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What the re-emergence of Tory politicians past tells us about politics future in Brexit Britain

Return of the Tory dead - Credit: Archant

In these increasingly strange days it seems Westminster’s undead, tempted by a whiff of Brexit flesh, are marching back on to centre stage

The zombies of Brexit – Credit: Archant

What’s with the old folk and Brexit that gets them so excited?

No, not those elderly voters who opted last June 23 to restore their country to the way it was when Britain joined the Common Market in 1973. Then they were 43 years younger and felt more optimistic about the way things were, warts and Ted Heath, pig-fat ice cream and all, fewer East Europeans too.

In their youth they voted in Britain’s first European referendum to Remain, much as so many young people did in 2016 for similar reasons.

But the wrinklies whose blood pressure is at risk this spring are superannuated politicians, many of them lucky enough to have a place in London’s finest care home, where they pay inmates £300 a day just to pop in for a pee. From their perches in the House of Lords they still thirst for attention that they steal headlines that rightly belong to the youngsters.

It’s yet another feature of the inter-generational struggle for resources and a better future, except that we’re not talking here primarily about those selfish Baby Boomers (1946-66), but their egotistical elders.

In the Ode to Joy corner stand Michael, Lord Heseltine, occasionally Sir John Major and Neil, Lord Kinnock, yet not Kenneth, Lord Baker of Dorking, one of the old lags who prefers to cultivate his garden. Ignore for the moment, relative whipper snappers like Tony Blair, fellow Boomer, Peter, Lord Mandelson, and (unexpectedly given his track record) William, Lord ‘ Save the Pound’ Hague.

Margaret Thatcher (b. 1925) is sometimes body-snatched for the cause, not least by Charles, Lord Powell, her foreign policy adviser, who insists she would never have ordered the Full English Brexit. In fairness to the Iron Lady, being dead she is no longer responsible for the backseat driving done in her name by both sides. Nor is Winston Churchill (1874-1965), also body-snatched by both camps despite his record on Europe being as dazzlingly erratic as much else in his career.

In the Rule Britannia corner, fighting their way into television studios and newspaper headlines is another sharp-elbowed posse of bus-pass holders. There is Norman, Lord Tebbit, Nigel, Baron Lawson, occasionally too Norman, Lord Lamont of Lerwick in the Shetlands, and – spectacularly waging war on Spain over Gibraltar this week – Michael, Lord Howard. Politically speaking these people have all been quite dead for a long time.

Lord Tebbit, 86 last month and a nicer man than he pretends, last held office 30 years ago. Lord Lawson, 85 last month, flounced out of the Thatcher cabinet in a huff in 1989. Lord Heseltine, 84 last month, had already done so. But he flounced back in again under John Major and left office only after the Blair landslide of 1997. As did Lord (‘something of the night’) Howard (76 this July), though he staged a comeback as interim Tory leader (2003-5) and teed up the leadership succession for his smooth, young home office protégé, David Cameron (b. 1966). That worked out frightfully well, didn’t it?

Into the mix we could toss battling Ken Clarke (b.1940), but he’s still an MP, seated at the cabinet table until 2014, the fifth longest stint of the past 100 years.

Similarly Iain Duncan Smith, he may look 100 but is actually only 64 this week, his curious 2016 flounce out of Downing St (over policies he had only recently defended) still fresh in several memories, not least his own. IDS probably still considers himself a man of destiny, he dared lecture Major, a somewhat weightier figure, for expressing a Remain opinion. Don’t bet your pension on IDS.

Never mind, we can see the big picture. Why do they do it? What does it mean? And why does anyone care what such flesh-eating zombies think? The answers are not encouraging. The obvious explanation is that tough old survivors tend to have large instincts for self-preservation, egos to match. David Attenborough and other venerable sages, too saintly for mere ego, may adorn the sovereign’s 24-strong Order of Merit (HMQ is pretty self-effacing too), but lesser mortals are less perfect.

So old ladies celebrating their 95th birthdays in care homes, but still on the hunt for a replacement toy boy (I know one), tend not to be wallflowers. Nor are the smartly turned out old soldiers who have survived both war and the Reaper’s relentless cull. At a Labour conference years ago I watched a policy spat between the old leftwing pacifist, Fenner Brockway and the belligerent Emmanuel Shinwell. Both veterans of the heroic Attlee generation, both in their 90s and peers, it was brutally magnificent, like watching two dinosaurs engaged in foreplay.

