ALASTAIR CAMPBELL: How we shifted to a blindfold Brexit

PUBLISHED: 14:50 15 February 2019

People's Vote supporters wearing blindfolds and carrying placards assemble in Parliament Square ahead of the Brexit debate in the House of Commons. Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire.

People's Vote supporters wearing blindfolds and carrying placards assemble in Parliament Square ahead of the Brexit debate in the House of Commons. Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire.

ALASTAIR CAMPBELL examines how neither Theresa May or Jeremy Corbyn have led the way on Brexit.

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Amid the many things, large and small, that drive me a little crazy about the prime minister, her constant claim of clarity is among the smaller ones, becoming larger as Brexit Day looms.

I am very clear about this… I’ve always been clear… I have been clear throughout… Then there are the clarity points directed at others: I have been very clear with Brussels… I could not have been clearer with president Tusk… I made it very clear to the chancellor (chancellor Merkel, that is, not chancellor Hammond – Big Phil seems to have vanished, presumably not clear at all about what is happening, other than that she is not listening to him)

There are variations to the formulations pre-set inside the Maybot machine: I’ve always said… As I’ve always said… What I’ve always said… And it now seems to be a new rule of government communications that all ministerial interviews begin with the words: The prime minister has been very clear about this…

In more combative environments such as the House of Commons, the more defensive let me be clear pops out from Theresa May, usually followed by something that leaves us no clearer at all. Her response to Jeremy Corbyn’s Brexit negotiations letter was a May masterpiece of can-kicking and time-wasting, open to all manner of interpretation, from “offered major concessions” to “outright rejected” depending on who was reading it, but with the “Dear Jeremy” at the top clear enough for her to be able to say “as I made clear in my letter to the Right Honourable Gentleman”.

So much talk of clarity, yet nobody clear where on earth we are going.

There was a time, many months 
ago in this long, painful process, when one of the things she was being clear about, so clear, couldn’t have been clearer, spelled it out clearly, was that as we left the European Union, there would be clarity about the terms of our future economic relationship with the EU. The very concept of the ‘meaningful vote’ was that parliament would be able to take a view not just on the terms of separation but the trading framework which followed.

Let me be clear about how clear she was in the Commons…

As I have always said, when we bring the Withdrawal Agreement package back to the House, it is important that Members are able not only to consider the Withdrawal Agreement, but to have sufficient detail about all aspects of the future relationship.

October 17, 2018.

A few days later…

I have also said that we need to ensure that when members come to vote on the overall package – the Withdrawal Agreement and the outline of the future relationship – they have sufficient detail to have confidence in the nature of the future relationship.

A few months earlier…

The timetable that everybody is working to is to have that future relationship agreed in sufficient detail by October, such that when this parliament looks at the Withdrawal Agreement and Implementation Bill, it will know what the details of the future relationship will be.

Even further back, last March, she told a Labour MP:

He will recall that I said that it is our intention that this House, when it comes to look at the Withdrawal Agreement and Implementation Bill and to vote on that Bill, should have sufficient detail of what that future relationship is going to be, and that will take place before we leave the European Union.

Let me be clear too about why she felt the need for such clarity back then – because people were worried about what became known as a blindfold Brexit. Even her second failed Brexit Secretary, Dominic Raab, a hard Brexiteer, could not have been clearer: “There’s no question of any kind of a blindfolded Brexit,” he said on October 9, 2018. But this was in the days before the body politic took the final steps from confusion to something closer to insanity.

Today, what was widely seen as a vice, is now seen as a virtue. Pre-insane politics, blindfold Brexit – the idea of taking a giant leap into an unknown future – was a scary prospect, not to be recommended by any responsible government. Now, it is what unites Tories as varied as Nicky Morgan and Jacob Rees-Mogg.

Morgan can persuade herself that once we are hurtling over the precipice and we tear off the blindfold, we can adjust the parachute settings and head north to the safe landing of a soft Brexit in Norway.

