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MICHAEL WHITE: All possible endings are brutal now

Micahel White believes all endings for Brexit are brutal now. Illustration: Martin Rowson. - Credit: Archant

Michael White on the increasingly hopeless manoeuvres from all sides as they realise the finish line is near.

I don’t think I’ve joined a demonstration down Whitehall since students, ones who had voted in droves for the Liberal Democrats in June 2010, turned against them in November after Nick Clegg’s ministers endorsed that Coalition decision to triple university tuition fees to £9,000 a year.

Rude words were chanted about the then-deputy PM which I cannot repeat on family-friendly pages.

I heard plenty of abuse directed at Theresa May, Boris Johnson (‘Let’s Get Rid of These Public School W**kers’) and J Rees-Mogg in Saturday’s glorious sunshine, when the People’s Vote campaign attracted an estimated 700,000 marchers to trundle to Parliament Square. Crowd sizes are always disputed between the police and organisers. But not even the Sunday Telegraph suggested that Brexit’s Farage-led ‘purple vote’ counter-rally, 1,200 people in pro-Remain Harrogate, was larger – though the BBC’s ‘balance’ doctrine covered both events.

None of the mostly-good-natured abuse I heard in London was directed at Clegg on this occasion, but he was back in the doghouse anyway. Why? He and the FT chose the same day to reveal that the former Lib Dem leader has taken a high-paying policy lobbying job with Facebook, where several Lib Dem pals are already embedded.

In brighter times it might be the occasion for modest self-congratulation that a sell-by-dated British politician is deemed worth being recruited by Mark Zuckerberg, emperor of one of the world’s virtual superpowers. But Facebook’s innocent phase as a pioneer of civic engagement and openness has long been displaced by a darker image. It is engulfed by charges of cynical profit-seeking and worse, technology that has allowed fake news and terrorist websites, Putin bots and porn, to flourish in ways Zuckerberg’s troops could curb if the empire tried harder.

So ex-MP Clegg now suffers the same brand taint that hamstrings Tony Blair’s effectiveness. It’s not just dropping out of Remain’s fight for a second referendum – Blair hasn’t – or even about the money. It’s the company they now keep. The Observer’s intrepid Carole Cadwalladr, scourge of Cambridge Analytica’s data mining practices, chided Sir Nick for colluding with those who ‘monetise fear, hatred and lies’ – and for being hired to blunt the EU’s attempts to tame tech’s FAANG behemoths (Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix and Google). Paddy Ashdown reproached him more politely. Silicon Valley is hiring a lot of lobbyists.

Remain champion, Chuka Umunna, appointed as £65,000-a-year chair of the Progressive Centre think tank, took a similar hit last week. Does it mean that – at just 40 this month, an MP for only eight years – he’s heading for his own exit from elective politics? That he sees no future in a Corbyn cul-de-sac where the party straddles the Brexit fence waiting for events to push it off on one side or the other?

Plenty of talented centre-left types do, as I was reminded at the other public event I attended last week, the packed memorial service at Southwark Cathedral for Tessa Jowell, a very likeable public servant whom it was easy to admire. Plenty of muttered political gloom amid the cheerful tributes to Jowell. The most upbeat scenario I encountered from a Labour apparatchik predicted two general elections in 2019, the first inconclusive, the second won by Labour after a change of leader. But to whom?

That brings us seamlessly back to the Tories and Theresa May’s latest Worst-Week-Ever, one which may finally see a ‘no confidence’ challenge launched by those never-quite-48 MPs whose names are needed under the rules – or may not. May’s latest holding statement to the Commons – Monday’s ‘eyes on the prize’ appeal – seems to have steadied the self-harming Tory backbenches for a few weeks longer.

The scale of abuse from her own side since the prime minister mentioned a possible ‘extension’ to the post-2019 transition provoked sympathy, to May’s advantage. The Sunday Times quoted one bravely-anonymous MP as invoking a ‘killing zone’, and suggesting May ‘bring her own noose’ to a meeting with colleagues, ugly pub talk which is always easily available at Westminster. Family newspapers should sensibly ignore it.

