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MICHAEL WHITE: The Brexiteers have gone nuclear

Michael White says Brexit is becoming ever more toxic as European Research Group diehards go nuclear. Picture: Martin Rowson - Credit: Archant

Meltdown looms as the ERG diehards go nuclear and Brexit becomes ever more toxic.

The Cinderella issue of mental health has risen in the public’s spending priorities in recent decades, albeit at a pretty glacial pace. Most families experience such problems. But too many policymakers still prefer to go to the Ball, leaving Cinders behind in the kitchen to clean up the mess caused by poverty, family breakdown and spending cuts.

The decade of austerity and Brexit has seen a doubling of prescriptions for ant-depressants. Even her most severe critics wonder how Theresa May manages to keep going and the strain on all MPs is clearly visible, as the FT solicitously reported the day after water came through the roof of the House of Commons. Now on timely display at the British Museum, Edvard Munch’s painting of The Scream speaks for millions.

None of that should be surprising. Ministers try to engage on internet regulation or divorce law reform. But one way or another Brexit is consuming most of Whitehall and Westminster’s energy. On Sunday May released her ‘homemade’ video seeking to justify her exploratory talks with ‘the Marxist Mr Corbyn’ to find a Boris-proof soft Brexit compromise. Cue more predictable outrage from right-wing MPs who have been voting against May’s deal alongside the Labour leader for months. Couple that with activist threats of ‘strike action’ ahead of the May 2 local elections and you soon get renewed demands for an ‘indicative’ no-confidence ballot of Tory MPs from Essex kamikaze Mark (‘gun in my mouth’) Francois and demands for a cabinet coup (not another one!) from the respectable ConservativeHome website.

Undeterred, on Monday May reluctantly triggered preparations for possible EU elections on May 23 and embraced the No Hard Brexit law forced on her by the unprecedented backbench seizure of the legislative process. Led by the unlikely Cromwellian duo, Labour’s Yvette Cooper and Tory, Oliver (clue in the name) Letwin – it enabled Lords and Commons to pass their bill in just three days.

On Tuesday the prime minister flew to Paris and Berlin to plead for extra time which she hoped would be granted by the EU217 at Wednesday’s emergency summit, just 48 hours before Britain might accidentally fall out with a bump on Friday. The price will be heavy: commitment to stage European elections of May 23 if no customs compromise with Labour (talks stalled on Monday) can be reached – and not to play the wrecker.

Ahead of the summit May’s hopes of a June 30 target date was backed by the Commons, 420 votes to 110, 97 Brexit Tory MPs – including 12 ministers – voting yet again to avoid their consequences of their own intransigence. Eighty abstained. But May knew perfectly well her latest ‘request’ (she does them badly) would be rejected by the 27, probably in favour of Donald Tusk’s ‘flextension’ formula that could postpone Brexit until 2020. Fortunately the hardline faction led by Emmanuel Macron (France’s autocratic president loses Élysée staff as fast as Donald Trump does) also got short shrift from the Merkel-led group which wants a deal, not the humiliation of a breakdown. ‘Take back control’ was a heartlessly brilliant campaign slogan. Reality is different. We must get used to it.

Stressful or what? At every turn ministers and MPs must feel like test pilots going through the sound barrier. They’re not used to such prolonged and aggressive pressure, coming from all directions and at several levels. From passionately pro- and anti-Brexit campaigners in parliament, from colleagues and friends, erstwhile ones in some cases. From frustrated voters and local party activists in both camps, from the predatory media, from business and community groups – often saying diametrically opposite things and saying them stridently. Brexit has become like the Chernobyl nuclear reactor, too toxic to handle safely.

No wonder that the dashing Fleet Street pundit, Peter Oborne, used a column for the Open Democracy website, not simply to explain his change of heart over Brexit, but to argue that we are all too exhausted at present to take any sensible decision about our future, either a ‘sensible Brexit’ or Remain.

Britain should therefore grab Donald Tusk’s ‘kindly offer of a year’s sabbatical’ and think hard about all the options. ‘Shapeshifter May… has shown immense fortitude and determination which has won the respect and admiration of decent people. But there comes a moment in life when determination alone turns to madness, when the wisest and best move is to give up and think again,’ Oborne wrote and has been repeating on radio and television. Is it enough to change the political weather? Of course not, but every little helps.

On his journey to Damascus, St Paul didn’t leave quite as late as the Mail’s St Peter to experience his conversion from persecutor of Christians to the faith’s most powerful advocate. As a persecutor of Remainers Oborne was not so much on the road to Damascus as way past the suburbs and buying a beer in the city centre before seeing the blinding light – just four days before the latest scheduled Brexit Day, April 12.

If only he and other Brexit advocates had looked inconvenient facts in the eye a year ago and dialled down the rhetoric instead of becoming even shriller and more demanding. In fairness to the columnist he has long been a champion of May’s version of a compromise deal this past year – and a critic of Tory hardliners.