By the same Darwinian process Lord Heseltine was led to join Ken Clarke and vote against the Tory whip on the Brexit bill. Sacked for his pains, he then told a House Magazine interviewer that Britain’s EU withdrawal is tantamount to handing the leadership of Europe to Germany – an outcome we fought two world wars to avoid. In the hands of tabloid knuckle-draggers this statement of the blindingly obvious translated as likening Brexit voters to the Nazis. Offence was duly taken by the rent-a-quote crowd which includes politicians who should be a bit grand for this sort of stuff.

Lord Lawson, who secretly caused sterling to shadow the German mark in the late 80s (without telling Mrs T either), routinely pops up to assure everyone that sovereign Britain will not fall over an economic cliff because there isn’t one. Without seeking a steer from No 10, Lord Howard went one further. On Sky News he warned Spain that Theresa May would emulate Thatcher’s Falklands stance and defend Gibraltar from threats which neither Madrid nor EU capo, Donald Tusk, had actually made. Before May (and even Boris Johnson) had time to lower the temperature, Lord Tebbit weighed in to accuse the Spaniards of vanity and of ‘playing with fire.’ Cue for Armada jokes.

Two striking points emerge. One is that the points of reference so easily invoked are backward looking and nostalgic. The Dunkirk spirit, routinely invoked 50 years ago, still hovers over the Brexit mood: ‘Very well then, alone’ as the famous David Low cartoon put it in 1940, though his drawing omitted to add that ‘alone’ included the wider Empire and 500 million Indians. The Falklands campaign serves much the same purpose, though no one much under 50 remembers that either. No one remembers the Armada, let alone that in Spain the national hero is regarded as ‘the pirate Drake’. He would definitely have been for Brexit.

Either way the world has greatly changed and no amount of ‘Empire 2.0’ talk will change it back again, admirable though the Prime Minister’s outward-looking ‘Global Britain’ trope is in its intentions. The Britain of 2016 lacks the armed forces it deployed in 1982 to retake Port Stanley. The real issue is whether or not our exporters can take a bigger market share.

Their worldly lordships know that as well as anyone. So do the jingo newspapers (‘Next time send an Armada’), but they have been peddling sabre-rattling stuff for decades – since 1896 in the Mail’s case – and no longer employ defence correspondents who know any more about defence than the increasingly-ignorant succession of ministers dispatched to preside over procurement shambles at the MoD. But for the elderly readers (I am one) Second World War nostalgia, even First World War nostalgia (the Somme, but rarely Jutland) still shifts sales. To the young it is mostly just another video game. ‘We are at war with Europe’ (or ‘war with Isis’), they tweet excitedly. No, we’re not. Ask a Syrian to explain what war is.

The other reason why the oldies are able to command attention is even more troubling. That man Blair put his finger on half the problem when he complained in the Blairite magazine, Progress, that Jeremy Corbyn’s ‘principles first’ Labour leadership poses ‘zero’ threat to May’s government, only to itself. That is a bit unfair to Keir Starmer who is painfully putting together a post-negotiation position that Lib Dems, Nats and dissident Tories may rally behind if David Davis makes a hash of his Tussles with Brussels. Unfair too to Hilary Benn’s Brexit select committee conclusion that May’s ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’ formula is a bluff easily called by Brussels. Whitehall has not done an impact assessment on that option.

It is a failure far more significant than Corbyn’s failure to take his head out of the sand and acknowledge the extremity of his situation: Labour facing serious losses in May’s local elections, according to new analysis, his personal ratings still on the slide. Elderly and stubborn vanity is not confined to the over 80s, it seems. Promoted to be Lib Dem Brexit spokesman, Clegg is showing interest in forming an ideological common front with centrist-minded Labour and ‘One Nation’ Tory MPs. He calls it a response to the small-state, right-wing ‘ideological coup’ achieved by Brexit. The ex-DPM welcomes Blair’s new Institute for Global Change as an ally in the fight to get voters to rethink Brexit. Despite last week’s crossing of the Article 50 Rubicon they want us all to get our feet wet again and cross back.

But Clegg and Blair share the legacy problem of tainted records in office. It make some voters change television channels the moment they hear either familiar voice. Clegg manages to sound needy and aggrieved – a bit like Professor Ken Livingstone self-righteously making a fool of himself on Germany-Jewish history. As for Blair’s fluency it is as mistrusted as his bank account. It will take time and hard slog to persuade disaffected voters to stay tuned and listen to them.

