16 September 2019

It’s Remainers, not Boris, who are making a mess of Brexit


‘Boris has bungled it!’ they scoff.  ‘He’s made an absolute mess of everything’ various pundits imply.

Among the opinion-forming classes it has become common wisdom that it is all starting to unravel – not just for Boris Johnson’s unapologetically pro-Brexit administration, but for the Brexit project itself.  Are they right?

Things certainly haven’t been easy.  In Parliament and the courts, Remainiac ultras fight a ferocious rear-guard action.  Boris’ government has suffered a series of set-backs.  One might even say that he’s been snookered.

Having pledged to exit the EU at the end of October, the Prime Minister is now confronted by legislative measures passed by Parliament that apparently forbid us to leave without a deal.  Gifted a hamstrung government, it seems the EU now has little incentive to offer anything other than the sort of one-sided deal Mrs May brought back before.

Worse, Boris appears to lead a minority government that cannot command a majority in the Commons, yet seems unable to trigger an election. Boris, the big Brexiteer-in-chief, looks like he has been left dangling.

Now, to make matters worse, activist judges may yet – Bercow-style – decide its time for an impromptu constitutional innovation and rule that Prime Ministers can no longer prorogue Parliament without their permission.  If so, these activist judges many even end up paving the way for the Remain ultras to more to revoke Article 50 altogether. Perhaps that is the intention.

If it seems that everything is against Boris and the Brexiteers, it is worth remembering that things have been this way before.

I remember many occasions when sitting in Vote Leave’s offices in the run up to the referendum how gleefully the pundits on the other side of the river in Westminster reported our side’s every apparent set back.

President Obama’s intervention about being at the back of the queue was a ‘major reversal’ for our side, they informed us.  Having the leader of every major party against us was a ‘blow’, apparently.  Didn’t we know that “everyone” – even the CBI and the Archbishop of Canterbury – was lined up against Leave?

Then, as now, there was one group of people that the pundits overlooked; the electorate.  It turned out that Obama, the CBI and the Archbishop weren’t quite everyone.

Just as happened during the referendum, much of the commentariat coverage today has focused on matters of tactics, not the strategic situation.  And for all the tactical defeats that Boris and the Brexit side might have suffered over the past few weeks, their strategic position is stronger than ever.

The behaviour of the Remain establishment over the past three years generally, and last three weeks specifically, has done something that the Leave campaign could only have dreamed of doing.  It has indelibly implanted in the minds of millions of voters that there is an unaccountable, tin-eared Europhile elite.

During the referendum campaign, we leavers steered away from building our core argument against the EU on the basis that there was an unaccountable Europhile elite. Why? It might resonate with those already inclined towards Leave, but it was often too obtuse for those undecided voters we needed to win over.

Not anymore.  It is today widely appreciated that there is indeed an unaccountable elite – and focus group after focus group shows that it is not only understood but deeply resented among key sections of the electorate.

At some point the Brexit-blocking establishment are going to have to face a reckoning with those they have antagonised.

It is perhaps because they are dimly waking up to this that Sir Oliver Letwin and the other Brexit-blocking MPs have started to argue that we need to have a (rigged Remain-option-only) referendum before an election.  They can see the writing on the wall.

Sir Oliver suggests that holding a referendum before the next General Election will allow the EU question to be settled so that politics can return to being what the Sir Olivers of this world would like it to be about.

I don’t think it works that way.  The next election will be about people like Sir Oliver.  He – like other Brexit-blockers – might cut and run from public life before the storm, but the storm is coming and it will sink the careers of any Sir Oliver prepared to stand (Amber, how is that seat search coming along?).

If Boris appears to have been left dangling by opposition MPs unwilling to allow him to call an election, it is worth remembering why the Remain alliance fears an election now.  They have good reason to.  Being a Brexit blocker might win you plaudits on BBC Radio 4.  It won’t win many votes in the Midlands. Or Wales. Or the North East. Or across much of suburban Britain where elections are decided.

The second strategically important shift is the Conservative party’s ability to pick up support from this antagonised electorate.

For years, the Conservative party was divided about Europe. Those that ran the party tended to favour more integration, while the wider membership opposed it.

It is of enormous strategic significance that that ambivalence ended two weeks ago.

The expulsion of the 21 Conservative MPs that sided with Corbyn in a key Commons vote on honouring the referendum result means that the Conservative party is not just overly in favour of leaving.  Any ambiguity about the need to leave is incompatible with being a Conservative candidate at the next election.

I suspect that the Remain side keep losing because they muddle tactics and strategy. They listen to what broadcasters and the press lobby tell one another, rather than to a country they don’t understand.

If the Remain side were better at campaigns, they might have spent the past three years trying to appreciate the strategic strength of their opponents.  They might have asked how the Leave side had come to associate Euroscepticism with the argument in favour of more localism.  They might have considered how growing anti-politics attitudes underpin the case for Leave – and why the rise of the former ratchets up the latter.

Instead they reached for the intellectual equivalent of a comfort blanket; Leavers are older because they are outdated, they said.  So they never stopped to ask why if Euroscepticism was essentially backward looking, Britain has become more Eurosceptic over the years.

Remain cheerleaders go on about what was written on the side of a red bus.  But they never ponder if the idea of having more control might appeal to a population that is, thanks to digital technology, increasingly used to having control over more areas of their lives.

Only older people support leave, they insisted.  As leave voters die off, we will become more pro-Remain, some even suggested.  It never seems to have occurred to Remain strategists that another explanation for age differentials in attitudes towards the EU might be that in fact it is being pro-Remain that tends to diminish with the passage of time.

And because the Remain side has not learned, they have not adapted.  So they are left fighting battles over parliamentary procedure and in the courts, when the question of Brexit will be settled  in the court of public opinion.

No wonder Boris now has a double-digit poll lead.  Unless they intend to avoid a future election altogether, it is they, not Boris that are snookered.

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Douglas Carswell was an MP and co-founded Vote Leave. He runs the Centre for Economic Education