In all fast moving political dramas mythologies erupt and begin to frame the debate.
We choose to see not what is in front of our eyes but what the myths misleadingly convey. Brexit is an unusually highly charged drama. The myths erupt on a daily basis.
As part of the current febrile mythology David Cameron becomes a principled former Prime Minister bowing to the sweep of history by graciously calling a referendum. The Chancellor, Philip Hammond, metamorphoses from a dry, cautious fairly Euro-sceptic public figure into a fearsome rebel battling for the European cause.
The issue of immigration becomes one that must overwhelm all others because that was the ‘message’ from the referendum that Cameron nobly called.
None of these fantasies are close to the truth. Only when they are challenged does the landscape become clearer and we can see where the UK should end up or will end up if reason and logic get a look in before the mythologies take hold.
The defence of David Cameron for calling and losing the historic referendum is a form of genius. The case for the defence is that a referendum was ‘inevitable’ and so Cameron deserves credit for calling one. This is an argument put forward by Cameron’s former communications’ director, Craig Oliver, in his recent book on the campaign. The Conservative peer, Daniel Finkelstein, advances a similar case, adding a neat contortion. He argues the fact Cameron lost shows he was right to call the referendum in the first place. The result showed there was an unsustainable level of opposition to the UK’s membership of the EU. Cameron will almost certainly use a similar defence in his memoirs and in interviews to promote his memoirs. As his political model Tony Blair continues to defend Iraq, the defining policy failure of his similarly shallow approach to foreign policy, Cameron will argue he pledged a referendum and kept to his promise.
These preposterous arguments need to be exposed before they imbue the referendum with a weighty significance it does not deserve. There was nothing inevitable about this particular referendum at the time it was held. If Labour had won the 2015 election there would have been no referendum, as it went into that campaign opposed to the plebiscite. When Cameron promised an In/Out referendum the issue of the UK’s membership of the EU was way down the list of voters’ concerns. More fundamentally Cameron had already made an historic concession early in the 2010 parliament, granting referendums on future EU treaties if any powers were ceded to Brussels. In effect such a post treaty referendum would have been an in/out plebiscite. But Cameron chose to offer the additional referendum because he was worried about his MPs and voters switching to UKIP. Let us not pretend that the referendum was a noble policy that was part of the great unavoidable sweep of history. Cameron accidentally led the UK out of the EU as an act of short term party management that went catastrophically wrong.
The next myth relates to the cause of the defeat. Across the political spectrum opposition to immigration is cited as the main reason why Brexit prevailed. How can anyone be so sure? One of the problems with a binary referendum on an issue of multi-layered complexity is that that motives for a vote in a particular direction can be equally complicated. Obviously ‘immigration’ is an issue of great concern to voters. Quite often the topic tops the list of voters’ concerns at any time and not just in the referendum. That wider worry highlights the problem of attributing the outcome of the referendum to the single issue. Almost certainly concerns about immigration extend well beyond immigrants coming from within the EU. As far as they are limited to immigrants from eastern Europe voters were given an unrealistically easy option in the referendum. They were told that they could ‘control’ immigration and be better off outside the EU.
How would they have respond if there is a high chance that they would be worse off? As the Chancellor Philip Hammond noted in his party conference speech, no one voted to be poorer. At the very least while immigration remains top of voters’ concerns there is no evidence that most of them are so obsessed they would be willing to become poorer. A Brexit strategy based on the assumption that immigration trumps all other issues would be the wrong policy for the government to pursue and one that would make it more vulnerable.
Hammond’s insurrectionary argument that voters did not opt to be poorer is one of the reasons why the Chancellor has become the hero of the Remainers. The dynamics in the cabinet, including the role of Hammond, is another fast growing myth. As Chancellor Hammond is dutifully placing the economy at the top of his agenda. He would be an unusual Chancellor not to do so. But Hammond is not a natural rebel. He survived the twists and turns of opposition by keeping his head down and I suspect he will only place it so far above the parapet in the forthcoming battles.
As is often the case the media is currently overplaying the degree of cabinet turmoil. There is a vacuum in relation to Brexit. No one knows very much about precisely what form Brexit will take. The vacuum is filled with stories about cabinet splits, as vacuums often are. But take a closer look at the characters. On the one side there is the Brexit Secretary, David Davis. Admittedly Davis resigned from Cameron’s front bench in the build up to the 2010 election but he was loyal to John Major and has a similar respect for May. Davis had cause to be wary of Cameron. He saw through the then leader’s insincere support for his civil liberties’ agenda when he was shadow Home Secretary. Davis is loyal to leaders of substance that he respects. He admires May, a more fully formed politician than Cameron was when he became Prime Minister.
On the ‘other side’ there is calm, dry Hammond, the least likely rebel in the history of rebellions. There are significant differences within the cabinet but this is not yet a government at war. It appears to be so because there is uncertainty over an epic issue rather than a clearly defined clash between instinctive insurrectionaries.
Once the myths are demythologised the challenge for this new government is much clearer. The referendum must be heeded but it was not an historic inevitability to which the mighty, principled Cameron gave the green light. It was a tool of party management. It can be heeded without taking revolutionary strides. Immigration has been a concern for decades and not always in the context of the EU. But immigration as a separate stand-alone issue is different from when it is part of a package that impacts on economic performance. Lack of clarity is Theresa May’s main difficulty in terms of managing her government and the media.
May could simplify and clarify by declaring at a relatively early phase of this drama that she seeks a deal close to the Norway option, near full access to the single market along with an attempt to get a deal of some sort on immigration. This delivers Brexit but in a minimalist way that is appropriate for Cameron’s shallow referendum. It would be a deal that prioritises economic stability given that no one voted to be poorer and offers clarity to replace the current highly charged vacuum. As a bonus it meets the wishes of Nicola Sturgeon who would then struggle to justify holding a second referendum that she otherwise plans to stage and win.
Admittedly May appears to have ruled out such a route, but she is a weighty, dutiful leader and will end up seeking a deal that does not wreck the economy. She might as well begin stating she seeks such an arrangement. Only the myths get in the way.
Steve Richards is a political writer and broadcaster. Follow him @steverichards14