Even hard Brexiteers like the neophyte Steve Baker (not Boris obviously) were embarrassed. By Tuesday morning serial rebel, Andrew Bridgen MP, was reduced to empty bluster on Radio 4’s Today show. Chris Failing Grayling, torn between Brexit and loyalty to May and his own career, talks accommodatingly of ‘a short bridge’ to tide us over. The newly-moderate Mail turns its disgraceful ‘saboteurs’ talk of the Paul Dacre era against the Moggster rebels. May would probably still win a confidence vote next week – and they know it.

The next fake showdown is pencilled in for Phil Hammond’s October 29 budget for which the chancellor’s number crunchers have found an unexpected £13 billion stream of extra tax receipts with which to appease the Moggsters – and also allow them to blink first again as he raises a few taxes to help ‘end austerity’ for the hard-pressed winter NHS.

That provides May with more breathing space in which Brexit negotiators on both sides can try to fudge their way through to a deal on an extended transition (‘implementation phase’) with a temporary customs arrangements, some form of sticking plaster to avert a restored Irish border and satisfy DUP hypocrisy which ministers struggle to appease.

Does that sound harsh? No. On top of everything else we know Northern Ireland likes to have ‘treated differently from the rest of the UK’ (as Arlene Foster puts it when complaining), Private Eye this week dug out another one, alleging a DUP minister, mouthy Sammy Wilson no less, moved to block extension to the region of libel law reform – the 2013 Defamation Act – and did so again after a local academic’s review endorsed the reform. Labour’s John McDonnell (a self-styled republican who ‘longs for united Ireland’) nonetheless says he’ll join the Orange Order if it’s needed to win DUP support for a Corbyn government. And these are the kind of self-proclaimed democrats of left and right who say the EU is secretive and unaccountable?

All the same, Clegg jumping ship to California highlights a problem. Remain leaders, moderates of centre right and left, departing the field for lucrative international jobs – led by Blair and David Miliband – feeds the not-wholly-superficial Brexit narrative that they are footloose globalisers in it for the money and indifferent to those they leave behind queueing for food banks. The exposure of the NHS’s HIV-tainted blood scandal cover-up after nearly 30 years – and Mark Carney’s newly unearthed and lavish taxi bills at the Bank of England – water the same poisonous plant of public mistrust.

So does that senior Welsh NHS executive who is moving to England to get better treatment for her sick husband. Leadership is about example. That’s what ex-army officer turned Plymouth Tory MP, the pro-Remain maverick, Johnny Mercer, was trying to say when he called the current shambles ‘a s**tshow.’ Politics must change with changing times and get on with doing what has to be done.

Of course, similar ‘do as I say, not as I do’ complaints might as easily be levelled at Brexit’s most famous names. Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson have never been averse to making a quick buck from ‘monetising’ their political beliefs via expanded media careers. Jacob O’Mogg’s investment fund has taken the sensible precaution of establishing a presence inside the EU27 – in Dublin – to prevent curbs on its financial activity and income. Such moves are not open to most of their supporters.

As for lucrative jobs in the real world, more substantial than mere LBC shock jockery or Telegraph columns, there has been no rush to hire ‘Brexit Martyrs’ like Boris outside the UK (or even inside) for their skill set. Why would anyone want to hire Iain Duncan Smith, author of the botched and over-ambitious Universal Credit (UC) system now threatening the social fabric of the country at a very delicate moment in its history? No UC for Iain. As I never tire of pointing out, he lives in a house on his late father-in-law’s estate.

Ministers had been warned for years that they would need better IT and much more money to consolidate the patchwork of benefits into UC’s one-stop payment. As with Brexit they didn’t listen. No wonder IDS fell out with his senior officials and is now part of the Brexit posse which criticises Oliver Robbins, May’s designated negotiator-in-chief. Three former cabinet secretaries, including Lady Thatcher’s Lord Armstrong, protested this past week at such treatment of public servants doing their best for the country in trying circumstances not of their making.

Would you hire Priti Patel for her Israeli contacts book? Or Brexit Bulldog, David Davis, as a team player? Me neither. In fairness Owen ‘Badger’ Paterson, who has a business background, now earns an estimated £100,000 a year on top of his MP’s salary from consulting, mostly in Northern Ireland where he was once secretary of state. But he’s another Cambridge-educated public schoolboy who doesn’t get stick from Brexit ‘anti-elitists’. Once you’ve swallowed the populist Kool-Aid it doesn’t seem to count. Just look at Donald Trump, the people’s billionaire.

