The young and old alike can see the coming calamity of Brexit. And recent encouraging events show that they still have the ability to avert it
Until late on Tuesday evening, most people were unaware that Michael Heseltine was an advisor to Theresa May’s Government. Hardly surprising, given the veteran Tory pro-European has seemingly never met the Remain-voting turned Hard Brexiteering Prime Minister.
We all know now. Because Lord Heseltine was ‘sacked’ from his voluntary, unpaid role, which occasionally saw him bring his considerable experience and expertise to complicated policy issues he has wrestled with all his life; not least industrial strategy, in which May claims to have a special interest.
His crime? Being one of those peers who voted against May’s plan to deny Parliament a ‘meaningful vote’ over whatever Brexit deal she strikes; who pointed out the utter absurdity of every other EU Parliament having a say on the deal, but not the so-called Mother of Parliaments, which is going to be most affected.
Sacked. Simple. Brutal. No room for doubt, over and out … nice red meat headlines for the Brextremist papers, which are delivering up slavish support for May, provided she sticks to the Hard Brexit route they have been telling their readers (aka lying) will deliver milk and honey for all, if only they can silence those traitorous Remoaners who seem to think the 48% who voted to stay in the EU ought also be taken into account.
She did so knowing her sacking would unleash the hound-dogs of Brexit all over social media, the Lie Machine papers running any bad stuff new and old they can dig up on Hezza, the House of Lords switchboard ringing away with threats and abuse to be passed on to the noble Lord, Tory MPs with weaker stomachs than his thinking ‘… better watch my step’ as the Brexit Bill goes back to the Commons. Not for nothing did she go and sit in the Lords recently to give the icy stare to those minded to disagree with her.
What does this little drama say about its two central characters? Of Heseltine, it shows what we have long known. He is passionately of the view that Britain’s future lies as a leading and constructive player in the EU; and that the route May has chosen since June 23 will do fundamental and lasting damage to the UK economy and people.
It shows that when he thinks something is worth fighting for, he will fight hard, as Margaret Thatcher would have testified. It shows he stands up for what he believes. It shows that, just like the Eurosceptics who never gave up fighting to get us out, despite the referendum that took us in, or the Scottish Nationalists who won’t let one referendum defeat deter them from making independence arguments they believe in, he will continue that fight to the end … to the end of a long life in public service; to the end of a process whose outcome is far from clear, and which can still be influenced by all who believe that when a country is being led over a cliff, you have a duty to do what you can to halt the march.
Of May, certainly it reveals an ability to play hard ball, and leave nobody in any doubt about determination to deliver on the Hard Brexit she set out in her Lancaster House speech. You need a bit of steel in Downing Street, but you also need to be careful as to when and how to use it. This particular flashing of the blade also reveals a small-mindedness, a mean-spiritedness and a vindictiveness that she may think play well to her Brextremist base, and help with her plan to destroy UKIP by aping it in many ways, but which will not serve her well – not least in the most difficult negotiations any Prime Minister has had to conduct in our lifetime – as her Premiership stretches into the post Article 50 Brexit process and beyond.
It is the same vindictiveness that saw former education secretary Nicky Morgan sent to the naughty corner for saying a few unfortunate words about May’s leather trousers – add peevishness to the list – and Michael Gove given a little lecture in loyalty when she showed him the Cabinet trapdoor.
So far, so trivial. But perhaps we should have seen the more serious signs more clearly when, as Home Secretary, she was sending out the vans with the Go Home messages for illegal immigrants, or delivering a speech to her party conference that set the tone for so much of the anti-foreigner nastiness which followed. Or, more recently, when going back on her word to take more child refugees from Europe.
In ‘sacking’ Heseltine, she was revealing contempt not just for him, but for all who stood and spoke in the Lords’ debate and did anything other than echo the warm words and platitudes of her White Paper, the one she didn’t want to present, to the Parliament she didn’t want to be involved, and in which she falsely claimed she had the support of 65 million British people in leading us to the exit door.
She doesn’t have Heseltine’s, nor that of all the others who voted for the ‘meaningful vote’ at the end of the process. She doesn’t have mine, nor that of most of the people who read The New European, I suspect. And what is becoming clearer to me by the day is that for all the noise in the Brextremist media, and despite its becalming effect on the BBC and other broadcasters, we are far from alone.
