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10 New Year’s resolutions for Remainers

A European flag is lit up by anti-Brexit campaigners outside the Houses of Parliament. Photograph: Kirsty O'Connor/PA. - Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

After a Remainer made the headlines for the wrong reasons on Boxing Day, MICHAEL WHITE proposes a series of resolutions for the movement.

When I noticed on my Twitter feed that the litigious Remain barrister, Jolyon Maugham QC, had just admitted clubbing a fox to death with a baseball bat (“How’s your Boxing Day going?”) I made a mental note to add Twitter Danger to my New Year resolutions, along with drinking more water and getting back to walking 10,000 steps a day. “That might cause him trouble, I wonder why he did it,” I mused. Next day the details were all over the Daily Brute. Explaining that the fox had been trapped in his wife’s London hen house Maugham admitted he’d been hung over and wearing her kimono at the time. Candour only served to fuel the frenzy. That well-known animal rights blogger, Guido Fawkes, launched a fund to promote a private prosecution. Hey ho, it’s always a slow news week.

Would the outrage have been so great if Maugham QC had not been a Gina Miller ally in the High Court? Neither side is devoid of blood sport instincts and some disappointed Remain voters joined the condemnation of this Hard Foxit. Even predatory urban foxes attract sympathy. But the image of a Remainer clubbing a fox in the hen house is obviously sensitive to Brexit champions. They still fear persecution by the forces of pro-Europeanism, despite last month’s confirmation that they have got clean away with the Brexit chickens. Burglar Boris assures us all they are oven-ready. What could go wrong?

But Brexit-related New Year resolutions? That must be a good idea. In the Queen’s Christmas message she urged us to take “small steps” towards being kinder in 2020. Archbishop Welby led faith leaders the same way. So did ex-speaker, John (“Step outside”) Bercow. Even Burglar Boris suggests that we all put Brexit behind us: “Stop using the B-word,” he ordered staff. He wants to concentrate on great new trade deals on the way to a sunlit future. The World King and Queen Carrie showed what we can expect when they flew out to Mustique – from the French for mosquito – on a New Year, all-frills freebie. ‘Boris Island’ at last! Truly the People’s Government moves in mysterious ways. But not everyone is mean-spirited just because they can’t afford a £20,000 gig too. On Twitter a self-styled “single mum” who sounded really nice came online to say the PM deserves a holiday because he’s worked so hard.

The Remain movement was tarnished by a tweet about foxes over the Christmas period. Illustration: Martin Rowson. – Credit: Archant

So #1 in White’s list of New Year resolutions for Remainers is: be kinder. Be especially nicer to people who voted Brexit for honest reasons you may disagree with. Our side got it wrong when we pitched the anti-Brexit campaign in terms of economic rationality, mutual European self-interest and GDP. Then-chancellor Osborne got it doubly wrong, warning of instant recession and much else in the dire department if the country dared vote Leave. So far the damage has proved more a slow puncture than a burst tyre. I am still to be persuaded that the 85% of global commerce that now takes place outside the EU is gagging for us to join the party. But the economy is £300 billion smaller than it could have been on pre-bank crash trends and median wages are still 2% below their 2008 level. A lot of working families have been hurting, so Remain humility would be in order. Some ardent Remainers seem to have learned so little from their defeat in 2016 that they’d likely have managed to lose a People’s Vote if they ever got the chance, favourable polls or no.

In any case, many who voted to ‘take back control’ did so for cultural or political reasons, national or regional identity, class even. Bloody Etonian elitists like Dave telling us what to do, eh! Immigration was a highly salient factor thanks to Farageism and those 75 million Turks at Calais, though it has since slipped back. Likewise, irritation at excessive Brussels regulation and EU judges’ mission creep. A friend of mine knows exemplary citizens in the West Country, a couple who take newly-released prisoners into their own home, who voted Leave because they felt oppressed by Brussels. Further down the social scale voters felt excluded and neglected, especially in small towns and villages, far from good public transport and the hospital, even further from a decent internet connection. Across much of Europe and Trump heartlands it’s the same story, a failure of sympathetic imagination by a remote top-down technocracy – in most capitals, not just scapegoated Brussels.

