ANDREW ADONIS: The titan we need to lead

PUBLISHED: 15:48 11 December 2018 | UPDATED: 15:52 11 December 2018

Former prime ministers Sir John Major (left) and Tony Blair walk across the Peace Bridge in Londonderry ahead of a Remain campaign event at the University of Ulster in Londonderry.

Former prime ministers Sir John Major (left) and Tony Blair walk across the Peace Bridge in Londonderry ahead of a Remain campaign event at the University of Ulster in Londonderry.

PA Archive/PA Images

Remain isn't serious unless it is led by people who can claim to govern the country successfully. ANDREW ADONIS has identified the person he wants to lead.

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Little in life can be achieved without leaders. A question I get asked in all my Brexit public meetings is: “Who will lead us to the promised land?”

My answer is: Sir John Major plus a team including Nicola Sturgeon, Caroline Lucas and whichever prominent Labour politicians prove capable of leading in the anti-Brexit direction most Labour members want.

The point of the question is that there is no current leader of ‘Remain’. It could have been Jeremy Corbyn, but he went to Geneva for a seminar on General Pinochet rather than addressing the People’s Vote march of 700,000, which was our breakthrough moment.

Corbyn has a key part to play in securing the People’s Vote – assuming he does show that vital leadership next week – and he will own it thereafter. But he clearly doesn’t want to lead a pro-European movement. He will be a fellow traveller.

Dominic Grieve has shown immense courage and principle. But he isn’t ‘the’ leader, as he showed in his now famous Duke of York moment, when he moved a motion to push towards a referendum, then voted against it under pressure from Theresa May.

I get a warm response to the idea of Major, particularly in the English shires where the next referendum will be won or lost. There was loud applause for the suggestion in Eastbourne and Tunbridge Wells, with applause too for Lucas and Sturgeon, both of whom command respect well beyond their own parties.

Of our former prime ministers, Major is supreme. Partly this is because he got some very big things right, notably the start of the Northern Ireland peace process and the Maastricht Treaty which gave us an opt-in to the euro. Partly also because he got nothing wrong of ultimate significance. Black Wednesday and the enforced exit of sterling from the exchange rate mechanism was a political humiliation but of minor economic consequence and of far less account than Iraq or Brexit.

Major has also made a success of being a former prime minister, a task as hard as doing the job itself. He hasn’t gone in for conspicuous consumption or controversial international jaunts. He has only intervened on issues where a serious wrong turn may be in prospect.

His speeches and interviews on Brexit – beginning low key but rising in frequency and urgency – have mirrored the national mood and situation. He has a particular rapport with the provincial English Tories, with a pragmatic ‘keep calm and carry on’ alternative to Farage and Rees-Mogg’s brand of increasingly strident English nationalism.

I’m sure Major won’t relish leadership being thrust upon him and I’m not sure he will accept it. But his very reluctance and lack of future ambition make him all the more endearing.

Lucas and Sturgeon are both essentially ‘social democrats with edge’. When I suggested them in Wimbledon this week, a Labour member asked whether Lucas was the best leader Labour never had in England, and Sturgeon the best leader we never had in Scotland. I couldn’t possibly comment but others may agree.

Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that Brexit is a plague on all politicians and what we need is a campaign led by business people and celebrities. In politics, that always ends in tears because business leaders rarely know what it takes to be a political leader and being a football commentator or pop singer doesn’t mean you are taken seriously when offering your views on the future of NATO. Recall the disaster of Sir Stuart Rose last time.

It is essential to have respected leaders from other fields as part of the campaign, including prominent youth leaders. But Remain isn’t serious unless it is led by people who have a claim to be able to govern the country successfully.

A footnote about me. I have literally been called the ‘bubonic plague’ by the BBC’s Andrew Neil for my nationwide Brexit tour. So something contagious is coming near you soon.

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