Thursday 28 February 2019

Remainers should get ready for what this political chaos may bring

In the very first post on this blog, in September 2016, I wrote “I do not think that [a reversal of the decision to leave the EU] is in prospect”. Now, I am not so sure. I underestimated the tenacity of the opposition to Brexit. I also underestimated the shocking ineptitude with which Brexit has been pursued. So, precisely because of all the twists and turns of events that I have documented on this blog in the years since that first post, it is indeed now – just about – conceivable that the UK will not leave the EU.

I don’t want to give a false impression. There are still formidable barriers to reversing Brexit, and several quite complicated things would have to click into place, in the right sequence, for that to happen. But this week there’s a greater sense than ever before that the dam is about to crack, and if it does events may move quickly and unpredictably, so it’s important to be prepared for that.

What just happened?

It has been becoming more likely for a while now that there will be an application to extend the Article 50 period, and this will possibly be for quite a long time. That became headline news this week with Theresa May’s acceptance that there will be a vote on this (under pressure of it being forced on her by the Cooper-Letwin amendment, and the possibility of cabinet resignations to support it) if her deal doesn’t pass in March and if MPs also, as seems likely, vote that they do not endorse no-deal.

Whilst May describes a possible extension as being (pointlessly) short, meaning perhaps two or three months, it is not clear that she could control this and anyway she has a long track record of reversing her positions. There is also some murky territory as to what would happen if MPs voted for a short extension and the EU were only willing to offer a longer one. At all events any extension, but especially a long one, will surely increase the pressure for another referendum.

This week’s shift in Labour policy, for all its frustrating ambiguities and lack of clarity, also makes another referendum more likely than it has ever been. As I suggested was possible in my previous post, it seems to have arisen as a result of the pressure created by the Independent Group defections. With time and more pressure it may yet evolve into a more straightforwardly pro-referendum stance and – currently improbable, but with the passing of time more conceivably – one that could command a Parliamentary majority.

However, any such reasons for remainer optimism should also be taken as a reason for caution. Their existence is, precisely, a reason for the Brexiters to coalesce behind May’s deal and, conceivably, it would then get passed at the last minute in the March vote. Unless the Kyle-Wilson amendment (approving May’s deal subject to a referendum between it and remain) were also to be passed, this would surely significantly reduce the prospect of another referendum, despite both Jeremy Corbyn and Keir Starmer appearing to suggest in the House of Commons this week that only then would Labour be pushing for one.

So in a couple of weeks’ time, everything in this post may have been rendered completely obsolete. Or, to put it another way, if the analysis that another referendum is now much more likely is correct, then it is less likely to come true.

Confused? There’s a reason for that

That paradox arises because if the possibility of extension and/or referendum makes the Brexiters more likely to pass May’s deal then denying that possibility makes it more likely that they will not pass it, which in turn makes it more possible there will be an extension and/or referendum, making them more likely to pass it, ad infinitum. This may sound abstruse, but it is precisely the paradox which structures the weird political manoeuvres that we have seen played out in Parliament this week, with May trying to play all sides against each other, and the ERG contortions that have already arisen from that.

Because it is a paradox, it has no answer. It is this which explains the extraordinarily confusing swirl of multiple and contradictory interpretations of what just happened from politicians, the media, and even the best-informed pundits over the last couple of days. Is this a blow to the Ultras or a rout of the ‘pragmatists’? A concession by the Prime Minister or the imposition of her will? Her triumph or her humiliation? Is her deal now more likely to pass or less likely? Does it make no-deal impossible, or postpone it? These and many similar questions are pointless because most answers to them are equally plausible. And as for guessing what is going on in May’s mind that too is pointless because she almost certainly has nothing in mind other than getting through another day.

This game can’t go on for very much longer and it won’t. Very soon, something will give and, depending what that is, it could create some real opportunities for remainers. So whilst it would be entirely premature for them to expect victory, remainers should learn lessons from the Brexiters when they didn’t expect their victory: they didn’t plan for it and so when to their and everyone else’s surprise they had their prize in their grasp, they didn’t know what to do with it. The consequence may now be that it slips through their fingers.

Planning for the possibilities

To avoid the same fate, remainers need to be thinking hard now – as I am sure many already are – about how to capitalise on the possibilities that may be opening up. The goal here is both tactical and strategic. Tactically, it is about winning if there is another referendum. Strategically, it is about anticipating victory in such a referendum and shaping the UK as a viable, credible and positive member of the EU.

One implication of that, difficult as it looks now when even getting and winning a referendum is a long shot, is that the aim must be not just to win narrowly, but to win big (meaning something like 60-40). Because, again, remainers need to know what to do with their victory if they were to achieve it, and that must mean cementing the UK’s place in the EU for the long-term, and repairing the terrible damage done to UK-EU relations by the last three years. The goal must be not for the UK to grudgingly remain in, with the constant likelihood of Brexit being revived, but to enthusiastically re-commit to the EU and to kill off the prospect of Brexit for good.

Central to this will be the participation in the European Parliament (EP) elections that a long extension would almost certainly make necessary, which is clearly why May is desperate to avoid a long extension. It would be a disaster if, as before, these return to the EP the shameful clowns of UKIP (or Farage’s new party) and the hardliners amongst the Tory MEPs. It’s noteworthy that Farage is already anticipating there will be EP elections in the UK. The Brexiters will be campaigning hard, on a ‘betrayal’ ticket, as of course they will in any future referendum (and if there are EP elections, but no referendum, they will become a de facto referendum themselves).

