Denis MacShane / Nov 2018
Benjamin Disraeli in opposition once teased his Tory rival, Robert Peel, who adopted liberal conservative positions that he “had caught the Whigs bathing and walked off with their clothes.”
Might Theresa May be getting to the point of adopting a Peelite policy towards Brexit in the sense of walking off with the Remainers’ clothes before it is too late?
Jo Johnson’s resignation and his call for a new referendum supported by a powerful intervention on the BBC by one of the most respected business leaders in Britain, Sir Mike Rake, might be the moment when Mrs May spots a way out of her Brexit quagmire.
Famously Mrs May plays her cards so close to her chest she probably cannot see them herself. But she is a Keynsian in the sense that if the facts changes she changes her mind.
The facts in support of Brexit are like Lewis Carroll’s Cheshire Cat. They are all slowly disappearing with only the grimace left on the face of hardline Brexit ideologues who know their cause is losing not gaining ground.
Just about every opinion poll or serious survey shows that the Brexit majority of June 2016 has evaporated. Hundreds of thousands of the elderly voters in England outside main cities who voted Brexit have passed away while at the other end of the age spectrum hundreds of thousands of younger citizens are now eligible to vote and all polls show they vote 9-1 in favour of not losing their right to live and work in Europe if they so choose.
Under all interpretations of the Withdrawal Agreement and political declaration there will be a Brexeternity of tetchy, difficult negotiations after 29 March 2019 between the UK and the EU. The Swiss rejected EEA membership 25 years ago and still haven’t finished negotiating a final deal with Brussels on a definitive EU-Swiss relationship.
Brexit is like a giant tube of super glue squeezed into British politics, government, business, universities and the relations between the constituent nation of the United Kingdom. Everything is blocked. Labour’s leadership cannot escape its pro-Brexit trap and trails miserably behind the Tories in opinion polls despite poor economic growth and endless cuts.
One way to cut this Gordian knot is to hold a new consultation. 700,000 people marched for this in London in one of the biggest post-war demonstrations ever. That is more than 1000 on average from every constituency. Of course a demo doesn’t change policy but just as those who marched against the Iraq war were right, so too the nation’s mood is changing on Brexit.
Mrs May could put herself in tune with the fact that the 2016 majority has disappeared. Yes, it would cause a row with one or two newspapers and hardline Tory anti-Europeans but 90 per cent of business, especially all foreign firms who came to Britain on the solemn promise of previous prime ministers that they would have full access to the single market of 450 million customers, would welcome a change of mind.
Re-aligning the Tory party with business and catching Labour flat-footed stuck in Jeremy Corbyn’s 1970s Bennite time-warp on Europe would be a political stroke. On 7 November, the Scottish Parliament, voted for a new public vote on Brexit. Astonishingly, Jeremy Corbyn ordered all Labour MSPs to vote with the Tories against trusting the people in a new referendum. 86 per cent of Labour members want a new vote. How can Corbyn – who says he wants to do what the rank and file of Labout want – insist on endorsing the line that the people have no right to be asked again about amputating Britain from Europe?
It is now down to the prime minister. Dare Mrs May take a risk? After the 2017 election probably not. But the opportunity is there.