Yet these are the kind of critics who are trying to make impossible the beleaguered May’s efforts to cut some sort of deal with Michel Barnier. They’ve even paid the EU negotiator a visit to tell him what they want and why. When Blair, Clegg, Adonis and Co reportedly offer Barnier equally intransigent advice from the opposite direction they get accused of being traitors to Britain. When Sadiq Khan (he got big cheer at Saturday’s PV rally) pays his Belgian visit to warn of No Deal dangers to the City this week, he can expect similar treatment. Undermining their own Conservative government of the day from the Brexit Right does not count either

The mood in my section of Saturday’s London rally was much gentler. Many marchers wore those day-glo yellow stickers proclaiming ‘Bollocks to Brexit’ which is a bit too in-your-face for my taste, Boris Johnson demotic and unlikely to persuade. There were ‘No Confidence in this Bunch of Muppets: Give Us a Second Vote’ posters and ‘The Only Good Brexit is No Brexit.’ Chants of ‘What do we want? A People’s Vote’ periodically broke out. ‘At least we’ve merited an overhead helicopter this time,’ Vince Cable told me.

But most marchers seemed sombre, subdued even, angry but good-natured. The media cake-eaters jibe was both that protesters had been bussed in from all over the country by sinister anti-democratic moneybags (they meant those openly disclosed £1,000 donations) but also that it was a mostly London crowd. Not so, it was far too white and too middle class to be a typical London crowd, more Harrogate, you might say. There was some ethnic diversity, but many more white-haired oldies in EU blue-and-gold berets, tottering doggedly forward on walking sticks or in wheelchairs. Lots of young people in summer shorts, plenty of kids with mum and centrist dad. There was also one ‘Leave Means Leave’ van parked forlornly by the Cenotaph and left to its own devices under an EU-blue sky.

What does a huge, peaceful demo change when cynics remind us that ‘only riots change things’? It’s always hard to gauge and the 2011 riots changed nothing either. Nor did the one million who marched in 2003 against the Iraq War (or is it two million in STOP mythology now?), though I would argue that it sowed the seeds for delegitimising the US/UK occupation when no WMD were found and civil war broke out.

What is undeniable this autumn is that the People’s Vote campaign has steadily gained salience and support as May’s divided government flounders and parliament looks decidedly stalemated. Sir John Sawers, Whitehall big cheese and ex-head of MI6 is a significant convert.

Jeremy Corbyn’s wait-and-see posture looks unheroic – it is unheroic – but is shared by non-Corbynites. ‘I’m not in favour, not yet anyway,’ a former Blair/Brown cabinet minister told me at Tessa Jowell’s service.

That’s roughly my position too. People’s Vote advocates are usually conspicuously vague on the mechanisms which would deliver a second ballot – and when – or the options on the ballot paper that would deliver a clear-cut result: for May’s version of a deal; for the hard Brexit option or for staying in the EU, the latter still an outside chance. Nobel scientists joined the chorus of warnings over Brexit on Tuesday, powerful voices, but unlikely to sway truculent voters who just want it over – and hope for the (second or third) best.

Realistic options are now getting more brutal. The former Cameron adviser, Lord (George) Bridges wrote the other day that he once deplored a ‘meaningless waffle’ deal over Britain’s future trade relationship to accompany the withdrawal agreement (and divorce bill). But, given the current political paralysis, that may be the less awful alternative to a no-deal Brexit that a majority in parliament would reject anyway.

I sometimes daydream that it would be poetic justice if those Brexit poseurs really were left to clean up their own mess and be forced by hard facts to negotiate a version of the ‘workable compromises’ (Andrew Adonis’s phrase) they now reject. But the price Brussels might extract would probably be too high, higher than the one May would pay because they sympathise with her domestic dilemma, albeit not too much. So I divert my daydream to the time when Boris Johnson will have to dye his hair and grow a beard, while Jacob Rees-Mogg dons a double-breasted tracksuit, in order safely to accompany nanny to Waitrose without being pelted with bland and over-priced American fruit.

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