The counter-argument must be that they betrayed themselves and, in the process, those who they persuaded to vote leave. They had a Prime Minister who fully accepted their ideas and tried to implement them, but the Brexiters repeatedly undermined her. This is crucial, because they will run the ‘Theresa the Remainer’ line, pretending that they were betrayed from within rather than admitting that they had no plan for Brexit and, when they had the chance, refused to endorse hers. Over and over again, the unbending fanaticism of the Brexiter ideologues must be emphasised, as this divides them from most of ‘the people’ they purport to speak for.

Learn the right lessons from 2016

It has become conventional wisdom that, if there is another referendum, remain must not re-run their 2016 campaign but take the lessons from its failure. That is reasonable, so far as it goes, but it contains its own contradiction: precisely because this would not be 2016 again, it may not have that many lessons. In particular, it will be important to make use of all the ways that, since 2016, the claims of Brexiters have been proven false, including and especially the claim that leaving would be easy, quick and cost-free. By definition none of that ammunition was available in 2016 – now it is.

More than anything, I am convinced that what is again conventional wisdom - that the vote to leave was nothing to do with economics, that the Remain campaign was wrong to focus on it and that the leave campaign did not focus on it – is incorrect. Not only was one of Vote Leave’s main campaign headlines an economic one (more money for the NHS), but the entire ‘Project Fear narrative they built was based upon their realization that they would be sunk if voters believed that Brexit would cause economic damage. They trashed the warnings because they were scared of them; the fact that the trashing proved successful shouldn’t diminish the case for making the warnings.

Indeed far from eschewing economics, over and over again before and since the 2016 Referendum the Brexiters have wheeled out arguments from the tiny group of economists who support Brexit to justify their case. And, especially since the referendum, they have made an independent trade policy central to their claims for the benefit of Brexit. So whilst it is surely true that voting leave wasn’t purely economically motivated, it is demonstrably wrong to deny that economics played a central part and will continue to do so.

It is also wrong to say that the Remain campaign played on fear but the Leave campaign played on hope. There was probably too little hope in the 2016 remain message – and that is a lesson to learn – but there was certainly plenty of fear in the leave message. The most obvious example of that was the ‘Turkey is joining the EU’ lie. The remain failure was not so much that it emphasised fear but that it did not counter leave’s Project Fear anything like as effectively as leave countered that of remain.

Making a better case

That’s not to deny that it would be vital to do far more than was done in 2016 to promote a positive case for EU membership, and to do so using a far wider range of voices than before, with a less stale and complacent leadership.

That must include making the positive case for freedom of movement. One of the most galling and ubiquitous experiences for EU-27 nationals in the UK since the referendum has been to be told by leave voters ‘oh, but we didn’t mean you when we said there was too much immigration’. That can be made use of. Rather than just talk about abstract benefits of migration, tell the stories of the real individuals who are voters’ neighbours, colleagues, friends, and family. There’s also more to be said about the value to British citizens of their own free movement rights. In any case - this is no more than a hunch, although there is some polling evidence to support it – I don’t think migration will play nearly as prominent a role in another referendum as it did in 2016.

What, of course, will play far more of a role – and will be linked to the ‘betrayal narrative’ – will be invocations of ‘the will of the people’ and the claim that this new referendum is ‘undemocratic’ and should not be happening at all. Hence the anticipated Leave campaign slogan ‘tell them again’. There need to be several strands of counter-argument to this, including challenging rather than (as some remainers do) accepting the framing of the leave voters as ‘the left behind’, and avoiding a punitive and/or derogatory positioning of leave voters.

But on the charge that even holding another referendum is wrong – for all that there are many good counter-arguments – it would be better for remainers not even to follow leave down that rabbit hole if and when it is underway. You don’t win a vote by debating whether it should be happening.

Actually – again this is just a hunch – I think that many leave voters have been horrified by the divisiveness that has been unleashed and will be receptive to a conciliatory and magnanimous message from a future remain campaign. Remainers certainly do not have the monopoly on wanting the vicious wounds of the last three years to be healed, and if a future leave campaign seeks to exacerbate these whilst the remain campaign seeks to salve them I think the latter will prosper, at least amongst wavering voters.

There is a wider significance in that, because if leave do run on ‘tell them again’ it will be they who are looking backwards. The remain campaign mustn’t – which also means avoiding any suggestion that a vote to remain will take us back to 23 June 2016. It must be based on a sense of a better, shared future.


As I said at the outset, all of this may very soon be rendered completely irrelevant by events. There may be no extension – or just a short ‘technical’ one to facilitate May’s deal if it passes. There may be no EP elections. There may be no referendum. And, if there is, of course there will be far more extensive things for remainer strategists to consider than this brief outline.

The message here is only that, unlikely as it may still be, remainers should be ready for what could fall out in the next few weeks. They will have one big advantage. In the years since the 2016 referendum it has become ever clearer that the most committed Brexiters, paradoxically, would be happier if they had not won, since it takes them from their comfort zone of victimhood and complaint. Whereas many who before 2016 were not particularly aware of it have discovered since then that they passionately desire to remain in the EU.

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