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Don’t listen to the Brexit fatalists

PA Wire/PA Images - Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

Among some of those who can see Brexit is a disaster there is a gloomy fatalism about letting it happen anyway. That is a big mistake.

‘Brexit is clearly a terrible idea. But it has to happen.’ My heart sank when I read the headline over John Harris’s recent Guardian column, and not merely because Harris is a fine writer whose opinions I usually share.

It went on to specifically dismiss the arguments of Vince Cable and Alastair Campbell and AC Grayling (of this parish) that Brexit may never happen. Opined Harris: ‘Fair play to these people: with ministers evidently making it up as they go along, dire economic forecasts, and big EU figures warning that negotiations might quickly break down, there is clearly a prima facie case for what they suggest. And calling time on Brexit fits the guarded optimism embraced by thousands of people since June. A combination of Labour’s election surge, Theresa May’s crumpling, and the joys of a half-decent seem to have embedded one belief above all others; that if enough of us make sufficient noise, we can somehow pretend June 23 2016 never happened.

‘The problem is that it did. Moreover, as far as I can tell from the many conversations I had with leave voters during the election campaign, the vast majority of people who voted to leave the EU are still convinced that it’s the right thing to do. In whole swaths of the country, the bitterly anti-establishment mood that boiled over last summer is still there, so a coalition of political insiders, left-liberal newspaper columnists and business voices telling people they were wrong is not likely to succeed…’

Now John Harris was, admittedly, one of the few columnists who identified the dangers to Remain in Labour heartland seats in the North and Midlands during the referendum campaign. But so was I and I went further still and predicted why and where Leave would (narrowly) win when all the main opinion polls were forecasting the opposite.

But, unlike Harris evidently, I can identify a significant anti-Brexit shift in the national mood music, quite independently of pollsters like Survation and YouGov who are reporting the same.

As an experiment this week, I’ve been back to the same 150 contacts in the North and Midlands I used when making my Leave victory forecast just before June 23 last year.

The results of my revisit are fascinating, as well as rather at odds with Harris’s findings. NONE of those who supported Remain have changed their mind (although a handful are resigned to the ‘inevitably’ of Brexit and just want us to get on with doing it asap). More significantly, just under half of those who favoured Leave have now changed their minds and emphatically insist that they’d vote Remain if granted the chance to vote again – the great majority supporting the idea of a second referendum.

Of these Regrexiteers there was an almost equal split between those who say they’ve changed their minds because they’ve ‘realised’ the economic consequences for the country and their families’ futures and those who say they remain Leavers at heart, but have totally lost confidence in ‘chaotic, confused, incompetent politicians’ (their words) to deliver it in any form resembling what they thought they were voting for back on 23/6/16.

As one retired Northern trade union official, who voted Leave, put it to me: ‘You might agree to buy a house before you get the surveyor’s report, but when you do and discover there are sinking foundations and a load of dry rot, you pull out and say ‘no thanks’. That’s the way I feel about Brexit now, and many of my mates feel the same way. That’s why we’d welcome the opportunity for a second referendum before it’s too late.’

His remarks echoed the feelings of many of my Regrexiteers. And, despite that constant Brexiteer refrain that the ‘will of the people’ is betrayed and/or patronised by opposing Brexit, there was a refreshing readiness to acknowledge that they hadn’t ‘fully understood’ the arguments, or now feel they were ‘conned’ by the Leave campaign’s sales pitch.

‘I’m not ashamed to admit I didn’t really understand what I was voting for in the referendum,’ said a far from unsophisticated shop manager in her early 40s. ‘But I was tempted by the sunny promises of all that extra money for the NHS, totally controlling our borders and I heard Boris Johnson tell us we’d have the upper hand and the EU would roll over and we’d be able to stay in the single market and stop freedom of movement.

‘But the reality is turning out to be very different and what my family and I certainly didn’t vote for is the chaos we’ve got now and the certainty leaving the EU is going to make us poorer and less secure… in short, neither side argued totally honestly, but the pro- Brexit brigade have proved the biggest liars by far.’

So, for me, it was depressing again to read a Guardian editorial reflecting John Harris, by conceding: ‘The Guardian opposed UK withdrawal from the EU, but the decision to leave was taken, so it must be honoured….Unless and until the national mood clearly changes, which it may and which we hope in time it will, Brexit is a reality. There is no groundswell for a second vote on the issue at the moment.’

Excuse me, John Harris. Excuse me, Guardian leader writer. No groundswell? Well, that flies in the face of my return to the same people who persuaded me to correctly predict the referendum result. And it flies in the face,too, of the gradual but clear direction of travel reflected in those Survation and YouGov polls.

What was also deeply troubling about Harris’s column was its de facto accord with Nigel Farage. The Brexit U-turn argument, he contends, lacks ‘any sense of the backlash that would be sparked, the myth of betrayal that would sit at the heart of our politics, and the great gift likely to be handed to ugly and opportunistic forces that are still out there, waiting for their chance. UKIP is in abeyance partly because its current leadership could not run a bath, but also because the process of Brexit is under way.’

Farage himself put it more brutally a couple of days later. Any Brexit retreat would mean ‘all hell to pay’ and the revival of UKIP, the implicit threat of violence on the streets, and doubtless Farage’s return at the helm. That’s the same Nigel Farage who, at the height of the referendum campaign, argued a 52-48% victory for Remain would be indecisive and a second referendum would be in order.

