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MICHAEL WHITE: Public contempt for politicians is increasingly mutual

Prime Minister Theresa May speaks in the House of Commons. Photograph: Parliament TV. - Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

MICHAEL WHITE looks at how public contempt for politicians is increasingly mutual towards the public.

A pro-Brexit protester interacts with a supporter of a second EU referendum outside the Houses of Parliament in central London. Photograph: OLI SCARFF/AFP/Getty Images. – Credit: AFP/Getty Images

How many conscientious voters turned on the television on Monday to hear Theresa May (‘my door is open, but my mind is closed’) tell sceptical MPs how she is tweaking Brexit Plan A into Plan A+. How do they feel about Yvette Cooper’s ingenious new bill to prevent a hard Brexit by extending Article 50 and negotiating a Norway+ deal? Or Jacob Rees-Mogg’s ambition to crash out like the Duke of Edinburgh did onto the A149, but injuring even more civilians?

Not many are listening to the small print, if they ever were, I suspect. All but those pesky experts are tuned out. Yet whenever I encounter Brexit interviews with angry or disgruntled voters – as we all do frequently on radio or television, in Harrogate or Hull, in print or in person – my blood pressure edges upwards. Pollsters confirm they know what they’re against, not what most are for.

So when they complain about the political class’s failure to resolve the crisis, I reply: ‘Well, they’re pretty disappointed with you too. You instruct them to do the near-impossible, then complain when they can’t fix it in 24 hours, or even in two years. Just listen to yourselves, you sound as argumentative as they do and even more ignorant. Get a grip.’ They’d better too because Gordon Brown has come up with an idea to make voters roll up their sleeves and help find a solution. We’ll come back to him later.

At this point of alarm I remember Michael Caine and feel better. Yes, the lovable Cockney actor and Thatcherite. Yes, the Brexit voter who said he’d ‘rather be a poor master than a rich servant’ when he has no more risk of being poor or a servant than anguished columnist, Melanie Phillips, who also spouts that line.

Caine is in my thoughts partly because the other day headmaster turned historian, Anthony Seldon, invoked Zulu, his 1964 breakthrough film, when he told Downing Street staffers they are now in much the same plight as Lieutenant Chard’s 150 troops facing 4,000 Zulu warriors at Rorke’s Drift in 1879. Rees-Mogg as a Zulu warrior, eh, the double-breasted leopard skin will be a challenge to his tailor.

Historian Linda Colley made a better connection between Brexit and imperial nostalgia a few days earlier. British exceptionalism stems from a history marked by few major traumas, she argued. That requires some amnesia, but we like to discount lesser defeats like Isandlwana, a low-tech Zulu massacre just before Rorke’s Drift. Eleven VCs were awarded as a Victorian spin doctor’s distraction: defeat spun into victory. Very Brexit.

It is the public’s belated realisation of the collapse of British power, say Colley, which made Europe – our new post-imperial strategy after 1973 – so unpopular with many voters as that realisation unfolded. She might have added that it still makes Zulu a nostalgic television favourite, probably more in monochrome Brexit postcodes than Remain ones. Strange to report, our colonial legacy no longer translates into urgent calls for action against creeping Chinese oppression in Hong Kong or brutal suppression of dissent in Zimbabwe. (see pages 18, 19, 20).

Brexit leaders may talk grandly of a revitalised ‘Global Britain’, but Leave foot soldiers interviewed in Harrogate (Daily Mail) or Hull (BBC Radio 4) sound as if they just want a quiet life and fewer migrants. Too many Brits seem to have given up on the world, at least for now.

Don’t go away, I haven’t finished with Sir Michael yet. For me the relevance of Caine is one of tone. Interviewed by newspapers – usually Brexit nostalgics – he often comes across as chippy and belligerent. But interviewed live or, better still, reading his latest memoirs Blowing the Bloody Doors Off for radio audiences Caine usually oozes good-natured charm.