It is sad, in a way, that so much of the sensible opinion on this is coming from voices of yesteryear, rather than the official Opposition who went with the government in voting for Article 50. But what John Major, Tony Blair and now Michael Heseltine have said in recent weeks is striking a chord with a lot of people, and giving hope to many who were not even alive when Major and Blair were elected, let alone when Hezza was notoriously seizing the Commons Mace way back in 1976.
Had I mentioned the Mace incident when I spoke last Thursday to around 250 university recruiters whose job is to lure the best and the brightest graduates to work for their companies and organisations, most would not have known what I was talking about. But I think they would have liked what they heard from Heseltine this week.
At any speaking event these days, I ask the audience for a show of hands in response to the question ‘are you broadly optimistic or broadly pessimistic about Brexit?’ In answer to ‘broadly optimistic?’ one hand went up, and it belonged to one of the few people in the room who was of my generation. For the other 249 or so … you get the picture. Pessimism by a landslide. These are people who feel they have no voice in the debate as May wishes to conduct it.
The theme of that event, organised by Group GTI, was the post-truth world. It is a phrase we tend to associate with Donald Trump. But it applies equally to the Leave campaign, and the way May has handled Brexit since. We are post-the-claim-that-Brexit-will-deliver-£350m-a-week-more-for-the-NHS, and Boris Johnson would not have enjoyed the show of hands in answer to a question about him. But he is Foreign Secretary, Donald Trump is US President and Nigel Farage can’t wake up without a BBC sound recordist or camera operative recording his words. In the post-truth world, to the liars the spoils …
The conventional wisdom on Brexit is that as the people have spoken, there is no going back. Brexit means Brexit whatever the cost. For all the weight of media propaganda, and the political weight of both main parties voting for Article 50, here was a fairly sizeable sample of mainly young professionals, plugged into the talent and the economy of the future, who just are not buying it.
Ah, woof woof the Pavlov-dog Brextremists, this was London, they are the dreaded Metropolitan elite (a group that clearly doesn’t include Farage or Johnson, let alone Paul Dacre and Rupert Murdoch). The event was indeed in London, but people came from all over the place.
Most would be on a lot less than the MEP salary Farage takes for the job he doesn’t really do, so busy is he being a media tart, gate-crashing POTUS dinner parties and hoping to secure a knighthood (hypocrisy alert) for services to anti-establishmentism. These people are not the elite. But they are the future. And what that show of hands indicates is a government that is running against the interests of its own young people. That strikes me as something of a disastrous approach to take, even if it takes old stagers like Heseltine to point it out.
Also speaking was broadcaster and economist Declan Curry who described the government’s confidence in our post-Brexit economic future as ‘delusional’. It is. It rests on only believing what you want to believe, and only seeing what you want to see, two essential components of Trumpian post-truthery. But when so many people, especially younger people, are fearful we are heading like lemmings to the cliff-edge, then eventually a real wisdom will replace a conventional one once the actual process of exiting gets underway … the wisdom that will coalesce when enough people realise that what they were promised is not happening, that even the best deal available is so much worse than what we have now, and that the potential costs of the Hard Brexit favoured by May far outweigh any remotely possible benefits.
‘There comes a time in life when you have to do what you think is right,’ Heseltine said, post May’s attempted humiliation. That time is now. And having been so mightily disheartened by the way both government and Labour have handled the biggest issue of our lifetime, I was hugely heartened by this meeting with the recruiters, heartened by Heseltine’s leadership, and by May’s petulant, panicky response. It confirms me in my view that when the Brexit process does start to go belly up, which it will, the movement in public opinion will be sharp, because the base is there. Read the papers, listen to the Brextremists, and you’d think it was all over. It’s not.
Having known Hezza since I was a young journalist on the Mirror, I know he will be emboldened and his determination redoubled by what has happened this week. So will I. So should we all be. That is why, whatever the headlines and May might say, Hezza is a hero of the British people, not the enemy. And she is sacrificing our children’s future, not fulfilling it.