Veteran BBC journalist Gavin Esler on the salesmen trying to convince us to trust them with the UK’s future
In one of the most famous bits of dialogue in a modern film, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the two robbers are being pursued by a posse which they can’t shake off.
‘Who are those guys?’ Butch and Sundance keep asking each other, before being forced to jump off a cliff.
‘Who are those guys?’ is also a question many of us have been asking about a different desperate posse, the Brexit Bunch, the group of self-confident politicians, motor-mouth Brexiteers and assorted think tankers who have led us into this Brexit shambles.
To be clear: Brexit is not in trouble because of those of us who oppose it. It is in trouble because those who are most enthusiastic about it cannot deliver the fantasy they promise. So it is worth asking, before we jump off our own cliff, who are those guys?
READ MORE: Why I’ve changed my mind on Brexit
Some of the Brexit Bunch are well known: Boris Johnson, Lord Lawson, Liam Fox, Lord Ashcroft, John Redwood, Arron Banks, Iain Duncan Smith, Jacob Rees-Mogg, Nigel Farage. They are household names, (sometimes shuttling between several households), with business interests far and wide. And some of them have a close association with the Donald Trump / Steve Bannon posse in the United States. They are all, of course, honourable men. And they want us to trust their judgement on the most important and drastic political change of our lifetimes. But would you trust any of this Brexit Bunch to babysit your children? Would you buy a used car from any of them?
Liam Fox, who had to quit in disgrace as defence secretary a few years ago, has been talking up his role in signing trade deals far and wide. Of course, he has not actually signed any, and Britain is right now what he promises we will be after Brexit – an ‘exporting superpower’ with wonderful trade relationships. And right now the most important of these trade relationships is the one Fox may well ruin, that with the European Union.
Formally Fox is paid to be Britain’s secretary of state for international trade. He isn’t. His correct title is minister for jam tomorrow. Just as in Alice in Wonderland, when pressed for facts rather than his Brexit fantasies, the best Fox can come up with is the thrilling big idea that one day we will have a new post-Brexit British business website. Even the dimmest member of the Brexit Bunch probably knows that creating a business website is possible without leaving the EU.
But imagine, for a moment, that instead of being minister for jam tomorrow, Fox were trying to sell us something else. A used car perhaps. Honest Liam is offering a great deal. He’s got this lovely shiny motor, and you can kick the tyres. He will even let you sit on the front seat. But when you ask if you can look under the bonnet and check the service record, Honest Liam says, not to bother. It really isn’t necessary, all those boring technical details. Trust him. It’s a good runner. But of course with Brexit, unlike buying a used car, a test drive is not possible. It is something in which we are being told we must simply accept the sales patter from Liam and his mates, accept the consequences forever, and stop asking awkward questions.
‘Who are those guys?’ is also a good question for the other salesmen and women of our broken Brexit, the think tank Brexperts. Here’s three that come to mind from their frequent media appearances – Jonathan Isaby of something called Brexit Central, Lucy Harris of Leavers of London, and Chloe Westley of the Taxpayers’ Alliance. This posse may all be related in some way, since these three talking heads generally speak with one voice from one script. Isaby was himself once at the Taxpayers’ Alliance, where Westley is now talking-head-in-chief. Before that Isaby was one of Boris Johnson’s colleagues at the Daily Telegraph. Westley’s LinkedIn profile suggests her main business experiences have been bouncing around right-wing think tanks. Harris appears to be involved with something best described not so much as a right-wing think tank as a right-wing drink tank. It appears to be a kind of social gathering at which ardent London’s elite Brexiteers can sip cocktails and reassure each other that Brexit is going to be great, at least for them.
Personally, I found Harris pleasant when I met her briefly in a television studio, and I have no particular dislike of think tanks (or drink tanks for that matter). But it all depends on the quality of the supposed ‘thinking,’ on who does the ‘thinking’ and who pays for it. These organisations, specifically the Taxpayers’ Alliance, tend to be very shy about naming any of their biggest donors. So, as Butch Cassidy might say, ‘who are these other guys, the ones in the shadows, the donors?’
Who are they, this bizarre Brexit posse which clogs up our airwaves and television studios telling the British people that we have to eat their Brexcrement or else? Who funds them, and why have they brought us to such a mess?
My father, once a soldier and then a businessman, provides a clue. He passed away a couple of years ago, but when we argued about politics he always reminded me that however divisive Thatcher or Tony Blair were as political leaders, they worked best when they organised as a military or business leader would.
Typically they set an objective, worked out how to achieve it, and then set a timetable to get it done. Sometimes they failed or were profoundly wrong, (on the Poll Tax or Iraq) but they always had a system which began with defining the objective and ended with setting deadlines. Yet the Brexit Bunch, these honourable men (and women) have worked in precisely the opposite way to any successful business, military or political leaders. Instead of thinking what they wish to achieve and then setting a timetable for negotiations, the Brexit Bunch panicked.
Theresa May invoked Article 50 to create a self-imposed deadline of March 2019. This is the date when the prime minister and the Brexit Bunch will deliver some ‘big thing which is truly wonderful and momentous’. But unfortunately, after two years and more, they have not yet reached agreement even among themselves what this ‘big wonderful and momentous thing’ will actually be.
And so when I try to answer the ‘who are those guys?’ question about the Brexit Bunch, there is one dismal conclusion. In a United Kingdom of 65 million people where the university of Cambridge has won 30 times more Nobel prizes than China, a country which invented postage stamps, the internet and the jet engine, we are currently run by a bunch of incompetents. ‘Those guys’ pursue their own self-interests and political ambitions rather than the interests of the British people. They are backed up by a group of odd think tank thinkers who are happy to tell the rest of us what to do, but not happy when we inquire about who exactly they represent and where their money comes from.
In the movies, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid jump off a cliff into the unknown. They survive only to meet their doom later. But the well-financed Brexit Bunch won’t be jumping off any cliff. It’s the rest of us that are on the cliff edge.
I do not believe the British people want to jump into the unknown pushed by people who say there is no alternative. In our depressingly leaden politics, where being told a People’s Vote is somehow undemocratic, we need to stand up for our democratic right to have our say. When it comes to answering ‘who are those guys?’, I don’t know all that goes on behind the scenes with the Brexit Bunch but I do know enough to be sure that I do not trust them. And I do trust the common sense and good judgement of the British people in a People’s Vote.
But I want to conclude with one other Brexit thinker, because this one made me laugh out loud. He is Andrew Lilico of Europe Economics. After pondering the People’s Vote idea he turned to Twitter and informed us that ‘People’s Vote is a profoundly dangerous, anti-democratic illegitimate organisation’ which he declared was ‘qualitatively the same’ as a ‘campaign for a military coup’.
I’d like to write more, but I’m having difficulty finding my tin hat and getting my main battle tank to start. And as for Lilico, someone who thinks a democratic vote on the biggest political shambles I have ever witnessed is like staging a military coup, I have a simple question: Would you trust someone like this to instruct you on what is best for our country? Or would you prefer to leave him alone, barking at the moon? I mean, really: ‘Who are those guys?’