The pro-Brexit press found the perfect way to draw attention from last weekend’s People’s Vote march, says LIZ GERARD
It’s been another “Look over there!” week on Planet Brexit. On Saturday, MPs gathered in Westminster to consider Boris Johnson’s new deal. The press had spent two days telling them that it was a marvellous achievement to have any deal on the table and that they should wave it through, so we could Get Brexit Done and Move On.
The suggestion that MPs might actually do their job and consider what they were voting for was nothing short of treachery.
At the same time, a million or so people also gathered in Westminster. All along the way from Park Lane and down Whitehall, this blue and yellow brigade also had a message for MPs – the polar opposite of that being shouted by the press. They didn’t want to Get Brexit Done. They wanted to Get Brexit Gone. Or at least paused so that they could express their views at the ballot box.
Inside parliament, there were jeers as MPs decided they weren’t going to be bounced – at least not today. Outside parliament there were cheers as the news came that the Letwin Amendment had been passed.
Now it was time for the great “Look over there!” strategy.
Out came Jacob Rees-Mogg and son, then Andrea Leadsom, then Michael Gove. All walking under escort to nearby Smith Square, where their ministerial cars had been parked for the day rather than in the Commons’ underground car park as usual. Perhaps that was to do with fears about driving through crowds of marchers. Or perhaps not – others seemed to manage fine.
It was inevitable that people would shout at them. It is not very edifying, but regrettably it’s an occupational hazard: Ministers get shouted at by journalists every time they open their front doors and heckled by opponents at meetings. On Saturday a clutch of protesters swore at Rees-Mogg, called him a traitor and a Nazi and shouted “Shame on you!” But there were also Leave voices calling out “No surrender!”
Rees-Mogg, to give him his due, took it in good part and said his son had been excited rather than frightened. On Monday, however, the politician opted for the chauffeur-driven car from Downing Street to Westminster. Perhaps, some Twitter wag suggested, because his son wasn’t there to protect him.
Leadsom was more disturbed by the harassment and took to Twitter: “Thank goodness for our superb police. Just walked home safely from HoC with their protection – why do the so called ‘People’s Vote’ protesters think it’s OK to abuse, intimidate and scream in the face of someone they don’t agree with? So frightening, and so grateful to the police.”
Has she never noticed what Anna Soubry has had to put up with without the benefit of a “superb” police escort? Maybe someone jogged her memory, as she was back in print in the Times on Monday condemning verbal abuse against anyone, alongside Sarah Vine saying how frightened her children had been on other occasions when her husband (M. Gove Esq) had been accosted in the street.
And so, with this little stunt, press and radio coverage was diverted from a million people having an opinion (one postage stamp photograph of one woman in the Sunday Telegraph against four of Boris Johnson – five if you include one of an effigy), to the “hounding” of cabinet ministers – “Hate-filled mob targets Rees-Mogg’s son aged 12” said the Mail on Sunday, while the Sun focused on “MPs’ gauntlet of hate”.
The Rees-Mogg pictures were everywhere in the press, the mass of peaceful marchers pushed back or absent. Mysteriously, far less attention was paid to a convicted criminal Leave supporter abusing Diane Abbott after she had addressed the People’s Vote rally.
For what it’s worth, I was on the march. There’s a ‘traditional English pub’ at the top of Whitehall and there were about 20 Leave supporters outside, shouting at us as we walked by. Police at that point were two deep – facing both directions, as though keeping rival football fans apart. Everywhere else was freewheeling and good-natured.
For most, the march was on the inside pages. The bigger story was that the deal had not been approved by parliament. Cue “Look over there!” all over the subsequent front pages and leading the news bulletins. Johnson, obliged by the Benn Act to write to the EU, had sent not one or two, but three letters. And, like a petulant boy with his fingers crossed behind his back when forced to say “sorry”, he’d refused to sign the one asking for the extension. This new stunt – the way he carried out his obligation rather than the fact that the letter had gone and he wasn’t “dead in a ditch” after yet another parliamentary defeat – was treated as the main event.
The manipulation of the news agenda (four cabinet ministers were given news space to push the government line before the vote on Saturday) and the wilful refusal to acknowledge that at least half the country doesn’t want the hard Brexit being pursued by this government prevails across the media.
On Monday, the BBC’s Dominic O’Connell went so far as to ask two businessmen who wanted to stay in a customs union: “Are you both completely out of touch?” Interviewed on the Today programme, Ian Wright, of the Food and Drink Federation, and Stephen Phipson, of the manufacturers’ organisation Make UK, had said that they thought Johnson’s deal inferior to May’s, not least because of the absence of a temporary customs union when the transition period expires next year.
Wright made the point that, during the referendum campaign, he had sat on a platform with Rees-Mogg, who “told me barefaced that we could be in a customs union with the EU. Somehow a week after the referendum everything changed”.
O’Connell: “Both of you are talking about closer alignment with the EU, customs union with the EU, all this kind of stuff. The politics is going in the completely opposition direction, at least the politics of the Conservative Party is. Are you both completely out of touch?”
Wright: “We don’t have to be in touch with any political party…”
These men were concerned about uncertainty. Uncertainty is the key word in every interview with business types. We know that they don’t like uncertainty.
But asked if they’d trade certainty for an extension, both Phipson and Wright opted for the extension. What they weren’t asked – and what nobody on the BBC seems willing to ask – is whether they would prefer the certainty of Johnson’s deal, which they disliked, or the uncertainty of a second referendum that might mean no Brexit at all.
The BBC’s line since 2016 has been “the in-out question has been decided, we must focus on the how”. But does that policy hold now? Monday’s Today reported that Labour might table amendments calling for a customs union and a confirmatory referendum.
Producers may agree with Gove’s assessment that a second referendum “ain’t gonna happen”. But if it was worth putting one possibility to these businessmen, why not the other? They might think it a dreadful idea. At least we’d know.
If a million people get on coaches, buses and trains from all over the country to tell MPs that they want a new vote, would it be so terrible for journalists to ask interviewees from all spheres for their thoughts on the matter?
It’s blinkered journalism to say: “You can have porridge or toast. There’s no point asking if you want corn flakes because they’re not available.”
Anyone in any business will tell you that when a number of customers start asking for something, you start thinking about whether you can offer it. You do market research and if that tells you there’s a demand for corn flakes, you look into the mechanics of providing corn flakes. The market research was carried out on Saturday – and has been in more than 300 opinion polls showing a preference to remain in the EU.
There is certainly a demand, but is it big enough to make it a viable proposition? We’ll never know if nobody asks or makes the offer. The Brexity press are never going to do that. The government is never going to listen unless forced to.
It’s time for the BBC to step up and ask itself whether corn flakes should be on its breakfast menu.
It may find that both listeners and contributors hate both porridge and toast and have been longing for an alternative all along.