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Keir Starmer and the T Rex in the room

Remainers are in despair at Labour’s determination to seek the “advantages” of Brexit rather than call for Rejoin. But what if their leader is right?

Sir Ed Davey, left, and Sir Keir Starmer are trying to steer their parties away from a commitment to rejoin the EU. Photo: Montage by The New European

In Jurassic Park, the first victim is the man who, when confronted by Tyrannosaurus Rex, runs to hide in the toilet.

In disaster movies, as in real life, failing to deal with and adapt to reality never ends well. It certainly doesn’t for the man hiding in the toilet, who very rapidly becomes T Rex’s appetiser.

The scene always comes to mind when I hear or see Remainers campaigning for an immediate return to the EU, with or without a referendum. It is just not going to happen and we have to face reality; wishing the referendum away, like wishing away T Rex, is not going to work.

This is why criticisms of Sir Keir Starmer and Sir Ed Davey are wide of the mark. Both are accepting the new reality and trying to steer their parties away from a commitment to rejoin the EU at the earliest opportunity – and both are right.

Sir Keir has been saying “there is no case for rejoining the EU” pretty much every chance he gets. He has also promised he won’t overturn the referendum decision to leave if he becomes prime minister, and speaks of trying to find the “advantages” of Brexit. Sir Ed is now promising that the Lib Dems are not the Rejoin party, even if he wants to see the closest possible relationship with the EU.

Why are they right? Well, for a start, who would let us back in?

The Irish would be tempted to help because it would immediately solve all the problems Brexit has created; new tensions with Northern Ireland, economic displacement, the need for new shipping routes to avoid the UK and the continual hassle of having to respond to the inept renegotiation techniques of the Tory government. But even that help is not certain. Ireland is now the obvious destination for English-speaking countries to invest in the EU – why spoil that?

As for the rest, some of the smaller and more free-market countries like the Netherlands might be keen because they now find the French/ German partnership is so dominant, but do they really want the UK back that much? The reluctant partner is never popular, the sulky one sitting in the corner even less so.

Even on the best days, the UK demanded opt-outs and exceptions for almost every new policy, complaining, whinging and then throwing a hissy fit in front of the cameras at the end of every meeting. Would you let such a person rejoin your club? No? Well then, you have your own answer.

Of course, the elephant in the room is the Conservative party. Its radical wing was a real pain for many years of EU membership, but now it has taken control and will never willingly give it up. If the UK rejoined, the Tory party would just promise to take the UK out again the second they won an election and make the government’s life a misery in the meantime, aided and abetted by much of the media.

It would all be portrayed as a treasonous betrayal, with our sovereignty destroyed, all our money wasted and the country reduced to a “slave state”. Having scented victory and then believing they had been betrayed would just make the media redouble their efforts.

The UK and its sensible political leaders, therefore, have no choice but to start from here and that means admitting and accepting that Brexit has happened.

They are sugar-coating that realistic approach with warm words about “making Brexit work”, but we all know that “making Brexit work” is just another way of saying that we are going to have to make the best of a bad job and no matter how much we might want to, we can’t put the genie back in the bottle.

This is where the leaders of the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties have now seen the real possibility of trying to make something of Brexit and winning the next election as a result.

The fact is that the vast majority of people in this country are bored to tears with Brexit. In fact, Brexit is rapidly sinking down the political agenda. Only 17% of voters now rate it as the most important issue facing Britain.

Some may have changed their mind and wish they had never voted for it, but as for the rest, it was one vote six years ago and they have heard very little about anything else since.

This is why the prime minister’s election campaign was so successful in 2019. Present the deal as done and dusted, oven-ready, in fact. Tell people that it has been a triumph and move on. It was all lies, but like all good cons, it worked because it told people what they wanted to hear.

The opposition parties have had to learn the hard lessons from that defeat and move on, too. That is why committing not to rejoin is so important at the next election. Around 60% of voters think the Conservative government is handling Brexit badly, but they are still well ahead of Labour and the Lib Dems when voters are asked who would handle it best (Tories 27%, Labour 18%, Lib Dems 9%). The opposition parties are still not trusted on this issue.

Labour and to a lesser extent the Lib Dems have to reverse those figures and convince voters they will handle Brexit better. For Labour it is the Clause IV moment and for the Lib Dems, too, an essential move if they are to make serious gains at the next election. Neither party can hope to regain large areas of the UK, and especially England, without making Brexit work for them, and the first step along that path is to accept that Brexit is – regrettably – here to stay.

This will give them two huge advantages.

Up until now, any attacks on the dire consequences of Brexit could be portrayed by the Conservatives as part of a plot to rejoin. They will still try to do that, but it will become a very tired tune, very quickly. Now the opposition parties have a chance to try to set the new agenda.

Brexit has happened but it has been appallingly mishandled by ideologically driven fanatics who are incapable of having the common sense to make it work as best it can. They have burned our bridges with our friends on the Continent and only a new government can rebuild them.

Second, it allows both parties to target seats they must win with a fresh message. For Labour, it is regaining as much of the Red Wall as possible and those are often quite pro-Brexit areas. Convincing those voters that Brexit is not going to be reversed but just improved is an attractive message.

For the Lib Dems, a lot of its target seats are Conservative ones in the south of England. Although many of these areas voted to remain, rerunning the referendum six years on is not going to win them over. But saying we have to move on and quietly and efficiently clean up the mess the fanatics imposed on the country is an attractive message.

Of course, there is a sizeable minority, perhaps even a majority, who know that Brexit has been a self-imposed disaster.

Only 38% of voters now think it was right to leave and 48% think it was wrong, but that doesn’t mean they want to keep fighting over the issue – the numbers become much tighter when you ask whether we should rejoin immediately.

In any case, the UK’s electoral system makes it virtually impossible for Remainers/Rejoiners to win a majority large enough to reverse a referendum.

The Tory party would have to virtually disappear to make that possible and that still seems an unlikely prospect.

Of course, in the long run, this will hopefully all change. As in the 1950s and 60s, it will slowly become patently obvious that the UK is once again the sick man of Europe, is being left behind and ignored, losing influence and wealth.

The Brexit ultras will still be arguing in 40 or 50 years’ time that the right kind of Brexit has not been tried, but eventually, that will be recognised as just another stale lie.

As Roy Jenkins put it during the 1975 referendum: “For Britain to withdraw from Europe would be to retire into an old people’s home for fading nations…”

When that is seen to be true, the politics will change and rejoining will become more likely. But for now, the only thing to do is to make the best of a bad job.

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