Is it too late now to revoke Article 50 and go for a long walk to bind up the nation’s wounds and clear our heads? I have long feared so because of the way David Cameron framed the June 23 referendum as binding and the way May later drew her notorious red lines for the withdrawal negotiations as a means of weaponising hard Brexit as a Tory-only project to kill UKIP in her 2017 election folly.

They were unnecessary concessions to hard-to-please Brexit campaigners which boxed us in and provoked further intransigence. According to some polling research, up to 40% of voters are now so fed up with what was always bound to be a complex and messy business (no ‘easiest deal ever’ nonsense in real life) that they back ‘let’s get it over with and opt for a no-deal Brexit’.

From which it’s only a short hop to the new Hansard Society survey which reports a rise in support for authoritarian solutions to the nation’s problems. Some 72% of those interviewed thought the political system in need of substantial overhaul, which is fair enough in the circumstances.

But 54% of voters agreed with the notion that we might do better with ‘a strong ruler willing to break the rules’, not least by ignoring parliament. That’s pretty scary because it’s obvious who such voters have in mind, isn’t it? It’s Mr Trump, though I suppose Boris Johnson might also be superficially in the same mould since his rule-breaking habits are well known. They include disdain for the Register of Members’ Financial Interests over which he was reprimanded (again) this week.

It’s not only scary, it’s stupid. I avoid calling Brexit voters stupid, preferring to say that busy people can easily be misled by the over-zealous and the unscrupulous peddling populist panaceas. But there’s no excuse for not knowing that ‘strong rulers’ – especially the military kind apparently fancied by some voters – are invariably more incompetent, more corrupt and much more repressive than the most mediocre elected government because they are not accountable to anyone but themselves. Putin and Xi, Erdogan and Assad, Egypt’s president Sisi, India’s Modi and a host of others make the case every day. By contrast, so Peter Oborne reminds us, the EU is not ‘anti-democratic’, not a ‘dictatorship’ and not an ’empire’ – and no, we wouldn’t be a vassal state. It’s just not democratic enough.

That other rule-breaking autocrat, Israel’s Bibi Netanyahu seems to have scraped home again in Tel Aviv. Trump’s sugar-rush policy failures, which no amount of shameless Twitter bluster can hide, should be warning enough. His personal conduct (remember, he also cheats obsessively at golf) ought to clinch our collective revulsion. But in their distress and anger, many voters don’t seem to mind because the president’s antics upset the ‘political elite’ whom they feel have left them down by embracing globalisation and cultural relativism (though they don’t put it that way). On the extreme ends of the spectrum such disaffected sentiments allow advocates of violence and illegality to get the kind of toehold that would have been unthinkable until recently.

The journalist Carole Cadwalladr may have just won a prize for her investigations into Leave campaigners’ use of data and sources of funding, but, it seems, there is still reporting to be done on the subject. Last Thursday the Guardian claimed that apparently independent grassroots campaigns for a no-deal Brexit – Mainstream Network and Britain’s Future among others – are actually administered by an employee of CTF Partners, better known as Sir Lynton (‘Dog Whistle’) Crosby’s outfit and Boris Backers. They seem to have spent up to £1 million on ‘Tell Your MP’, ‘Don’t Let Them Stop Brexit’ and ‘Delay Means Remain’ targeted ads and Facebook. Where does the money come from? Good question. No one is saying (again).

Hopes of learning more from Vote Leave’s appeal against a £61,000 fine for referendum spending offences faded when the campaign – that’s the official and relatively respectable one which Boris J and Michael Gove fronted – quietly dropped it on the grounds that it had destroyed the data that would prove its case. Yet newspapers which are usually happy to attack Facebook and other monopoly tech firms that are eating the press’s advertising lunch didn’t pick up the Guardian story or make much of Vote Leave’s retreat from its earlier ‘we’re innocent’ bluster.

Apart from Arron ‘Ronski’ Banks, Oborne’s article for Open Democracy (routinely and wrongly attacked for being a George Soros front) doesn’t name names, but deceitful Leave behaviour is one of several reasons he gives for his own change of heart.

Most are familiar to readers of The New European. This column and other TNE regulars have been making them from the start. The economic case for Brexit has been ‘destroyed by a series of shattering blows’, the slowdown in investment, the departure of major firms to a mainland base, the flight to Asia of Brexit champions like James Dyson. That leaves only hedge fund managers and the crypto-communists around Jeremy Corbyn still keen on the Brexit opportunities they detect for speculation or socialism.

Not a good sign, he notes. We might add here that business confidence is the lowest it has been for 10 years, that the two-way flow of medical supplies both ways across the Channel faces disruption without a deal, as does a secure supply of fish, if not chips. With China engaged in retrenchment, the German car industry is contracting alongside our own. Not hard to see why chancellor Merkel has been sounding more emollient than some over terms for a UK extension period. There is talk of banning Cheddar and pork pies from sun-bound holidaymakers’ Eurostar luggage!

