Wednesday, 26 September 2018

The fact that referendums aren't elections means that Brexiteers aren't responsible for the mess Theresa May's government has got us into

One of my many sensible Remain friends asked me the other day why what he called "the Brexit camp" still "don't seem to have any idea of how to manage a graceful, coherent and productive exit from the EU.  There's absolutely no leadership.  You'd think that after all these years of opposition someone would have put some thought and work into a proper hard Brexit plan - something comprehensive and practical.  Perhaps even something attractive and inspiring?" He asked if he was missing something, and it took me a while to figure out what that something was. For the past two years, practically every Remainer and an alarming number of Leavers have been treating the referendum as if it had been a general election (I've found myself doing it occasionally). The difference is crucial...

...In an election, two or more sides battle for power. Whichever side wins then forms a government whose job (ostensibly) is to implement the policies they campaigned on during the election. If they fail to implement those policies, the electorate can hold them to account at the next election. Referendums are different: the people who lead the campaign for the winning side won't be asked to form a government expected to implement the policy the electorate voted for. Because of that, none of the "sunlit uplands" pledges made by the winning team were actual promises - you can't promise something you won't have the power to deliver. Thus the Vote Leave "pledge" to spend the £350m a week that would have gone to the EU on the NHS wasn't a pledge in any sense of the word, because the people making it were never going to be in a position to make it happen. Accusing the Vote Leave campaign of lying during the campaign just doesn't make sense.

For the same reason, it was never the responsibility of Brexiteers to come up with a sensible, workable Brexit plan. That was entirely the responsibility of the Conservative government which promised and held the referendum. If David Cameron and his cabinet colleagues were convinced that a successful Brexit would prove impossible to deliver, the pledge to hold a referendum was grotesquely irresponsible. Theresa May ran for the Conservative leadership in the full knowledge that her main job would be to deliver a successful Brexit - it was ultimately her responsibility to devise a strategy to achieve it. She may still surprise us all and deliver on her promises, but that seems a trifle unlikely if the ghastly Chequers proposals - dismissed by the EU, loathed by the Conservative Party and despised by the wider electorate - are what she's managed to come up with after two painful, humiliating years of being sneered and laughed at by a coterie of spectacularly arrogant, unelected foreign bureaucrats and European politicians whose approval ratings are even lower than Mrs May's (!), then one would have to conclude that the chances of a successful conclusion to the negotiations seems like likely than it has ever done.

As for coming up with an "attractive", "inspiring" policy, that, again, was Mrs May's job. Anyone out there feeling inspired? Despite my friend's criticism, the Brexit camp has produced a number of proposals which strike just about everyone (including, apparently, the EU) as more advantageous to the UK and certainly more workable than the Chequers nonsense. Let's just hope Mrs May stops listening to advice from her civil servants (yes, Ollie Robbins, we mean you), calls the EU's ridiculous Irish Border bluff, and chooses one of the infinitely superior plans on offer. If this whole those thing goes tits up and we end up staying in the EU, or leaving it in a manner that does the maximum possible harm to Britain's economy, Mrs May and her tawdry government will be to blame - not "the Brexit camp".

As for my side, I suspect our greatest mistake was in supposing that European businesses would have sufficient clout to stop EU negotiators from adopting economically self-harming tactics in order to guarantee that Britain would suffer the maximum damage. The Brexit "free trade" mob in particular may have been too slow to realise just how much the EU has morphed from a “racket” into a religion, and that negotiating with it is therefore as much use as negotiating with ISIS. We're dealing with fanatics here, which is why I've long been a keen supporter of the "No deal - no £40Bn payment - WTO rules" option. As for changing our minds and sticking with the EU, I’m with Macbeth: "I am in blood Stepped in so far that, should I wade no more, Returning were as tedious as go o’er”.

No wonder that when voters were recently asked who’d make the best prime minister the most popular choice - 39% - was ”don’t know”.

Finally, if there's one major lesson to be learned from all this, it's probably that joining a club  - whether it be the EU or the Mafia -  that you can't leave without sustaining serious injuries is a really bad idea. (I used to be the proud owner of two disastrous endowment mortgage policies, so I know whereof I speak.)

Still, Venceremos! - with a bit of luck. 

1 comment:

  1. I'm a bit worried about your argument. It comes close to saying that in a referendum you needn't bother to tell the truth because you're unlikely to end up with the responsibility of implementing the result. Or does that only apply to those opposing the Government's formal referendum position?

    In fact, those who made the £350 million claim came very close to having the lead role in implementing Brexit. Had Boris not decided to play cricket instead of preparing for the leadership contest, if Gove hadn't come across as such a smarmy school swot and if Ooh Andrea Leadsom had not so vigorously asserted the joys of motherhood, one of them could well have had to answer properly for the accuracy of the claim. As it is, those three plus Davis and Fox accepted positions of responsibility for implementing the result, with Davis nominally in charge of the entire Brexit negotiation. However, even in Government they clearly took your view of the difference between referendum and general election by continuing to spout the same old rubbish long after taking office.

    And in case you think I am absolving the Remain camp from responsibility, I am not. The conduct of both sides in the referendum marked a new low in British politics and helped create a rift between their countrymen which if anything is getting worse two years later.