Moral: beware of the media agenda deploying its editing function to shape and polarise debate, as the redtop tabloids – and the Telegraph – routinely do with Brexit. We’re all guilty but some are guiltier than others, in defiance of old-fashioned facts too. When priapic plotter, Boris Johnson, emerged from his new love nest to set out his leadership credentials (again) at that Leave-supporting JCB factory he denied ever mentioning Turkish migration in the referendum campaign. A chorus of fact-checkers confirmed that he did.

So my hunch remains that fewer voters are as angry as the media usually portrays them or have even been wound up to be, as may be the story behind Diane Abbott’s BBC Question Time ordeal. That woman who lost her place on Brittany Ferries to emergency medical supplies was cross, but a model of reasonableness when interviewed.

That said, voters are certainly still very polarised. An ICM poll conducted after last week’s double vote – defeat for May’s plan, but also for Corbyn’s no confidence motion – showed the biggest block (28%) backed a hard Brexit, closely followed (24%) by a second referendum which has steadily been gaining ground. William Hague grudgingly acknowledged its likelihood in a Telegraph column on Tuesday. Polling guru, John Curtice, says Remain is edging ahead – now on 54-46%. The shift is not by repentant Leavers but mostly those who didn’t vote last time. Some Leave voters would back Remain if hard Brexit was the alternative, he says.

Just 8% backed the May plan and 11% the Corbyn plan for a general election, says ICM. Polls on election voting intentions are just as mixed. The Political Betting website’s spread puts both Labour and Tories on anything between 35% and 41%, Tories more often slightly ahead than Labour. That’s pretty amazing in the circumstances, a tribute to Jeremy’s leadership which is at least as focussed on ‘party, not country’ as May’s.

Private analysis for the People’s Vote campaign by YouGov’s Peter Kellner confirms private Tory data suggesting that Labour would lose many Remain votes back to the Lib Dems if it fought a general election (the one it claims to want) on a Brexit platform. At last weekend’s Fabian Society conference in London, Corbyn’s deputy, Tom Watson, had to fend off impatient attacks on the leader’s failures coming from the cerebral wing of the party. No wonder the DUP’s Westminster leader, Nigel Dodds, joked during the no confidence debate that MPs begging him to keep May in power were mostly Labour.

So disaffected Remain voters – 70% of Labour voters – would take care of all Corbynite hopes of forming a government. Talk of Labour already losing 150,000 such members is exaggerated, so I’m told, but any significant loss of pro-EU supporters is a reminder that you can’t put most of your energy into party management and expect people not to notice. No wonder some cabinet ministers – including Jeremy Hunt, it is said – think May should risk another election if the stalemate continues between government, parliament and the people.

An opportunity to test that theory to destruction may come sooner than you think. If Labour’s expelled MP, Fiona Onasanya, is sent to jail for more than a year over her Chris Huhne moment – convicted of perverting the course of justice in a speeding incident – there will probably be a recall petition leading to a by-election in the Leave-voting swing marginal of Peterborough. Lib Dem candidate, Beki Sellick, is pro-People’s Vote. Ukip has just picked local councillor, John Whitby, who has an eye-catching eye patch. But what if Nigel Farage took the chance to get off his bar stool at LBC Radio and launch his promised new party – UKIP 2.0 – by standing too?

That would put a herd of cats among the pigeons. So all parties are gearing up locally, as they are at national party HQs. Personally, I’m with those who say a general election wouldn’t resolve much. That would be so even if fantasy talk of deselecting the Dominic Grieves, Nick Boles and other Remain ‘traitors’ (an impulse matched by Corbynite hopes of purging ‘Tory Blairite scum’) yielded a hard Brexit Conservative majority, pure in every imaginable way.

It wouldn’t change facts on the ground. The EU27 would still be calling most of the negotiating shots, the Irish border issue still unsolved (note that nasty weekend bombing in Derry). Their cherished hard Brexit would still damage us much more than it would 26 of the 27, though ill-ease at the prospect is spreading beyond the Irish business community.