Rees-Mogg can jump from the Brexit plane attached to the same parachute, and somehow get the winds moving in the right direction to take him and his hard Brexiteers all the way to Canada. Labour MPs who want us to end in a customs union can keep alive the prospect of doing so, even though the prime minister is, for her at least, pretty clear in saying it won’t happen.

To bring it back to earth, it is as though May is booking us all a train journey, but as the train departs we don’t know if the destination is Plymouth, Aberdeen or Holyhead. Brexit no longer means Brexit. It means whatever you want it to mean. It can take you to wherever you want to go, provided you don’t mind if you end up somewhere very different.

Just how much this vice has become a virtue was clear in one of the less commented upon aspects of May’s missive to Corbyn, when she wrote: We intend to give parliament a bigger say in the mandate for the next phase of the negotiations to address concerns that – because the Political Declaration cannot be legally binding and, in some areas, provides for a spectrum of outcomes – MPs cannot be sure precisely what future relationship it would lead to.

This directly contradicts what she ‘made clear’ dozens of times before, but one advantage modern politicians have, as Boris Johnson discovered on the Today programme on Monday, is that they rarely get challenged on things said in the past which are contradicted by words, actions and events in the present. May’s latest volte face was an invitation to Corbyn to conspire with her in the pursuit of the blindfold Brexit she said would never happen, and he said he would always oppose.

It is obvious why she made the deliberate shift from clarity to confusion and uncertainty. When she tried something closer to clarity in the long-forgotten Chequers plan, it provoked a crisis for her, complete with ministerial resignations.

The political mood that has made May, and many MPs, feel they can ditch lack of clarity as a vice and instead embrace it as a virtue, is that people are sick to death of hearing about nothing but Brexit. This is understandable – I’m sick of hearing about it, talking about it, writing about it; sick of people stopping me and asking me what the hell is going to happen, sick of having to admit I am as in the dark as they are.

‘Bored of Brexit’ allied to ‘just get on with it’, with a bit of ‘it can’t be that bad, can it?’ thrown in, is the worst possible basis on which to make the most important set of political decisions in our lifetime. ‘Crashing out without a deal?’ ‘Get on with it.’ ‘Threat to the Good Friday Agreement?’ ‘Get on with it.’ ‘Hit on the pound? Rise in prices? Chaos in the ports?’ ‘Get on with it.’

There was a time when all were agreed that ‘it’ would have to be clear. Now, ‘it’ can mean whatever anyone wants it to, because May has effectively rejected her own deal in backing the Brady amendment to the Withdrawal Agreement, and, as she admitted to Corbyn, much of the important stuff is left to the non-binding Political Declaration, to be decided in future negotiation.

There have been many lies told at every stage of this Brexit journey, but the current biggest lie is that if only May can get a version of her deal through parliament, and we can be out by March 29, Brexit will fall down the agenda and we will be able to focus on issues currently being neglected by this one-issue government and parliament. Health, education, crime, transport, poverty, rough sleeping, the environment; so much to do, so much not being done, because Brexit gets in the way of everything.

But do not think for one second that life and politics will return to any kind of post-Brexit normality once we are out on this basis. Far from bringing closure to the debate, a blindfold Brexit merely sets us up for the next long and bloody rounds; because in its own way, the choice between hard and soft Brexit, the choice she has been ducking since Chequers exploded on her, is as vast as the original choice in the June 2016 referendum. Far from ‘get on with it’ leading to ‘it’ being over, ‘it’ and the uncertainty ‘it’ creates will be as dominant in our lives as now, and for years to come.

People want closure. Fair enough. But without clarity about where we are heading – before we leave – we don’t get closure. No clarity, no closure. Indeed, I would suggest a new rule of modern politics under May – actual clarity is in inverse proportion to number of times she says she is being clear. And her and Raab’s statements I have quoted above should be called out for what they are – misleading the Commons, aka lying to the British public. A campaign won on lies and breaches of electoral law; negotiations conducted on fantasies and unicorns; now back to lies for the final steps towards our own decline.

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