White’s resolution #2 is therefore is that we should all be pleased that wheelbarrows full of money are being promised to the Midlands and north. I’ve been shocked by disparities in infrastructure spending, most conspicuously on trains and buses. We can’t force industries or intellectual clusters to relocate to Helston, Huddersfield or Hartlepool – governments have tried that with mixed success since the 1960s. Communities and individuals must raise their game too. An entrepreneur told me the other day he’d advertised 20 skilled apprenticeships in a famous post-industrial town and got no local applicants, so the opportunities went to EU migrants. But we can encourage enterprise with both organic carrot and stick. Manchester’s Labour mayor, Andy Burnham, and Birmingham’s Tory, Andy Street, are right to demand more powers as well as more money. God alone knows where that money will come from since most economic pundits don’t share the breezy Boris optimism that gets reported on page one. But if Geordie Cummings makes good half his glove puppet’s promises to Labour’s red wall deserters we should applaud. It would be one good outcome from all this angry, divisive impasse since 2016.

For Tory Remainers the message of resolution #3 must be: We’re definitely leaving the EU in 2020; you don’t have to ‘get over it’ but you do have to adjust to the new reality, as old lags like Ken Clarke did last year, but Michael Heseltine – still fighting the ‘Revoke A50 battle’ – has not. Politics is a long game. Survivors of the Johnson Purge, those who have not thrown in the towel, would be wise to sit out this fragile administration, serve constructively on exile on select committees and bide their time.

Brexit is unlikely to be as bad as your worst nightmares, but a good deal harsher than Brexit Kool-Aid kids dream. The agenda will move on, allowing MPs with useful things to say about education or health care, the case for northern rail networks vs HS2, to command an audience, as the Kool-Aid kids will not.

Stuff happens in government – just look at the accidental publication of New Year Honours addresses. That’s bad luck. Jennifer Arcuri’s expensive tech training and that suppressed Russian intelligence report are not bad luck, they’re bad behaviour. Even Kool-Aid newbees will start to grasp that Boris can’t chuckle his way through recurring floods just by donning wellie boots for the TV crews. Voters want action. It’s time for him to “stop campaigning and get on with governing,” says Clarke.

For Labour Remainers and the Lib Dems, resolution #4 is: Pick a new leader who can learn the right lessons from another defeat, but don’t expect miracles. The road back to power will be long and hard, even to get to where both parties were in 2017, let alone 2007 for Labour or 2010 for the Lib Dems when Nick Clegg let his Ashdown-Kennedy inheritance be squandered in a heady whirlwind romance with David Cameron. Jo Swinson-Losesome (Private Eye’s joke) paid a high personal price for her provocative revoke strategy which appealed more to true believers than to potential switchers. Her party is left with just 11 MPs, the only two of whom you’ve probably heard of have either been leader (Tim Farron) or tried to be (Ed Davey).

Not an easy choice, but the Lib Dems are less important to the good workings of government than Labour, which is paid to provide effective opposition. Current signs that lessons may be learned are mixed. An inquiry into last month’s disaster that is led by Ed Miliband – accidental co-author of the Corbyn Project via his £3 membership scheme – is a bad sign, as ousted MPs protested at the weekend. Against which, I sense that Keir Starmer is easing aside Emily Thornberry to become the normalisation candidate of the soft left and moderates. He has also been the most actively pro-European too, though that defining line may fade. Either way, a middle class North London lawyer is still a big jump for activists still seeking cryogenic Corbynism.

On the hard left there are signs of division. Good. The prematurely anointed Rebecca Long-Bailey (already “Wrong-Daily” in Tabloidland) invoked “progressive patriotism” in Monday’s Guardian, a tentative sign that she is distancing herself from Jeremy. But her previous patron, John McDonnell, is distancing himself from her and bruisers in her team. Clive Lewis’s hat is in the ring, but surely not for long. The very idea that party chairman, Ian Lavery, let alone Richard Burgon, might be contemplating offering themselves to the electorate shows how out of touch bunker residents are. Lavery’s “tainted biography” (an old Soviet phrase) will be hard for him to escape. Burgon risks becoming a figure of fun.

