scotland as well as Northern Ireland, going their own ways. The shock to the economic health of the rump that is left behind, in terms of any of the Brexit options on offer, would be felt powerfully and immediately and would then require a period of real sacrifices for perhaps 15 to 20 years for all citizens.
“People still talk about the ‘will of the people’, but of course none of us has a clue any more what that means. We have got into a situation no one who voted Leave two years ago could ever have envisaged, and, anyway, they all voted for different reasons, with different objectives. I now find committed Brexiteers telling me that they never voted for an economic benefit. They say it was always about blood, toil, tears and sweat, but that seems to me to be quite a change of tune.
“Wealthy apostles of Leave will come out of this the least damaged and it will be the poorer and more vulnerable members of our society – whom they persuaded to go along with this – who will come out of it the most damaged and that I think is stoking up trouble for the future. It’s also stoking up trouble – as all my colleagues know, in their hearts – when you base a policy on what you know to be untruths.”
Grieve pins all his hopes now on a People’s Vote, which he believes, in addition to being in the national interest, is the best way of saving both the Tory and Labour parties from breaking up. “It is comical to hear people who know their own careers depend on Brexit talking about how this would result in rioting in the streets. I cannot see the people rioting when they learn that they are going to be permitted to give their judgment on the deal we end up with.
“Others like to say there won’t be time, but I have no doubt the EU would be willing to put back the Article 50 timetable to allow this to happen. The key thing is that before we vote again, we get to hear all of the facts. A lot of them have become clearer now, but we cannot take this decision without everyone being made fully aware of the consequences. If we vote then to accept the deal that’s on offer to leave, then I for one will shut up, but my conscience will at least be clear.”