What the duo clearly seek to do is fill a void left by younger politicians who either can’t or won’t speak out and could not command much attention if they did. Look how Gordon Brown, a substantial figure in his heyday, struggled to be widely heard last month when he outlined a federalist blueprint for satisfying Scotland’s ambitions for home rule with saving the British Union.

Brown spoke to Scots voters’ heads, not to their hearts, but at least he was heard, even if he did not change the political weather. Few politicians can. Certainly not Remain’s cerebral Dominic Grieve, nor Anna Soubry, plucky and articulate though she is. Certainly not a mediocre and divided Labour leadership whose message is still not clear to busy and indifferent voters.

Blair and Clegg (The New European too) are clear on their position: Brexit must be challenged in principle and in detail, every inch of the way, until its evident folly persuades enough voters to demand the reversal of Article 50 (its reversibility has still not been tested in any court) or another referendum to reverse last year’s narrow verdict. The 48%’s views have been hijacked in broad daylight by high-handed Brexit campaigners – let’s put it no stronger – who pretend not to know the perils of majoritarian behaviour in democratic politics and demand a loyalty they never gave themselves.

The practical difficulty with the principled clarity of the Referendum II lobby is that it does not easily fit with the temper of the times. Those foolishly predicted instant disasters in the wake of the June 23 vote have not materialised (though they may) and pragmatic voters, like pragmatic businesses, large and small, have accepted they must adapt to new realities. That includes opening subsidiary offices in Dublin, Paris or Brussels – just in case, you understand. Most people are now in wait-and-see mode.

Adapting to changed realities is what Theresa (‘Shy Remain’) May and Phil Hammond have most conspicuously done since entering No’s 10 and 11. With luck and hard work – both are on distant trade missions this week – Brexit can be turned into an opportunity as well as a threat, they know they must now believe. Through gritted teeth sensible Remain politicians, those who speak in Lords and Commons debates, are committed to making the best of it. Fingers crossed. May’s breezy Saudi trip is only slightly less unsettling than Liam Fox’s ‘shared values’ with Filipino president, Rodrigo Duterte, the killer in Manilla.

Brexit’s best bet, David Davis, is on the same journey as May and Hammond from the opposite direction, accepting the inevitability of compromise amid signs of mutual flexibility in the small print of May’s exchange of Article 50 letters with Tusk. Adjusting to unpalatable new facts include continuing EU immigration and Madrid’s mild point that the EU will soon no longer need to stay neutral of a dispute between two member states over Gibraltar. Michael Howard is struggling to get there. He’s cracking on a bit. No wonder that former Tory boy wonder, Michael Portillo (63), sticks to trains.

Far more problematic for London last week was Spain’s insistence – after briefings to the contrary – that it would not block a legally independent Scotland’s return to the EU fold in due course. That amounts to a handy boost for Nicola Sturgeon when May eventually sanctions another Scots referendum, preferably when voters know the final options.

Yet there was far less outrage over that Madrid manoeuvre in the Fleet St press. It is Gibraltar which captures the Brexiteers imagination, a plucky chunk of rock with a rackety, piratical economy, full of sun-tanned folk who are gagging (98%) to remain British. Never mind that a similar majority also voted for EU Remain last year, Gibraltarians seem to love us as disaffected Scots never have. ‘Let the Jocks go as long as we can keep Gib,’ the Little Englanders seem to be signalling. These are weird times.

Despite its referendum win, Brexit’s Provisional wing, the Farage/Banks conspiracy theories and the ‘Enemies of the People’ press are still angry. After decades of scapegoating Brussels (it used to be ‘the unions’) paranoia and blame are their default positions. Remainers should not mimic that mistake.

Nor should they accuse all their opponents of being racist, xenophobic or worse. There were some solid reasons to vote Brexit. In the pub last week a prominent liberal journalist, admittedly well into his 8th decade, confided that he’d done it. ‘My children call me a fascist,’ he wailed.

No, you’re not, you silly old sausage, though you keep some odd company these days. Best to try and engage with sincere Brexiteers (No, not you, Nigel) since none of us know how this process will end, let alone when or where. The EU may belatedly reform itself or buckle under the weight of events beyond its control. So may Brexit Britain. Democrats in the US face similar dilemmas dealing with the Trump presidency: hang on to your principles but also seek common ground. It’s time to set a good example to the old folk.

Michael White is a former political editor of the Guardian

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