As to less-fancied options, Jess Phillips, the only wannabe with thespian charisma and voter connectivity, is keeping quiet (for once), leaving level-headed Lisa Nandy, who has important backers, to ponder. I suspect she will pull back unless she’s craftier than I think. Sheffield’s ex-paratrooper mayor, Dan Jarvis, won’t run. I fear we’ve lost born-again TV celeb, Ed Balls as a comeback kid, but the likes of credible Rachel Reeves and mayor Burnham seem to be wisely sitting this one out. Tom Watson has quit. Wresting back control of the Labour machine from the hardliners, vicious even to each other, will be bloody. “Pure but impotent,” must be repudiated as a campaign slogan. It will take time.

The long view is never easy, but most political timeframes are embarrassingly short. So to ram its urgency home, resolutions #5 and #6 are that action to stabilise the climate crisis is the overriding imperative of our time, not Brexit – or “Taskforce Europe” as No.10 invites us to call it. The Scottish highlands have just had their hottest December day on record (16.9C) and they have had to import snow to Moscow – Moscow – to sustain the traditional New Year look. Australia is on fire. California will burn again after the winter rains stop because they’re draining the aquifers. Greenland’s ice is melting so fast that Donald Trump will soon cut the price he’s offering Denmark. Whaley Bridge’s dam is holding up, but the M23 to Gatwick has flooded and I’ve just seen my first ‘spring daffodils’ in the shops.

The good news takeaway from 2019 is that the urgency of the challenge seems finally to have impacted on public consciousness. Call it the Greta Effect, but the climate sceptics are now on the back foot where they say “Obviously, we have to do something, but let’s not panic. That’s progress and the UK election manifestos reflected it. The bad news remains that few of us have grasped the scale of what we’re going to have to change to prevent the next decade being the hottest on record (already too late?), as the current one has been. Recycling plastic won’t be quite enough, Mark Carney, the outgoing Bank of England governor, reminded everyone before jetting off to become a UN climate change campaigner. He’s had mixed success in persuading City institutions that their fossil fuel assets will be worthless if they don’t try harder. “We’re just not doing enough.”

If Boris Johnson could combine his humorously attractive optimism with realism – optimism is always more attractive than a puritanical beardie – he could jolly voters into doing more in their own lives and the country’s to create a sustainable future. Germany just might – might – be gearing up to have a Green chancellor in its post-Merkel coalition. How cool is that? It will enrage populists of the right, most of whom are vocal climate change sceptics as well as Brexit nationalists: think Trump and Farage, think Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s presidential arsonist or hot Hungary’s Victor Orban. (With Poland and the Czech Republic he blocked an EU carbon-neutral-by-2050 target. Climate policy is the new divide inside the EU27.)

That’s White’s resolution #7: Get behind climate change reform, whoever is proposing it. It’s a better focus for Remain campaign energy in 2020 and will annoy the right people. Cheer Good Boris through gritted teeth if it helps him ignore Bad Boris. A decent green strategy may also mend a few burned bridges in Europe in a negotiating year when he’s going to need them. Carrie and Govey would be pleased too.

White’s resolution #8 is: Don’t believe anyone who tries to tell you that illiberal populism – nationalist and authoritarian – has peaked in Europe, let alone beyond. It may just be getting started, and divided US Democrats, torn between the Corbynism of Bernie and senator Warren, and the tired centrism of flaying Joe Biden may give it rocket boosters by facilitating Trump Mk II. Nearer to home, Bad Boris is being encouraged to undermine the BBC for asserting its independence, albeit clumsily. Remainers should not succumb to the temptation to join the hail of brick-throwing from the right. Even more important is resolution #9, to defend the constitution and the Union from those who would casually damage both.

I know many people feel strongly about PR voting, an elected second chamber and other goals. But can we park them for now? An ambitious government seems to want to use its majority in a strikingly inexperienced Commons further to assert the executive’s already-considerable power over the legislature and do the same to the Supreme Court. Such conduct also threatens the fragile union with Scotland, and Northern Ireland too, albeit by default. There is much here worth discussing, but it is populist, not Tory, to empower central government. Reforming electoral law to curb covert forms of spending, voter deregistration, targeted and unregulated internet campaigning, much of it inflammatory, laundered dirty money from god-knows-where and over-mighty lobbyists, are also urgent priorities.

Last but not least, resolution #10 must be to stay cheerful. There is much in our world to be optimistic about and research suggests that we are all happier when we compare our situation with those less fortunate than with the 1% perspiring on Mustique. By all means be kinder. But should “Common Sense” Rees-Mogg ever reappear from his Somerset coal cellar, you have my permission to make him an exception.

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