Alastair Campbell: We are leaving, OK? En même temps, maybe we won’t…

PUBLISHED: 12:00 31 August 2017 | UPDATED: 12:03 31 August 2017

From left, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, Prime Minister Theresa May and Chancellor Philip Hammond. Photos: PA

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En même temps… I am guessing many of you know, without resorting to Google Translate, that it means ‘at the same time’.

In France, however, it has taken on a political as well as a literal significance, because of Emmanual Macron’s heavy use of the phrase during his audacious bid for the Elysée Palace. It is not quite in the league of ‘build a wall, drain the swamp, lock her up,’ or even our very own ‘take back control,’ but say en même temps with a slight raise of the eyebrow, and people know you are having a bit of a dig at Macron. A soon to be published new book on him, by Sciences Po University President Olivier Duhamel, is called, simply, Macron, et en même temps.

During the campaign, it was part of his attraction, the ability to admit that some problems were too complicated to fit into a neat little tweet, the seeming intellectual limit of Donald Trump; the ability also to accept that even as he stated a position with conviction, he could immediately see there might be other views, and assess them as part of an overall argument. The satirists and the cynics were beginning to get into him over en même temps even before he won. Now, as the poetry of campaigning is translated into the hard graft of government, it is being seen by the public more generally as a negative, a sign that things they liked when choosing him are now reasons to tick the ‘dissatisfied’ box in the polls that have long played too big a role in French political life.

The French have something of a habit of voting for change in theory, and then turning against the change when it comes in practice. During the campaign, they perhaps wanted him to be a little bit ‘all things to all men’, so that they could invest in him the hopes they had for themselves. Having bought the idea of complexity, now they want simplicity, and on their terms. It is not easy being a political leader in the ‘I know what I want and I want it now’ age of instant shopping, instant communication, instant gratification. When do you ever see the phrase ‘at the same time’ in a tweet? Yet the challenges of the modern world are unutterably complex, and today’s leaders seem to have more of them on their plate than many previous generations, what with inequality, migration, climate change, terrorism, robotics and artificial intelligence presenting many opportunities and yet, en même temps so many threats to people’s jobs, living standards, communities. Then throw Brexit into that mix…

So if we come back across the Channel, and we watch our own politicians struggle to make sense of Brexit, what we see is the struggle to express simply and clearly, decisions which are far from simple, on issues which are far from clear.

The country voted to leave the EU. En même temps, as Philip Hammond has consistently tried to point out, we did not vote to make ourselves poorer. As Chancellor, he is duty bound, surely, to point out the economic risks of Brexit, even while trying to deliver on the outcome of the referendum.

The country voted to leave the EU. En même temps, not least because of the wretched nature of the campaign, we did so amid a fog of lies and misinformation, and with a lack of real debate about the real consequences, and as the negotiations unfold, both the chaos and the cost stand at odds with what the country was led to believe would happen. Democracy is a process, not a day. A country can vote. En même temps, a country can change its mind.

Labour’s position is interesting in this. Virtually all its MPs voted Remain. En même temps, many of their constituencies did not, and the referendum has created the rare if not unique situation of MPs’ own opinions – which voters often say they want to guide decisions – being at odds with the expressed views of the population as a whole.

Jeremy Corbyn voted Remain. En même temps, he has long been sceptical about the EU and did not campaign as vigorously for Remain as he did for his own leadership, or in the general election. He makes much of the attractiveness of Labour’s manifesto to explain his better than expected election result. En même temps, it is at least arguable that much of the manifesto, dependent as it is on an economy that works better than the one we have, would not be remotely deliverable if Brexit delivers the economic decline most Labour MPs are convinced it will. They want a ‘jobs first’ Brexit. En même temps, that is almost certainly a contradiction in terms.

During the referendum, Leave benefited from the Labour leadership’s relative lack of enthusiasm. During the election, Labour benefited from the ambiguity contained within an en même temps approach. Many Remainers assumed Labour’s position to be broadly anti-Brexit, because they were so anti-Tory. Many Leavers assumed Labour’s position to be broadly pro-Brexit because they didn’t go on about it much, and unlike the Lib Dems they ruled out a second referendum, and membership of the single market and customs union. This was too close to a Boris Johnson style ‘have cake and eat it’ approach, and was unsustainable for the long-term.

As Corbyn bathed in the adulation of crowds at Glastonbury, they had warmed to his clear anti-austerity, anti-tuition fees, anti-Tory stance. En même temps, those young people were almost certainly overwhelmingly anti-Brexit, and would catch up with the reality of Labour’s position over time.

Labour has been clear that the referendum result cannot be challenged. I understand that. En même temps, if a decision taken in one timeframe and one set of circumstances turns out to deliver the opposite of what was promised – a weaker not stronger economy, less not more money for the NHS, more not less confusion about the Irish border, less not more clarity about legal and trading arrangements with the biggest market in the world – then MPs who believe that have a duty to say so, and fight for a better alternative. Just as anyone else has a right to keep campaigning for a better alternative.

What happened with shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer’s statement this week was that a bit of realistic en même temps was thrown into the Labour mix. If I can sum up what I think he was saying … we are leaving. But to minimize the potential economic shock of leaving, we should stay in the single market and the customs union for at least as long as is needed for new arrangements to become clearer and bed down.

Cue inevitable howls of betrayal from the hardline Brexiteers and all who think life and politics are simple. En même temps, cue within Labour for those who think this is just a step in the right direction but does not go far enough, to feel more emboldened to say so. By a happy coincidence, Starmer’s new position emerged as his fellow MP Heidi Alexander was preparing to launch a new campaign to get Labour to commit to the single market not just for a transition period but for the long-term, as she sets out in The New European.

What it all shows is that politics is fluid and dynamic. Leaders have to lead, but sometimes they also have to adapt and respond. Macron may be the butt of jokes for his en même temps approach. Theresa May could do with a lot more of it. Imagine how much better a position we as a country, and she as Prime Minister, might be in, if, on entering Downing Street, she had said: “The UK has voted to leave and we have to respect their decision, and make departure happen. At the same time, we must respect the views and the fears of the millions who voted Remain, and deliver a Brexit that commands the broadest possible support across the country, not just one admittedly large strand of opinion. That means continuing to see the EU as friend not enemy.”

Instead, like so many of her predecessors terrified that her party’s right wing’s obsession with Europe would swallow her, worried that she had to compensate for (nominally at least) fighting for Remain, she set a course aimed purely at and for the 52%, and the more extreme end of the 52% at that. So many of her problems – the botched negotiations that mean we are little further forward than a year ago; the ludicrous ‘red line’ on her obsession with the European Court of Justice; the botched election that means her authority is so drained – stem from that early failing.

The fiasco over overseas student numbers – she claiming almost 100,000 had illegally outstayed their welcome, the reality less than 5% of that, because the facts as she wanted them fitted the argument she wanted to put forward – suggest it is a personality trait, born of her lack of subtlety, her inability to do en même temps at all.

But precisely because the negotiations are being handled so badly, precisely because her authority is so drained, so the situation becomes more not less fluid. Starmer’s new position represents that, and is sign also of Labour’s increased power within this dynamic as a result of May’s election failure. Some of the subtle and less subtle shifts in the government’s positioning papers represent it too.

Both main parties have shown that when faced with uncomfortable truths and consistent campaigning, they can be made to change.

The likelihood remains that we will leave. En même temps, nothing is certain, and everything is to fight for. Brexit means Brexit. En même temps, what the hell does that mean anyway?

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