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We need to reboot the anti-Brexit cause

LONDON, ENGLAND - MARCH 25: Thousands of anti-Brexit supporters take part in the Unite for Europe march on March 25, 2017 in London, United Kingdom. The British people voted to leave the European Union in a referendum in 2016. (Photo by Ray Tang/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images) - Credit: Getty Images

The challenge has changed and there’s no point in going back or fighting old battles, John Kampfner highlights the need for a re-think in the anti-Brexit camp.

In the blink of an eye, we will have our very own Trump-baby at the helm. The prospect of Boris Johnson being given the codes for a nuclear strike is terrifying. The idea that he will be representing the country in international forums is embarrassing.

More immediately, he has promised to send Britain crashing out of Europe on Halloween night. Will he, in the intervening three months, tell us that he wasn’t really intending to do so, that he was only playing with our sanity in order to ingratiate himself with the 100,000 or so who inhabit the Conservative party?

His relationship with the truth has always been flexible, and so there is still a chance he might stop short of that wilful act of national self-harm. But don’t count on it. Such is his propensity to bluster and buffoonery, he might just be true to his word.

The millions who want to keep the UK international and pro-European know that time is against us. This is a national emergency. The tactics of this next period will be crucial.

A summer and autumn of campaigning beckons. It kicks off with a demonstration on July 20. Entitled ‘No to Boris, Yes to Europe’, it does what it says on the tin. It will take place three days before the almost inevitable inauguration (not that we have one, but he’d probably fake one given half a chance) of prime minister Johnson.

This rally will be unlike the various People’s Vote marches that have come before. It is designed to be a grassroots affair, with activists and ordinary people making the speeches rather than politicians. Most importantly, it will be unashamedly, pro-European. The message is defiantly positive. It starts off with a basic assertion: don’t let people tell you that Brexit is the will of the people.

The closer the UK gets to the cliff edge, the more boldness is required. Somewhere along the line, the case for Remain needs to make the case – strange to say – for Europe.

The 2016 EU referendum was woefully run; the most important of its many failings was the inability or refusal of the protagonists to explain with passion why the European Union is a good thing. The line: “It might be bad, but if we leave it’ll be even worse”, was never going to wash. Shades of Gerald Ratner.

It’s always seemed strange that the Brits have been so bashful about making the case for Europe. You can do it in so many different ways, from the immediate (clean beaches, no mobile roaming charges), to the aspirational (Erasmus study scholarships), to the economic (access to a single market through unfettered borders), to the fundamental (freedom to live and work where you like) to the historical (formed out of the rubble of the Second World War, a war to end all wars). Many of these come over as schmaltzy in the UK media, yet they are not seen as remotely controversial elsewhere.

Three years on and the problem hasn’t gone away. Much of the messaging around the campaign for a People’s Vote has been devoid of any meaningful mention of the benefits of Europe. It has been so involved in the minutiae of parliamentary votes, trying to peel away Conservative MPs, anticipating Jeremy Corbyn’s latest move, that it sometimes forgot, or gave the impression of forgetting, what the issue is all about.

That’s why a coalition of grassroots pro-EU groups decided to come together to project a louder, and prouder, voice, to complement the parliamentary lobbying. The timing, on the eve of summer holidays, was seen by some as less than ideal. In some ways it is. On the other hand it would have been irresponsible to go into the summer doing nothing. Thanks to the long Commons recess, Johnson will have pretty much a free run for his first six weeks.

Brits have a tradition of adapting and conforming. Making the best of a bad job. Johnson’s bravado is likely to get him through his initial period, yet it’s worth remembering that this unreliable, dishonest and untrustworthy politician will have been selected by 0.25% of the British politician. Much of this Tory selectorate are for a no-deal Brexit, of the Dunkirk spirit/Dad’s Army/keep the foreigners at bay variety. That Britain disappeared decades ago, but such is the demographic it is no wonder that throughout the contest, candidates (with the exuberant exception of Rory Stewart at the start) have given them what they seek. The most egregious case of dangerous silliness was the assertion of Dominic Raab that he would prorogue parliament ahead of crashing out of the EU in order to stop a vote of confidence.

Johnson could have ruled this out, but has opted not to. The closer the final two candidates get to the wire, the more they feed their exotic voters red meat. Jeremy Hunt, who should know better, is now talking up the macho no-deal line. Johnson and Hunt’s positions will become only more extreme Brexit, the closer they get to the finishing line.

For Johnson, October 31 is “do or die”. It is enticing talk, for those who like their politics to be bluster. The main reason why the Brexiters talk of “getting it done” by that date, come hell or high water, is that they know the momentum is moving in the opposite direction. Opinion polls suggest that Remain would win a second referendum; hence the fear of the Leavers.

That word ‘remain’ no longer applies. There is no point advocating the status quo. That has been torn asunder and cannot be put back together again, even if one wanted to.

One of the lessons of the past three years is not just the divided nation, but that our current crop of politicians has proven itself unable to deal with the big issues of our time. Throughout this time our schools have faced a growing funding problem, our NHS continues to struggle and the housing crisis grows.

The phrase much loved of Theresa May, “let’s just get on with it”, was always a delusion. The moment we leave, particularly if we crash out, we will start a process that will take perhaps a decade of tortuous negotiations to resolve. We haven’t even begun to go down the road to misery.

One of the key reasons for the UK’s previous success was its position as a hub for inward investment, the seamless access it offered to the largest free market in the world. Similarly, it was our internationalism that enabled us to take a lead on other big global issues.

From the climate emergency, to terrorism, to tax avoidance, we cannot tackle the problems we face on our own. We live in a globalised world and by leaving Europe we give up our seat at the table when discussing the issues that matter.

July’s demonstration will serve as a good launch pad, is to reclaim positivity and patriotism. By challenging the basic tenets of Brexit, by taking the initiative, these grassroots organisations can make a difference. Similar initiatives on the climate emergency have been hugely successful.

There is no purpose in going back or fighting old battles. This summer and autumn’s campaign needs to focus on a relentlessly upbeat message about bringing the country back together, changing society for the better – and the positive role that Europe plays in these endeavours. This is a time of great jeopardy. But also an opportunity. This a binary moment for Britain.

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