Thursday 2 May 2019

Brexit has been betrayed – by Brexiters and by Brexit itself

With the launch of the Brexit Party, a profoundly dangerous and dishonest argument - which has been doing the rounds in Brexiter circles virtually since they won the Referendum - is now being advanced with renewed and growing vigour. Its strength is its simplicity, indeed at the moment it is the entirety of the new party’s pitch: Brexit has been betrayed and democracy thwarted by a remainer parliament and a remainer Prime Minister. It’s a claim which is also, of course, made ad nauseam by Tory Brexiters, and seems to account at least in part for Labour’s continuing Brexit muddle.

Judging by current opinion polls, this argument resonates with, at least, 27% of voters. That figure matters both because it is quite large – certainly enough to bring significant success in the European elections – but also because it is considerably smaller than the 52% who voted to leave the EU. So it probably represents the hard core of the Brexit vote, and consists of people who, most likely, are impervious to any arguments against the ‘democracy betrayed’ argument.

The conclusion for remainers is that they need to find a way to rebut this argument which has cut through with those who are not in this hard core but did vote to leave, and also with those who voted remain but have some sympathy with the ‘democracy betrayed’ line. The first of those groups appears to be about 25% of the electorate, the second is much more difficult to quantify but might, conservatively, be guessed to be something like 10%.

Taken together, these two groups will matter in particular if there were to be another referendum but also in the European elections and any General Election that may be held. Perhaps most importantly of all they matter in terms of whether the poisonous politics of betrayal comes to dominate British politics. For they are both susceptible to the ‘democracy betrayed’ line but also potentially amenable to counter-arguments.

Counter-arguments to the ‘democracy betrayed’ narrative

There are certainly plenty of counter-arguments available. But not all of them have much cut through with this group of ‘amenables’. Pointing to the conduct and funding of the Leave campaign and its proven violations of Electoral law is perfectly valid, but the amenables will likely conclude that it is all rather murky and complicated and, anyway, has the sound of ‘sour grapes’. Repeating that the Referendum was only advisory, whilst legally true, just doesn’t have political traction not least because of Cameron’s ill-judged promise that the result would be implemented. And saying that democracy is an ongoing process, not just a single vote in 2016, invites the response that, still, there was a vote then and it should be honoured.

In short, mobilising the arguments that committed remainers find convincing isn’t likely to resonate with those susceptible, but not committed, to the ‘democracy betrayed’ argument. What might?

Although hard core Brexiters have been looking – I would argue hoping – for signs of betrayal ever since the Referendum, in the event this has taken a slightly different form to what might have been expected. That is, there is less accent on a narrative of EU punishment (although that is certainly present) and much more emphasis on UK political failure. That is therefore the most important place to challenge the betrayal claim.

The key point is this: the betrayal claim talks as if the government had announced that it was going to ignore the Referendum and Brexit was not going to happen. In fact, the precise opposite is true. The government has done all it can, not just to deliver Brexit but to deliver hard Brexit. No single market, no customs union, no freedom of movement, no ECJ. The ‘remain’ parliament voted overwhelmingly to trigger Article 50. The entire machinery of government has been given over to delivering Brexit for the last three years.

Why hasn’t Brexit happened?

That’s not the reason Brexit hasn’t yet happened (yet). The main block has been Brexiter MPs not voting for May’s deal. The ERG voted against it en masse twice, and the self-styled ‘Spartans’, of whom Farage apparently approves, did so a third time. This is what has delayed and possibly imperilled Brexit.

There is a canard put around by these diehards that they cannot be blamed as, even with their votes, the deal wouldn’t have passed. But this is disingenuous. First, had they voted for it and the numbers been much closer then there would have been a much greater chance of more Labour leaver (or ‘Breleaver’) MPs defying their party Whip. As it was, they had no incentive to do so. Second, in any case, it is absurd for the diehards to simultaneously claim that theirs was a decision of great courage and principle but that on the other hand it was irrelevant to what happened.

Brexiters, of course, say that their refusal to support May’s deal is because it is not ‘real Brexit’, primarily because of the backstop. That is nonsense: the backstop arises precisely because May is trying to enact the hard Brexit which, at the time of the Lancaster House speech, the Brexiters accepted, and still say, was real Brexit. It is a consequence, not a betrayal, of hard Brexit. Nor does it preclude the 'alternative arrangements' that Brexiters prefer: if and when they are demonstrated the exist, the backstop will not be needed. So far from being a ‘remainer PM’, May’s self-inflicted tragedy has been to try to implement the lies and impossibilities demanded by those who now criticise her.

If that is accepted, then it follows that if Brexit and democracy have been betrayed then it is by the most committed Brexiters. But if it is not accepted, then it follows that these committed Brexiters have defended rather than thwarted Brexit and in that case parliament has not betrayed democracy but upheld it. Either way, the betrayal argument if falsified.

So who betrayed Brexit?

The deeper point is that if voters amongst the group I am calling the ‘amenables’ want to look for people to blame for what has happened, it is to the leaders of Brexit – including Farage – that they should look. It is they who campaigned with no defined version of leaving; they who promised that leaving would be simple and painless and poured scorn on anyone raising the complexities and costs; they who, when given responsibility for delivering it – people like Davis, Johnson, Raab and Baker – kept resigning rather than face up to the practicalities; and they who, when Brexit was just within grasp – people like Francois, Bridgen, Jenkin and, again, Baker – refused to vote for it.

Similarly, a recurring Faragist trope is that the remainer Establishment have “humiliated” Britain. But any humiliation is squarely down to the attempt by ‘the Establishment’ to ‘honour the vote’ and put into practice what Farage and other Brexiters insisted they must, not their failure to do so. The responsibility lies solely with those who urged the country on this path, a responsibility they have never taken, pretending instead that there was some wonderful way of doing Brexit that they have never revealed, or that no-deal Brexit, which they never campaigned for, is what people voted for.

It was never going to happen, however Brexit was done, that it would deliver what Brexiters promised. It was always going to happen, however Brexit was done, that they would cry betrayal. Betrayal is not a bug in Brexit, it’s a feature.

So those voters who are minded to think that Brexit has been betrayed need to recognize that, if so, it was Brexiters who betrayed it. The sensible conclusion from that is not to invest any faith in those same people, telling the same untruths, still refusing to provide a workable plan for Brexit and still refusing to take – perhaps pathologically incapable of taking – any responsibility whatsoever for a situation entirely of their own making.

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