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The Remain camp’s week of own goals

Crowds march through central London to demand a People's Vote on the government's new Brexit deal. (Photo by Peter Summers/Getty Images) - Credit: Getty Images

ALASTAIR CAMPBELL argues it’s been a week of own goals for the Remain camp… but says we’re still in the game.

Campaigns, I said to a People’s Vote rally last month, are like sporting events – ups and downs, opportunities and setbacks, new stars emerge, existing stars disappoint, but while you’re in the game, it is there to be won.

By any reckoning, the campaign suffered a few own goals in recent days. First, the fracturing of the so-called Remain Alliance in parliament, as the Liberal Democrats and the SNP suddenly, and without consulting others, went their own way, with the idea of a December 9 election, three days earlier than the one Boris Johnson wants.

Second, the decision of Open Britain chairman Roland Rudd, at the start of one of the most important weeks in this whole Brexit saga, to lob a hand grenade into the People’s Vote campaign, sending emails of dismissal, late on a Sunday night, to two key members of the team, who had done rather more than the Open Britain board to get us within touching distance of a confirmatory referendum. And then, as turkeys were voting for Christmas and helping an election over the line, with Johnson getting his way. So now, to get a People’s Vote we have to rely on Johnson losing and, presumably, a Corbyn-led coalition committed to having one. This is not an easy landscape.

On the first, I understand some of the motivations of Jo Swinson and Ian Blackford in moving as they did: Their frustrations with Jeremy Corbyn; the sense that whatever happens, this parliament will never vote for a second referendum. But the movement from where the parliament was when the campaign began to where it was when they wrote their letter to EU president Donald Tusk – which did not mention the possibility of a referendum as one of the options to resolve the crisis – has been stunning.

We were not that far away when both stood in front of the vast crowds in Parliament Square a few days earlier, and indicated their belief that the battle could be won, on the basis of a fight against Boris Johnson’s deal. As Labour MP Peter Kyle pointed out – the southern half of the Kyle-Wilson amendment which remains the best way forward in this mess – “a million people were not marching for a general election”.

I accept these are difficult calculations, and one of the worst things about our politics right now is an immediate denunciation of motivation as soon as someone does something you don’t agree with, a trend exacerbated by social media, Trump in the White House, and now his British mini-me in Number 10.

But, as rugby fans around the world await the World Cup final on Saturday morning, it is fair to say that while both coaches will have spent a lot of this week analysing their opponents, when they send the teams into battle they will be urging them to play their own game, stick to their own plan. The opposition parties have played Johnson’s game.

Here is another lesson worth taking from the best of sport… analyse the world as it is, not as you want it to be. Most members of Swinson’s and Blackford’s parties, most readers of this newspaper, and pretty much all who write for it, look at Johnson and see a liar, a charlatan, someone parading as a man of the people while pursuing a policy that will damage the lives of the poorest and weakest most.

We see a populist who will do and say anything to stay in power. We see a man lacking in basic morality, personal or political. How, we ask, can anyone vote for such a man? For the answer, we need look not just at Trump across the water, but at the opinion polls.

The polls can be, and often are, wrong. But I recall the wise words of chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov, when I interviewed him for my book on winning, that “waiting for your opponent to fail does not amount to a strategy”.

Johnson may well fail, but his record as a campaigner suggests equally he may not. In this, it is Labour that is making the mistake of wishful thinking, and of fighting the last battle rather than the next one.

Their stock response to any question about how badly they trail in the polls is to say that they were way behind in 2017, but once the broadcasters were bound by law to give equal time to the main parties, and once the public could see the radical, exciting policies Labour was offering, the gap narrowed and, had the campaign lasted two more weeks, they would have won. And I could argue that, had Burnley’s game against Chelsea lasted another ten minutes last Saturday, we would have won it 5-4, given we scored two late goals in the 90 minutes available to pull things back from 4-0 to 4-2. But it is only the one-eyed fanatic in me that might believe such a thing.

Johnson is not Theresa May, about whom a new book suggests that she was an even worse campaigner than we thought. He will have the whole of the Brexit Lie Machine bellowing in his favour in a way that she did not. He will frame the election as him or Corbyn, Brexit or not.

And let’s be very clear why he was so desperate for this to be resolved in an election, rather than a referendum. He would lose the latter, which would require a majority of 50% plus one, but he can win the former with little more than a third of the vote, and claim a mandate for no-deal, or his current deal, no matter how high the votes of those parties offering a People’s Vote may be stacked across the country.

This is the reason I felt the Liberal Democrats’ policy of revoking Article 50 in the unlikely event of a Lib Dem government was a mistake. It too suggested that an election was a fair and democratic way to resolve Brexit. It isn’t, but to have one of the main opposition parties saying that it is helps Johnson. Then to have the SNP indicate the same helped him a bit more.

There was an important point of principle, and an argument that could have been won, that a referendum having delivered the vote to Leave, if there is to be a fresh democratic check on whether the people still want to proceed on the basis of what we now know, then it should be a referendum, not an election.

Politics, more than ever today, appears to be about day-to-day tactics, more than parties and leaders following through on a clear strategy. Johnson bounces around from day to day, and that is what makes him vulnerable. But just as his deal was falling apart under minimal scrutiny – workers’ rights under threat, no-deal not off the table, far from it, the big questions about the future totally unresolved – and just as he was failing to meet his do or die deadline to get us out on October 31, he made it all about an election. That he was allowed to do so, within days of presenting a new legislative programme for heaven’s sake, is a failure of opposition.

Now, on the second own goal. And please forgive me another sporting reference. The People’s Vote is a coalition of five different anti-Brexit groups, one of which is Open Britain, of which Roland Rudd is chairman. What he did last week with his Sunday night attempted sackings was the equivalent of the boss of Saracens taking it upon himself, on the eve of England’s game against South Africa, unilaterally to announce that not just Maro Itoje from his own club, but Manu Tuilagi from Leicester Tigers as well, would not be available for selection, and he was unilaterally putting someone over Eddie Jones in place, taken from another club which was not being consulted.

Sorry if that sounds a bit screwed up, but it really is. Again, as in sport, so in campaigns you find out over time who are team players and who are egos; you find out who is in it for the right reasons – like doing everything it takes to win a People’s Vote – and who is in it for the wrong reasons – status, being able to wield power over others, being able to boast to business friends of your importance, and using your friends in the media to leak, brief and shape a narrative that you are Mr Unity when in fact you are doing your best, at the worst possible time, to destroy what others have worked so hard to build, despite months of being destabilised and undermined.

Rudd doubtless has talents, to have built a business, made the fortune for himself that he has, and in the Remain landscape to have survived his role in the failed 2016 referendum campaign. But if the campaign was a sports team, it wouldn’t be James McGrory and Tom Baldwin getting their P45s.

Thanks to this and the other own goals it may all be irrelevant soon anyway. We’re still in the game. It is still there to be won. But boy, the so-called leaders inside and outside parliament don’t make it easy.

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