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Stop talking about the bus..let’s make Brexit personal

Matt Kelly says we should stop talking about the bus and focus the reality of what Brexit will mean for communities. Picture: Ken Mears - Credit: Archant

As Brexit negotiations grind on and neither side is happy, the focus should return to the issues which will affect communities in the long run, says MATT KELLY

Nobody is happy. Nobody is getting what they wanted. Some Brexit dividend this is turning out to be.

The Brexit Ultras feel betrayed. Farage, Rees-Mogg, Johnson and co hoped 2019 would be the Year of Free Trade Agreements. Instead, 2018 has turned into the Year of Trade-Offs.

The Brexit Phonies – those who don’t believe in it but push it through regardless, like our Prime Minister for example – are, at best, grimly satisfied that their self-serving duplicity has yet to be punished by the electorate. But still, one wonders how well they sleep at night.

The Remainers are depressed. The sight of a grinning David Davis and Michel Barnier agreeing a ‘decisive step’ towards an ‘orderly withdrawal’ feels like another lurch towards the dreaded day we actually leave the EU.

And the Bored – that vast swathe of people who are (quite understandably) sick and tired of the whole debacle and whose tolerance for more twists and turns in the Brexit narrative has long evaporated – are exasperated.

But perhaps, of all the factions that make up this disunited kingdom, it is the Remainers who should be least depressed this week.

The Irish border problem remains the unlit touchpaper of a political powder keg that could yet blow apart Theresa May’s DUP-sponsored government, yet even this is not the biggest reason for renewed optimism.

The biggest reason is that time is once again on Remain’s side.

As Professor A.C. Grayling told the Stay Or Go Conference in London this week, the eventuality of Brexit has been pushed back from March 2019 to December 2020 – and with that 21-month time extension, the chance of averting Brexit has expanded, not contracted.

The grave risks Brexit presents to this country are moving from the abstract to the concrete. This week’s report by the Home Affairs Committee that our government is wholly unprepared for exiting the EU is the latest evidence of the bravado and bluster fuelling this shambolic venture.

As the possibility of No Deal becomes probability, an awful lot of voters are going to become awfully aware of the personal consequences of Brexit.

Pleasing those voters is not Mrs May’s strategy. There was, not so long ago, a time she thought she could be that person. No more. The last General Election taught her otherwise.

So now mollifying her party is the strategy. Holding it together. Retaining power. For as long as she can. To somehow ride out the threat of Jeremy Corbyn at the gates of Downing Street.

If football had an equivalent of Mrs May’s predicament it would be like imagining José Mourinho managing both Manchester City and Manchester United, and convincing both sets of fans they can win the league.

It’s possible that she will be able to continue to do so for some time yet. After all, the fact Michael Gove, Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg did not this week openly rebel against what their ideological master Nigel Farage describes as a ‘complete sell-out’ demonstrates they are governed not by a sense of service to the country, but ambition, or dogma, or both.

But will she be able to mollify those of us in the real world facing the very real problems of Brexit as, and when, they reveal themselves. This is where the extra time works to Remain’s advantage.

Given the remarkable turnarounds in politics we have seen in the 21 months since the referendum, one can only wonder what the next 33 months – to the end of 2021 – will bring.

But for the arguments to stay within the EU to remain valid, and even ultimately prevail, voter’s minds must change in a way they have not done to date.

Remainers, this newspaper included, have a tendency to state as fact that the mood of the nation has changed since June 23, 2016. There is a danger that this assertion is as dodgy as any ‘will of the people’ propaganda.

The reality, according to the consistent polling since the referendum, is that any shift of public opinion is marginal. The latest poll, by YouGov just a fortnight ago, on the question ‘In hindsight, do you think Britain was right or wrong to vote to leave the EU?’ found 43% saying we are right to leave, 45% that we are wrong, and 12% who don’t know.

So yes, a marginal inflection towards Remain. But hardly proof-positive of a national change of heart. And certainly not the clear shift needed to convince our politicians that the people must be heard one more time.

So if the message of the past 21 months has fallen on deaf ears, then the message must change.

Dear reader, it’s time to stop going on about that bloody bus, and time instead to bring focus to the real stories affecting real people in the real world.

Take for instance one example; sugar beet. It was the topic of an extraordinary conversation raised on Radio 4’s Today programme this week.

Sugar beet is a matter closer to this newspaper’s heart than you may suspect. The New European is published in Norwich, surrounded by beautiful countryside, much of which is devoted to the cultivation of sugar beet. Every year, the roads of East Anglia slow to the pace of large lorries transporting these giant turnip-like tubers to be processed. It is part of a £700m business, involving 3,500 farms and supporting more than 9,500 people.

And it’s a British success story. Refined sugar from UK sugar beet is successfully exported across the EU, benefitting from recent deregulation of quotas and production caps.

How astonished those 9,500 people would be to hear Iain Duncan Smith on Tuesday morning outlining to Nick Robinson how that business was worth sacrificing at the altar of a tariff free trade deal that would see cheaper sugar cane flood into the UK, from Brazil or Thailand?

How bemused must all the farm-workers, lorry drivers, processors involved in sugar beet production, and all their families, be to realise that they may not figure in Global Britain’s great future? That the tariffs that protect them against much cheaper production abroad are ‘protectionist’ and should be swept aside.

And how concerned should the NHS be, currently waging war on child obesity, to hear a glut of cheap sugar into the UK could be the result of Duncan Smith’s vision?

That’s just sugar beet. One complex issue that affects thousands of people in a very real way.

We are only now beginning to understand what is at stake – that for people like Duncan Smith, Rees-Mogg and the 60-odd MPs of the Tory European Research Group who hold Mrs May’s future at their whim, this is not about improving our economy. It’s about breaking it, so it can then be reformed according to their hard-right spiritual dogmas.

And if hundreds of thousands of real people suffer in the process, then tough luck.

There are many, many issues like sugar beet; all specific to groups of people who are only just waking up to the real and present risks this Government’s Brexit strategy presents.

This is the job now, to bring the reality of Brexit home, in a factual and constructive way. To let us all understand the effect to us as individuals and communities. To make Brexit personal.

Thirty-three months should be time enough.

Matt Kelly


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