Above all, Oborne the Apostate concedes, the world has changed since 2016 so that the global free trade vision of many Brexiteers has been dashed by the emerging economic nationalism of presidents Trump and Xi, against whom the EU will struggle to hold its own, solo Britain much more so, as Liam Fox’s failure even to replicate existing EU trade deals demonstrates.

They say confession is good for the soul and Oborne’s includes his own failure to grasp how Brexit might undermine Ireland’s Good Friday Agreement and give fresh wind to the SNP in Scotland. ‘Illegal tactics’ and ‘false and exaggerated claims’ by the rival Brexit camps complete the confession of error. Oborne suspects many colleagues share his remorse, but feel too deeply committed to admit it.

Since he writes for the Daily Mail it is tempting to attribute Oborne’s conversion to the paper’s change of editor and Brexit policy since Paul (‘Crush the Saboteurs’) Dacre’s departure. Indeed, as this column predicted at the time of Dacre’s outburst against assorted ‘Enemies of the People’, the saboteurs Theresa May has ended up trying to crush are ones like him. But Oborne is the man who had the guts to denounce collusion between the editorial and advertising departments at the hard Brexit Telegraph where he worked until his resignation in 2015. Contrast that with the shifty conduct of his then-fellow-columnist, Boris Johnson.

Yet it is Johnson who – quite astonishingly – remains the No.1 pick of elderly activists for May’s replacement. Now, as in 2016, he is the key. So it would take a rewrite of Oborne’s high-minded prose into the flighty verbal candyfloss that is the Johnson style – preferably read aloud by Boris on prime-time television with Mogg at his side – to impact on public opinion in ways that Trump’s election and other ominous trends have not.

May’s promise to step down when the eventual Withdrawal Agreement is settled has had the opposite effect. It triggered barely concealed leadership manoeuvres from a clutch of mostly weak candidates, pandering to elderly activists who pick the winner. Having voted tactically for May’s deal once, self-serving Boris and his campaign manager, Dog Whistle Crosby, are off the leash.

They are not the only ones. Chosen as a murder target by a far-right extremist, Lancashire pro-Remain Labour MP, Rosie Cooper, warned colleagues that such people are trying to ‘send a message to the state’ that democratic norms are under threat. I do not think her own remedy – non-jury trials for terrorists – is a good one.

Firm but fair enforcement of existing law is usually a better response than headline grabbing but ill-considered ‘reforms’. When prison officers complain of an increasingly unruly society and police chiefs urge politicians to moderate their language, they should be heard, not told to concentrate on the day job by enraged Twitteratti.

When Jacob Rees-Mogg retweets a speech by Alice Weidel, leader in the Bundestag of Alternative for Germany, he should be asked why. He was asked, but accused his BBC interviewer of a ‘lefty obsession’. The charm is only skin-deep.

With ugly sentiments surfacing, Shapeshifter May is taking fearful risks in her dangerous liaison with Jeremy Corbyn, more precisely with the emollient Keir Starmer. So is the Labour leadership. If it all goes wrong in Brussels or Westminster – as Liam Fox and Andrea Leadsom’s disloyal interventions on Tuesday clearly hope it will – this is not going to be one of those new ‘no blame’ divorces.

My assumption has also been that any compromise that revives the requirement to fight the EU elections on May 23 will prove provocative, despite May’s continuing effort to avoid it. Reluctant Brits will also play badly for mainstream politics in Europe, where the far-right populist parties are trying to suppress their gut nationalism and cooperate in a Strasbourg alliance.

Perhaps I’m too pessimistic in fearing that such an election in Brexit Britain would be vulnerable both to physical disruption by extremists and to success at the ballot box for their less violent fellow-travellers. More optimistic souls argue that it is the pro-Brexit block which is vulnerable in 2019. The Tories are deeply divided, Labour is just about holding together, the old UKIP vote threatens to split between UKIP’s nastier Mark II under Gerard Batten, and Nigel (remember him?) Farage’s latest vehicle, the Brexit Party for which Ann Widdecombe (remember her?) threatens to vote. Tory columnists – no, not Oborne – are busy promoting the Faragistes.

But if myriad Remain campaigns and parties, People’s Vote included, could get their act together and cooperate better than in the past, perhaps via a ‘coupon’ of approval for candidates in their various parties, Remain could demonstrate its growing strength (or lack of it).

A Brexit boycott (it’s been discussed) would obviously help. Who knows where it might take us? Combined with the Merkel-Oborne pause, it might just provide enough time and impetus to legitimise a referendum and a decisive vote to step back from Brexit. Unlikely, but we are in uncharted waters.

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