So, is the UK a nation where – despite the growing mountain of expert evidence that Brexit represents a national disaster, and clear signs the Brexiteers oft-repeated ‘will of the people’ mantra is hitting reverse gear – to be held to ransom over the case for a second referendum by the questionable fear or threat of civil unrest? By the same token, is there not a comparable risk that a disastrous Brexit with hefty unemployment, soaring prices, a drowning pound and a tidal wave of despair, particularly among the disillusioned young, would produce a similar reaction?

The overriding case for a second referendum – rather than relying on Parliament to save the day – comes via the logic of handing back the decision whether to reaffirm or reject Brexit to the ‘will of the people’. David Cameron’s hubristic, simplistic, binary referendum may rank as one of modern history’s greatest political follies, but that genie is out of the bottle and only the people now better informed and not politicians alone, can decide Brexit’s fate.

Back to the Guardian where, at least, another leading columnist Jonathan Freedland differed, to an extent, with his colleague Harris under a headline, ‘There’s still a real chance for a second Brexit referendum’.

‘Project fear is becoming project reality. Each day brings new evidence of the dire consequences of Brexit,’ Freedland rightly warned. He continued: ‘So Brexit must not be thwarted by a clubby political class conspiring to bury last year’s verdict. A democratic choice can only be voided by another democratic choice, expressed either in a general election – or a second referendum.’

But Freedland went on to make the valid point that another general election as the solution is ‘all but impossible to envisage because it would require the two main parties to divide on clear, binary lines: the Tories for Brexit, Labour against. The bald, if circular, logic is that Labour would never dare make such an offer to the electorate, for fear it would be accused of defying the will of the people as expressed in June 2016, as well as its own Leave voters.’

For Freedland, however, a referendum before March 2019 is ‘hard to imagine, but one during the immediate transition period, when things may still be in limbo, is plausible. In those circumstances, the EU27 may well be amenable to treating our re-entry as a special case.’ Personally I’d contend that – if the polls continue to reflect a growing anti-Brexit public mood, as I confidently forecast they will – then a second referendum by March 2019 equals a far safer bet.

For that reason, if no other, Tony Blair’s latest intervention during a turbulent week was timely, even if the bitter legacy of Iraq made it a case of the overwhelmingly right message being delivered by the wrong messenger. Better, perhaps, were the interventions of Lord Adonis in comparing Brexit to Nazi appeasement in the 1930s, National Audit Office chief Amyas Morse warning it could ‘fall apart like a chocolate orange’ and former Civil Service supremo Lord (Gus) O’Donnell echoing David Davis’s uncharacteristic candour that achieving a successful Brexit ‘makes landing on the moon look simple’.

It’s also worth noting that, among my Labour-supporting Regrexiteers, there was, understandably, considerable confusion over what Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party’s position on Brexit even really is.

On this point, I wouldn’t quibble much with John Harris’s line that ‘part of Jeremy Corbyn’s transformation into the Princess Diana de nos jours is that he has in some way become the sentimentalised focus of many Remainers’ hopes while tilting in precisely the opposite direction: reverting to his lifelong European scepticism and embracing Brexit (albeit with strong caveats highlighted by Labour’s stance on the ‘great repeal bill’.)’

Certainly when I returned to the 6th formers I interviewed ahead of the general election for The New European on lowering the voting age there was a palpable sense of betrayal or bewilderment among the pro-Remain majority over the otherwise ‘blessed’ Jeremy’s Brexit stance.

But at least, during a turbulent week, it was encouraging to note the Guardian’s Sunday sister the Observer deliver a more emphatic mood-capturing leader, headlined ‘The tide is turning against the deceitful and incompetent hard Brexiteers’.

Describing incoming Liberal leader Vince Cable’s prediction that Brexit may not happen at all as ‘not as fanciful as it might seem’, the Observer posed the question that every MP, every citizen should be asking themselves: ‘What next from the lords of misrule, the Tory hard Brexiters who seem to be enjoying playing party political games with our futures while the world looks on bemused, if not baffled. Day after day, they stumble on, deaf to warnings on every side and blind to hard, objective facts – that delusions and jingoistic illusions do not a plan make’.

As Parliament goes into the long summer recess until October, can I respectfully suggest that every MP forgets about the usual cheap crime thriller beach reading and packs instead every detailed Brexit analysis available? (OK, you may need a large extra suitcase, but you can always charge it on Parly exes). Including the ‘Great Repeal Bill’ itself….the ‘Henry V111 clause’ proposal that the House of Commons library itself bills as ‘one of the largest legislative projects ever undertaken’.

And one that threatens to grant ministers more power and parliament itself less… thus overturning the very ‘parliamentary sovereignty’ pitch espoused by the Brexiteers during the referendum campaign.

Maybe pro-Remain Labour MP Clive Lewis maybe wasn’t being overly melodramatic when he warned: ‘If we fail, and allow Theresa May to assume the powers of a renaissance monarch, our divisions will grow and out future will look bleak.’

Paul Connew is a media commentator, broadcaster, author and former Sunday Mirror editor. A staunch Remainer, he accurately predicted Leave would win the EU referendum but also forecast public opinion would swing the other way within 18 months

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