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Mitch Benn: ‘Leavers, just stop asking for our help with Brexit’

Pro-European Union and anti-Brexit demonstrators protest outside the Houses of Parliament in central London, as the Commons debate on the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill takes place.Picture: PA/Victoria Jones - Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

Right, so where are we now then?

When last we spoke, Keir Starmer had give us perhaps the first hint that Labour might be starting to back away from at least a ‘Hard’ Brexit, if not (yet) Brexit altogether. Nothing much else (at time of writing) seems to have happened on that front; Labour appear now to be devoting most of their energy to relitigating last year’s ‘Traingate’ incident. Good to see their sense of priority is as unmuddied as always.

Meanwhile, we’ve spent most of the last week reiterating what are now becoming Brexit clichés; the well-worn themes of the slow-motion car crash which continues to transfix us: the sheer lack of preparation or even basic competence of our ‘negotiating team’, and the ever-more slack-jawed disbelief this provokes on the part of their European interlocutors. In the last day or so, there have been rumours (perhaps substantiated by the time you read this, perhaps not) of some sort of delaying tactic about to be deployed by the Prime Minister herself in order to at least temporarily derail the Brexit talks for a couple of weeks, presumably to give herself and her colleagues a bit of breathing (and possibly firing) space.

Let’s contemplate the irony of that for a moment before we move on (I nearly said ‘delicious irony’ but there’s been nothing delicious, or even slightly tasty, about this debacle at any stage): our own government, we are told, in order to make one last futile attempt to get its non-existent ducks in a row, is planning deliberately to upset and interrupt the most vital constitutional discussion for centuries. Now remind me, what was that name they’ve been calling us for the at few months?

Oh that’s it. Saboteurs.

Now that Labour have started to make vaguely sane-sounding noises with regard to Brexit, I find I’m not getting sucked into Twitterspats with glassy-eyed Corbynists quite so much as has been the case these last few weeks. Rather it’s the Brexiteers themselves that I’m running into again. I’m doing my best to be civil; I’m not trying to corner them on the big, by now unanswerable questions regarding their continued support for the insupportable. I’m not asking them if they can do the thing that I’ve been asking all Leavers to do since before the referendum and which not one of them yet has; specifically, to name a single actual tangible practical benefit that Brexit will bring. Part of the reason I’ve stopped asking this question is that nobody is even pretending to have an answer to it any more.

They’re not even responding in the abstract like they used to, throwing up concepts like ‘sovereignty!’ and ‘control!’, whatever those words actually mean in a country where a government can, as the Conservatives did in 2015, win 24% of the available vote (37% of a 66% turnout) and nonetheless form an administration with absolute executive power over the whole nation, including regions where they came fourth. In that sort of set-up, when people say things like ‘we need our sovereignty back!’ or ‘we must take back control!’ the most obvious reply is ‘who the hell is WE?’

The nearest thing anyone has left to a pro-Brexit argument is an attempt to repudiate or minimise the anti-Brexit case. To point out that the damage might not be as profound or long-lasting as the Remoaners claim. Nobody is denying that there will BE damage, nor is anyone claiming that there will be any actual benefit. And yet onwards we march, acting as if Brexit is some sort of asteroid of inevitability hurtling towards us which we can do nothing to avert or avoid, some natural disaster to be survived, rather than – as is the case – an incredibly stupid thing we are choosing to do to ourselves. And, indeed, could choose NOT to do to ourselves.

The conversation one has with the few remaining (ironic) Brexiteers comes not from a question we’re asking them, but from the question they’re now all asking us. Namely, ‘Why aren’t you helping?’

That’s what they ask us these days. Yes, they say, we know you voted Remain but that’s all in the past now; surely what matters is that we accept the result and all work together to make a SUCCESS of Brexit! Isn’t it? Eh?

To this oft-posed question, my response – and the response of most of my fellow Remoaners is… one I’m not sure I can say in a newspaper. Hang on, I’ll check.

Editor, can you say ‘piss off’ in The New European?

Ah. Looks like I just did.

Because that, in an expletive nutshell, is my response. That’s a ridiculous question. We didn’t vote against Brexit as some sort of intellectual exercise, or because we thought it was ‘trendy’; we voted against it because we recognised it for the suicidally bad idea that it was. And it still is a suicidally bad idea, referendum or no referendum. We voted against it because we didn’t want it to happen, and we STILL don’t want it to happen.

Besides, how has this suddenly become our responsibility? How has making a ‘success’ of Brexit suddenly become OUR job? We’re the saboteurs to be ‘crushed’, remember? The enemies of the people to be scorned and left behind on the glorious road to the sunlit uplands of isolationist utopia. They didn’t need or want us then; why do they need us now?

Is it perhaps because even the most delusional Brexiteers are beginning to understand that they voted for the impossible? That one way or another, they’re not getting the isolationist utopia? Isolationism yes, but isolationism at the cost of a fractured economy, a shattered society and no audible voice in global affairs? Has making a success of Brexit suddenly become our job because the Leavers have finally realised it’s an impossible job, and they’d better start looking for someone else to blame?

Keep resisting.

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