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Whatever happened to the Brexit election?

Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May face Jeremy Paxman in the Battle for Number 10 on Sky News - Credit: Archant

The shameful pact of silence between the Tories and Labour regarding the biggest issue facing the country

Brexit, warned Theresa May this week, was ‘the one, fundamental, defining issue’ that voters should focus on when they head to the polling stations next Thursday.

She’s right, of course, but it’s hard to think of a more insincere statement coming from the mouth of this Prime Minister.

More than six weeks have passed since she called the general election on the grounds that a larger majority would strengthen her negotiating hand in the Brexit talks. It was a spurious claim then, and one made all the more hollow by a subsequent campaign which has seen the Conservatives duck and weave to avoid any meaningful scrutiny of their plans for Brexit. Worse still, the Labour party has followed suit – determined to talk about everything but Brexit. Jeremy Corbyn barely mentioned the word throughout the whole of this week’s televised leaders’ debate.

In a mature democracy, as people across the country attempt to address this most complex and uncertain of challenges, this is a disgraceful dereliction of duty. The leaders of our two largest political parties have decided to shy away from any detailed scrutiny of their Brexit plans. The election has been disfigured by a collusion of silence between May and Jeremy. She just wants to talk about herself in contrast to Corbyn – a ‘me me me’ strategy, bereft of policy content – and he just wants to talk about lots of free blandishments – from childcare to new housing – all of which will, apparently, be paid for by someone else.

I have rarely seen a campaign which is more insulting to the intelligence of British voters. It is a depressing state of affairs and, in what is my fourth general election, a deeply odd campaign to be a part of.

For a start, along with virtually everybody else, I did not expect to be fighting a general election in 2017. May had insisted, time and again, that there would not be an early election. The way May has been transformed by the hysterical sycophants in the right-wing newspapers into some all-conquering Boudica figure is a particularly peculiar spectacle. As deputy prime minister in the Coalition government, I worked with her for five years and got to know her strengths and weaknesses.

She is methodical and hard-working, but by her own admission is not a politician interested in big ideas or innovative thinking. She excels at focusing narrowly on problems – yet all good Prime Ministers need the gift of peripheral vision too. This lack of agility and ingenuity in Number 10 is only matched by the lifeless subordination of all her ministers around the Cabinet table. These are exceptional times – yet we are governed by a wholly unexceptional team of politicians.

Nonetheless, the entire Conservative campaign has been fought on the basis that only Theresa May has the strength, vision and negotiating skills to secure a successful Brexit for Britain. This strategy is not only vain, it is vacuous too – we still know nothing about the excruciating trade-offs that a future Conservative Government will need to make in the Brexit talks on our behalf. Are we not entitled to know?

The Conservative strategy seems to be to insist that while their Brexit plans remain a secret, at least May can be trusted to deliver them. Yet her brittle performance over the last month – notably the embarrassing u-turn on the ‘dementia tax’ and the bizarre accusation of a ‘plot’ in Brussels – poses many questions about her suitability to lead Britain in the toughest and most complex negotiations it has ever faced.

Then there is Jeremy Corbyn. The Labour leader insists that he supported the campaign for Britain to remain in the European Union, but his performance was so listless that his true views remain open to question. Throughout his political career Corbyn has taken a consistently eurosceptic position, and he moved with unseemly haste to force Labour MPs to vote for the triggering of Article 50 and begin the countdown on Britain’s exit from the EU. His dark secret is that he did nothing in Westminster to block, challenge or alter Theresa May’s choice of a hardline, economically destructive interpretation of Brexit.

When asked, I genuinely struggle to explain what the differences now are between Corbyn and May on Brexit: both want to leave the single market; both want to end freedom of movement; both talk vapidly about getting the ‘best possible trade deal’ (who doesn’t want the best possible deal?); both voted against guarantees for EU citizens rights; and both refuse point blank to give the people the say on the terms of a final Brexit deal.

I watched Monday’s television debates with May and Corbyn with a growing sense of despair. Not only was any detailed scrutiny of their Brexit plans glaringly absent, so too were some of the other major issues facing our country. How to tackle climate change? Nothing. The future of jobs in the age of Artificial Intelligence? Ignored. The challenge of reforming our public services? Totally sidestepped. Read the Conservative and Labour manifestos and you would have no sense that they were written in 2017. There is no attempt to address the challenges of the future. Instead they set out two competing, largely moribund, visions of the past.

The blame cannot be entirely placed at the feet of May and Corbyn, however. While the political establishment has failed to respond to the Brexit-shaped elephant in the room, the media has also been found wanting. With a few notable exceptions, there has been a collective failure to force our politicians to explain just what Brexit will mean for our country. Earlier this week, I published a piece of serious research into what May’s approach to Brexit means for the UK’s involvement in cross-border arrangements to tackle crime. The Prime Minister has said she intends to end the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice within the UK, a move which would mean that this country could lose access to the second generation Schengen Information System (SIS II) database, and other European crime-fighting measures. It is hard to overstate its importance. The system holds information on would-be terrorists and criminals who could pose a direct threat to national security, and is checked 16 times a second by our police, border and security forces.

When asked in interviews for a response, all that Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, could come up with was a vague insistence that it was in nobody’s interests to weaken EU-wide security partnerships. And with that meaningless generality (who would want to weaken security partnerships?), the questioning ended. Yet the irreducible fact remains that if we don’t abide in one shape or form by ECJ rulings on data protection, as May has insisted, then other EU Member States will be legally prohibited from sharing data with us. There isn’t a single participating country in the SIS II database which is outside the EU or the European Economic Area. Surely we are entitled to more rigorous scrutiny from our own media when the safety of the British public is at stake?

What will Brexit mean for the NHS? It relies on thousands of highly-skilled and hard-working nurses and doctors from non-UK countries, many of whom now say they no longer feel welcome here. What shape will post-Brexit immigration rules take, and what are the consequences for the economy? How will our farmers be supported once EU subsidies dry up? What will the government do to help hard pressed families as the price of petrol, clothes, food and holidays rise on the back of a weakened Brexit pound?

Not once have either Theresa May or Jeremy Corbyn been forced to explain how Britain will look after Brexit – and it seems they are determined to maintain their pact of silence until polling day.

Nick Clegg was deputy prime minister from 2010 until 2015 and is the Liberal Democrat Candidate for Sheffield Hallam

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