That must lie behind this week’s EU calls for flexibility on the May deal’s political declaration (encouraged by Michel Barnier) or Poland’s suggestion of a five-year time-limit on the Irish backstop, slapped down by Barnier. Midweek the Commission spokesman explicitly warned of a hard border for the first time.

Then there was that well-intentioned letter to the Times from an impressive list of Germans, led by Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer (AKK), Mrs Merkel’s successor-in-waiting. Gracious but clunky (‘going to the pub after work hours to drink an ale’), it was a plea to Britain to change its mind and stay – or return later: ‘No choice is irreversible.’

Emmanuel Macron may be ramping up the prospective damage to Britain for domestic reasons, but he has gilet jaune problems of his own, not least the fact that Marine Le Pen is an MP for the Brexit-vulnerable Pas de Calais region and an MEP for next-door Normandy. Macron’s lofty ambitions for a reformed France inside an integrated Europe are wholesome, but sound increasingly out of step.

As such, Macronism offers a cautionary warning to high-minded centrists in Britain who dream of splitting off the moderate, pro-EU wings of both main parties. Fallen Tory cabinet minister, Stephen Crabbe, said this week: ‘It is a misnomer to talk about the Conservative party’ as a single party because the European Not Much Research Group (ERG) is now a party within the party. In Shaka Mogg it has its own leader, private meetings, direct communications and a whip via WhatsApp. Substitute ‘Momentum’ for ERG and you see a Labour mirror. There’s lots more centrist talk about inner parties since Christmas. But I recently heard Crabbe at an Institute for Government (IfG) seminar. Nice chap, but not much in the tank.

Where the ‘breaking the mould’ party splitters and constitutional reformers go wrong (yet again) is in thinking that a smash that leads to a new centre party, PR voting plus Lords reform, would provide a clear way out of Britain’s doldrums. In reality it offers another energy-sapping distraction in a country which must first resolve Brexit, then turn its focus on to failing schools, tottering universities, HS2 and humble pot holes, mental health, law and order. Oh yes, and Britain’s nuclear energy crisis which ought to be sharing page one with Zimbabwe, but isn’t.

They make the classic reformer’s mistake of confusing structure with quality. What the Brexit crisis needs, what the disaffected country cries out for without always realising, is leadership, bold and resolute, flexible but imaginative. By an unhappy historical fluke they are qualities which both May and Corbyn conspicuously lack. Stubbornness, a quality they do share, can be a virtue. But they are leaders who do not lead. Even Corbyn admirers increasingly accept that, though many make excuses for him. Few yet admit that activists aren’t good at picking leaders.

Those who blame the coalition’s expedient Fixed Term Parliament Act of 2011 for our gridlock make a similar error. Professor Niall ‘Flip Flop’ Ferguson, who lambasted Brexit and Trump but switched sides after they won, does that. But for the FTPA May would have gone after last week’s thumping 230-vote hammering, not to mention her 26 other defeats in office, he wrote in the Sunday Times. A new leader, a new government, a new election, would have settled the matter. Wrong. May is still there because her party can’t yet see an alternative leader. Labour is in a similar plight. Both have won party elections which makes them safe. Its general elections they lose.

So how did Monday’s two hour clash rate as a display of imaginative courage and leadership? May made what is by her standard an effort. In a sop to the 27 she abandoned the cunning plan to charge long-term UK residents from Europe £65 to register their rights. That’s another 65 quid the NHS won’t be getting. In her search for a wider consensus he promised to go on consulting MPs from all sides, Corbyn too if he turns up, business leaders, trades unionists even. She confirmed she would protect environmental and employment rights. Good, good.

