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The Battle of Downing Street is over – Now the Battle for Britain begins

PA Images - Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

Brexit is not a done deal now the General Election is over, in fact the fight is just beginning

Seventy three years ago British soldiers stormed the beaches of Normandy with American, Commonwealth and European armies and units as the democratic world rose up to save the Continent from the ravages of extreme nationalism.

Pride, indeed love for one’s country, is not just honourable it is the foundation of what Hobbes called ‘commodious living’. It is the hatred of British values, tolerance, liberal views about women and gays that drive today’s British Islamist ideologues across the border from political criticism into murderous violence.

Britain’s man in the European Commission, Julian King, is in charge of EU security issue including how to deal with the European-wide Islamist terror attacks in France, Belgium, Sweden and Germany.

Soon, he will pack his bags and come home as Britain takes an amputational axe to the continent. Our history, trade, defence, royal family and above all security are all inextricably intermingled with the continent of Europe.

For 25 years our Foreign Secretary has been insulting and denigrating Europe. Fellow travellers of UKIP have been promoted to high cabinet rank. Yet 14 months ago Theresa May made a speech in defence of British membership of the European Union that could have been written by Jean-Claude Juncker.

A year later the Tory manifesto on which voters made their choice could have been written by UKIP. It expressly repudiates both the single market and the customs’ union and calls for the establishment of work permit and residence controls that date from the Cold War era.

Brexit however was the dog that didn’t bark in the election. I campaigned for pro-European MP friends in Yorkshire and the West Midlands as well as in London. There were plenty of comments, mostly unkind, about Jeremy Corbyn and zero enthusiasm for Theresa May but hardly anyone on the doorstep or at campaign street stalls mentioned Brexit.

This may be because Labour’s Islington lawyers in charge of the Brexit dossier have moved the party much closer to the Tory line of repudiating the single market and accepting immigration controls with their massive bureaucracy.

The Lib Dems made the only pro-EU offer but their brand was massively damaged by the five years of close collaboration with Tory austerity policies and failure to take a stand against David Cameron over his 2013 Brexit plebiscite announcement.

Perhaps, in time, the Lib Dems will come back. Every pro-European regrets the loss of 50 Lib Dem MPs in 2015 and the elimination of what was (under Paddy Ashdown, Charlie Kennedy and Nick Clegg until he got into bed with David Cameron) a powerful pro-European force across the nation.

Like Tony Blair and John Major, Nick Clegg faces the problem of the baggage he carries around. Like the other two party leaders, even when he is talking sense on Europe, no-one wants to listen because of his record in office.

But now the election fight is over and MPs have a vista of five years ahead of them to decide how to handle Brexit it is important that pro-Europeans do not lay down arms.

For twelve months since 23 June 2016, the triumphalism of the isolationists in Ukip, the media and parts of the Conservative Party as well as Labour’s hapless helplessness and absence of leadership on the question of Europe has meant that the public has been woefully uninformed about the consequences of Brexit.

The brave battle by Gina Miller to use the High Courts to force the Government to at least come to Parliament for a decision to start Article 50 negotiations and the courage of those MPs who stood against the Daily Mail, Sun and Daily Telegraph and in the best traditions of Edmund Burke exercised their judgement by voting against Brexit have consumed most political and media space on the issue of Brexit in recent months.

The election and a new House of Commons allows the campaign to move to the central but barely discussed question of the national interest.

Important new polling for the Best of Britain campaign shows that 50% of the British people believe the UK should stay inside the single market against 21% who follow the Ukip-Tory-Labour manifesto acceptance that the UK has to quit the single market.

According to Anatole Kaletsky, chair of Best of Britain, the YouGov poll of 1,875 voters he commissioned showed that most Brexit voters including Tory voters and over 65-year-olds support staying in the single market.

Another question asked: ‘Do you think our government should offer EU citizens the right to travel, work, study or retire in Britain, in exchange for EU countries giving British citizens the same rights?’

In total 62% agreed that keeping EU travel, work and retirement rights for British citizens should be a negotiating priority against 17% in favour of immigration controls applied to all EU citizens, including British passport holders. Again, according to Kaletsky ‘every regional, political and demographic group also supported this position with one sole exception: UKIP voters, who opposed reciprocal free movement by 35 to 43 per cent’.

A final question combining the question of the single market and free movement asked : ‘Do you think our government should or should not allow free movement of people between Britain and EU countries in exchange for the EU allowing British businesses full access to the European single market?’ 43% supported such a deal, 31 per cent rejected it and 26 per cent were unsure.

This is part of the concrete evidence that shows the Tory-Labour election manifestos may have been too quick in surrendering to the line that voters last June voted to quit the single market, the customs union and give up the right to retire in Spain, France and Greece or live and work in Europe without any obstacles as if living at home in Britain.

