‘Stop all the clocks’ moment ticks closer
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The anti-Brexit cause may be facing a daunting task, says Stefan Stern, but a clear course to stop this madness still lies ahead
It was on, and then it was off: no deal for the non-appointed No Deal minister. No deal is still better than a bad deal, you understand, it's just that there won't be anyone round the cabinet table with specific responsibility for making sense of this nonsensical statement.
A chaotic and embarrassing non-reshuffle confirmed what many of us suspected about the stability and coherence of this government. This is hardly the moment, though, to relax. Shutting up about the disaster of Brexit is the last thing any Remainer should be doing.
This is where the debate currently stands. Last week several important voices were raised, suggesting that attempts to stop Brexit were either doomed or misguided, or both. In the Times Danny Finkelstein said that Andrew Adonis' candid statements on halting and overturning Brexit were misjudged. In the Guardian Owen Jones said that, while the case for stopping Brexit 'does deserve to be made', no-one was doing it well and the efforts he'd seen so far seemed counter-productive. Also in the Times, a sceptical piece by Phil Collins was headlined 'Remainers' dream of a second referendum is doomed', although he didn't quite utter that precise sentiment in the article.
Remainers are stuck, it seems. We just don't get it. The people have spoken. There was a vote. We lost. The government sent a pamphlet to every home in the country, which contained this statement: 'This is your decision. The government will implement what you decide.' David Cameron – you know, he used to be prime minister – said there should be no second referendum regardless of the result. Ahead of the vote only one prominent figure argued otherwise. 'In a 52-48 referendum this would be unfinished business by a long way,' Nigel Farage told the Mirror's Kevin Maguire.
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'The government will implement what you decide.' What exactly did the 52% of voters who put a cross next to the word Leave on their ballot paper decide on June 23, 2016? Did they decide that they wanted the value of Britain's currency to fall from 1.30 euros to the pound to 1.13 euros today? Did they decide they wanted Britain's trading future to be made greatly more uncertain? Did they decide they wanted the delicate peace process in Northern Ireland to be thrown into confusion?
No, of course not. That was not what the vote was about at all. What proportion of that 52% were thinking about the acquis communautaire, or subsidiarity, or the Common Agricultural Policy? How many wanted to make a principled stand against the concept of qualified majority voting?
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All politics is local, as the former speaker of the US House of Representatives, Tip O'Neill, is supposed to have said. This vote was mainly about matters much closer to home. When the academic Anand Menon was speaking at a meeting in Newcastle, ahead of the referendum, he observed that a majority of economists had suggested the UK's GDP would be hit by a vote to leave. 'That's your bloody GDP,' shouted a heckler, 'not ours'. In other words, there was one elite conversation going on, mainly in London (and in London-based media), and another quite different one in other parts of the country. I asked someone I know, who comes from Burnley, why, as a good lefty, he was in favour of Brexit. 'Have you been to Burnley?' came the answer.
Only a year earlier the Conservative party had been given a reluctant vote of confidence, sort of, in the 2015 general election. But a year later, with wages still flat and few encouraging signs of sustained economic growth, especially outside the south-east of England, voters had another chance to tell Dave and George (Osborne) what they thought of them and their botched Project Fear campaign.
Tony Blair put it well when he said that the referendum 'was like having a general election in which the question is 'Do you like the government'?'
People were fed up and, whether they were on the left or the right, had a chance to speak out, which they grabbed. Predictions of economic doom held no terrors for people who did not see how things could get much worse for them. The opportunity to hit back at the powerful was too good to resist.
The former government minister Ed Vaizey gave his own blunt assessment of his generation of Conservative party leaders at a conference in London recently. 'None of us expected to lose the referendum,' Vaizey said. 'Nobody planned what would happen in the aftermath.'
Was this an oversight, Vaizey was then asked by his interviewer, Sky's Sam Naz. 'I think 'was that an oversight' could go down in history as a sort of summary of the Cameron government. I think the way you put it is very good. We sort of stuffed the country up by accident.'
Of course there was a large body of voters who genuinely believed in rejecting the EU, reasserting what they saw as British independence, and who did not fear a temporary (as they hoped) dip in the UK's economic performance. But there were not enough of these convinced (and thoughtful) eurosceptics to get the Leave side up to a 52% vote share. Their numbers were swollen by the 'stuff the lot of you' voters, as well, unfortunately, by the small minority of out and out xenophobes.
While a tiny majority consistently tells YouGov that they think leaving the EU is a bad idea, a bigger majority still says – resignedly, I think – that we should press on with the Brexit process. For now.
But reality cannot be denied forever. Liam Fox may have earned a lot of air miles but he has achieved nothing serious or substantial. David Davis has been marginalised and could quit at any time. Boris Johnson… well, need I say more? Meanwhile the eurozone is growing strongly and beginning to leave us in its wake. And our honest officials do their best to grab the least bad option from the jaws of catastrophe.
Bit by bit disillusioned Leave voters will be forced to think again. The cry will go up from the EU27, in an echo of WH Auden, 'stop all the clocks'. Many Leave voters will choose to cling on to a 'soft' Brexit to preserve business (and peace) as usual on the island of Ireland, and to maintain the best possible trading relationships with the rest of Europe.
Hardline Brexiteers will never accept this. But with an extended transition period and watered-down terms, a 'Brexit in name only' will loom larger. At which point, at the next general election, it will be possible for the opposition parties to unite around an explicit 'halt and reverse' position – a position which, I think, may prove attractive to quite a few (former) Conservative voters, without alienating Labour Leave voters. Brexit can indeed be stopped. The government will simply implement what the people decide.
• Stefan Stern is a regular contributor to the Guardian and a former FT columnist