But the PM also rejected any extension of the UK’s departure date beyond March 29 along with a second referendum as a potential threat to ‘social cohesion’. Since she is quite likely to come back to one or other of those options, Theresa the Brexit Bull does make life hard for herself, doesn’t she? But the main thrust of her strategy was to resort yet again to wooing the ERG right of her own party and the DUP. They are deemed more reliable allies than Labour’s moderate wing and the smaller parties. Hmm.

As such she ruled out blocking a no-deal exit on March 29 on the familiar grounds that it would weaken her hand in further negotiations with Brussels. Appalling though the prospect is, the risk does have some brutal negotiating logic: the no-deal scenario keeps the EU27’s attention. It just might yield greater assurances on the Irish backstop, concern about which is allegedly the chief impediment to Zulu Mogg and his warriors loyally returning to the kraal. Initial signs from Brussels and Dublin were discouraging. Mogg has been showing some ankle to encourage her.

As for Corbyn he was lambasted by May for feeble hypocrisy and more savagely for setting preconditions to talk to her (but not Hamas) by Michael Gove, whose closing speech in the no confidence debate was another leadership warm-up. Corbyn rightly counter-charged her with Groundhog Day tactics to appease her right wing. That tactic has destroyed four Tory PMs and lost elections. In doing so she risks going too far and losing Remain ministers – Amber Rudd even – plus her chief of staff, Gavin Barwell, who have been advocating the rival cross-party centrist approach.

But the Labour leader offered little new himself except grudgingly to include a second referendum option in the amendment tabled in his name ahead of next Tuesday’s latest meaningful votes: rule out no-deal, then offer MPs a choice between Labour’s six-point plan (that customs union and regulatory alignment with the single market) and a People’s Vote. You could say Corbyn too is appeasing his right wing in the shape of the shadow cabinet’s Remain champion, Keir Starmer, who is showing increasing signs of frustration. Corbyn loyalists played it down.

As MPs head towards their indicative votes next week the prize for creative leadership must surely go to cross-party efforts by the Yvette Cooper/Hilary Benn and Dominic Grieve/Anna Soubry factions to draft a motion(s) that would block no-deal and delay our Article 50 exit until Christmas, this to allow time either for a second referendum (Grieve) or for a revised Norway+ deal (Cooper) with the EU. Just possibly it would be under parliament’s direction, not Downing Street’s, though No.10 could also use extra time.

This is uncharted constitutional territory, MPs seeking to direct Her Majesty’s government in ways which might compromise the Queen’s impartiality, we are told. Perish the thought. At least she’s a safer driver than the Duke. In any case, clever people in both Leave and Remain camps hate Norway+ as the worst of both worlds, rule-taking Britain paying heavily to be told what to do (badly). At that IfG session I heard the SNP’s QC/MP, Joanna Cherry, denounce Norway+ too. And, of course, Team Leave think delay is a plot to bring about no Brexit. We shall see.

Amendments and alliances are shifting hourly as the clock ticks. But Cooper-Grieve is a serious attempt to break the logjam with a coherent tune that some people can whistle, though it will never win the Eurovision Song Contest, as Alexander Rybak (his song was called Fairytale) did for Norway in 2009. Liam Fox, who has produced none of the 40 ready-to-sign free trade deals he promised, would be displeased.

May never produces tunes for whistling. Nor was Gordon Brown very good at it. But he’s a serious man too and his idea for a series of public conversations on Brexit – up and down the country – should be taken seriously. If it sounds like a truth and reconciliation commission, that’s fine. Properly chaired – leadership again – they needn’t degenerate into a Question Time argy-bargy, but promote dialogue.

My hunch remains that a version of May+ will eventually prevail, for want of enough MPs coalescing around a viable alternative. As for voters, if they all hate the outcome equally on both sides, what could be fairer, Theresa the Brexit Bull is said to think. But it could still lurch in either direction. And if there is no time for Gordon Brown’s healing commissions before Brexit is resolved it might be a good idea to stage them afterwards to help passions cool. Michael Caine could chair a few.

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