Napoleon famously sneered at the Britain as a ‘nation of shopkeepers’. This expressed the French Emperor’s frustration that despite a much bigger population and superior war-winning armed forces, France could not bring England to heel. The reason was income from trade which allowed late 18th and early 19th century Britain to pay for other armies as well as British sailors and soldiers to take on Napoleon.

It is deep in the instincts of the average British citizen that we do well when markets and frontiers are open to British commerce, citizens and ideas. This should be the line of argument in the opening rounds of the Battle for Britain now that the Battle of Downing Street is over.

Already a group of 29 Labour MPs issued their own manifesto during the election saying that Labour should back continued full membership of the single market.

Organised by Chuka Umunna the group said any form of trade deal other than the single market would make working people worse off and mean higher costs for business, fewer jobs and inflated prices.

As the individual constituency results are analysed it will be interesting to see if Umunna and his 28 comrades in favour of the Single Market were punished by voters and whether those Labour candidates who rolled over and accepted that the UK should be outside the Single Market did well.

It should not be forgotten that in June last year there was a clear majority of Remain MPs in the Commons even if the BBC and the press bigged up the loud-mouth anti-Europeans like Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Iain Duncan Smith, Angela Leadsom and David Davis.

Britain has had 4 polls in 4 years – the Scottish referendum in 2014, the General Election in 2015, the Brexit plebiscite in 2016 and now May’s opportunistic election.

Now the next horizon for a general election is 2022. This should allow MPs to stand back and consider the wider national interest rather than looking over their shoulders at UKIP as many Tories have been doing for a decade or worrying about white working class voters in Labour heartlands.

Professor Matthew Goodwin predicted that UKIP would win five MPs in 2015 and Labour MPs Frank Field and Dan Jarvis prophesied early this year that UKIP would win Labour heartland seats in the North of England.

But supposing the UKIP threat has run its course?

UKIP lost all 15 county councillors in the Kent County Council elections last month and 148 UKIP councillors were booted out of office. Voters feel that UKIP’s mission is accomplished with Brexit and May’s decision to incorporate UKIP themes and demands in her government statements.

Perhaps even the BBC will gets of its knees and stop fawning on Nigel Farage and other UKIP big-mouths given that the party has no elected MPs and few elected local councillors. Assuming the UK does withdraw from the EU Treaty structure in two years’ time UKIP will have no MEPs, no networks of staff and offices across Britain and no income manipulated from EU parliament funds.

Equally with May back in Downing Street and the vista of a five-year period in government opening up, it should be possible for economic actors to make clear that leaving the Single Market and Customs Union is a disaster. Up to now most businesses whose natural party affiliation is Conservative have not wanted to go against the Prime Minister. In addition, the natural position of business is to be positive and optimistic and many business leaders would die to be made Sir or better still a Lord.

But now there is no threat to a Conservative administration for half a decade it will be possible for economic actors, including the massive foreign direct investment community in Britain to speak up about the consequences of leaving the single market and customs union and imposing travel and work restrictions on British and European citizens.

There is also a need for a serious debate inside Labour as it is clear that adopting a Brexit line on the Single Market and the rights of British and Europeans citizen to work and live in each other’s nations has made Labour largely indistinguishable from the Tories on Brexit.

Another challenge is to build a nationwide organization with good leadership and adequate funds to campaign effectively against the Hard Brexit currently being proposed.

There are many organisations that have been lively and well-intentioned since the Brexit campaign last year. But the sums of their parts does not add up to a convincing whole.

Stronger In morphed into Open Europe and the veteran European Movement battles on. This paper is one of the most extraordinary outcomes from Brexit and there is an aggressive social media spontaneity opposing Brexit.

But something bigger, with younger people at its heart, and real funding is needed to draw up, for example, Brexit audits in every locality so that every household gets details of the damage Brexit will do to the towns and communities people live in.

Just five very rich men provided 61% of the funds for the Leave campaign. Are there no men and women ready to bank roll a serious campaign to defend Britain and its citizens from the isolationists?

The alternative is to roll over and surrender as if June 2016 and the election in June 2017 constitute the last word on Britain’s future as part of Europe.

As David Davis says: ‘A democracy that cannot change its mind ceases to be a democracy.’

It is time for a new democratic campaign to defend core British rights and interests which cannot be enhanced by leaving the single market and custom union.

After the win for Leave last year and a win for the politics of Brexit backed by both the Tories and Labour in the election, it is time to invest and train for a long campaign to save Britain for the 21st century.

• Denis MacShane is the former UK Europe Minister. His new book Brexit, No Exit: Why in the end Britain won’t leave Europe will be published by IB Tauris later this month

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