Brexit will happen, but Remainers need to take some lessons from Nigel Farage and play the long game

It may seem counter-intuitive, but the Brexit Party leader has waited to achieve his ambition. Remainers have lost the battle, but the war is not lost unless we decide it is

Nigel Farage concedes Brexiteers must prepare to make concessions ahead of trade talks

The Conservative victory in the general election was, in all practical terms, a defeat for those of us who wanted Britain to remain in the EU. Brexit will happen. There is no prospect now of a referendum on the withdrawal agreement with the option to Remain.

During the post-mortems over Christmas turkey, I realised that I was sounding like a morose Premier League manager on Match of the Day, explaining away defeat. In my best Inglese, I would say: “We won a moral victory… our players dominated possession; we would have won had their cheating striker not got our goalkeeper sent off. We was robbed.”

The reasons for the defeat of Remain do not require the forensic skills of a Gary Lineker or an Alan Shearer. The Leavers had a simple strategy dressed up in a three-word message: “Get Brexit done.” They also clearly understood the constraints of first past the post, and fielded an effectively united team with the Brexit Party. By contrast, the Remainers were hopelessly divided.

The millions who marched for a Final Say, and the millions more who put their trust in the parties and politicians of Remain were badly let down. From the misjudged referendum campaign in 2016, to the infantile feuding of the People’s Vote campaign, to the electoral confusion over tactical voting in 2019, the Remain leadership punched well below its weight.

The Labour Party couldn’t decide where it stood, while my own party appealed to hardest core of hard Remainers with its unsuccessful “revoke” policy, turning off many others. All our tactical cleverness in parliament and talk of cross-party unity, dissolved on the electoral battlefield.

It would be tempting, now, for Remainers to give up. And indeed give up on politics altogether. Many will. Owners and managers of businesses I meet shrug their shoulders and say they just want to get on and the make the best of a bad job. Most people will simply go with the flow. But there is a long game, and we must play it.

The events of the next year or so will encourage passivity; there will almost certainly be some kind of trade agreement with the EU: minimal in content and woefully inadequate for sectors like financial services. Yet it will be enough to generate claims of a “historic agreement”. There will be more triumphant flag-waving to celebrate a US agreement: hopelessly one-sided, but capable of being presented as a political victory. Then we shall have imperial nostalgia with Australia and New Zealand, and a clutch of Caribbean and Pacific Islands grateful that we are buying up bananas from them rather than from Ecuador. Meanwhile, I do not expect to see an economic collapse. I have always seen Brexit as a slow puncture. By the time the tyre is flat, there will be other competing explanations for its failure.

In these circumstances, Remainers should have the humility and foresight to learn from the big winner: not Johnson, but Nigel Farage, who has finally – through this election – achieved a lifetime’s work. Without being a candidate, and after serial defeats in Westminster parliamentary elections, he is the most successful political failure in my lifetime.

Brexit second reading debate: Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn clash of withdrawal bill

I believe there are several big lessons we can learn from him. The first is strategic patience. He treated Brexit as the modern equivalent of the Hundred Years War. He ignored repeated setbacks and kept on fighting. I recall debating with him decades ago when the Brexit cause was little more than an obscure cult. I was struck then by his relentless stamina and disregard for fashionable opinion. Remainers will have to develop similar patience, since the case for rejoining the EU will have little traction in the next few years. In a decade, things may well be different.

Secondly, there is conviction. The Remain argument has usually been presented in arid antiseptic and half-hearted terms: “If we Remain, you will, by 2030, be X per cent better off on average than had we left, according to the most credible economic commentators.” The Brexit cause, despite its reliance on crude prejudices about a dastardly European Reich and immigrants from Turkey, also tapped into English people’s better patriotic instincts, and their feel for self-government. The Remain argument can only be kept alive by the emotional conviction that our country will be better, more influential and more secure in close cooperation with our neighbours.

And third, Farage has demonstrated the power of extra parliamentary politics, outside Westminster. Indeed the whole Brexit campaign represented an assertion of the so-called “will of the people” over representative democracy. Farage’s mastery of radio and television, and more recently of social media, far exceeded in impact any disadvantage from not appearing in the House of Commons.

That too can be played in reverse as the follies of Brexit, and the failures of Boris play out. Remainers can have more impact through radio call-ins and Facebook messaging than through parliamentary debate while the Commons is so hopelessly unbalanced. And more generally, the place to be for effective opposition politics in future may well be away from Westminster, building political credibility and an organisational base through online campaigns, and through local and devolved government. Community politics is due a new lease of life.

The recent battle for Remain is over. But the hundred years war could be won in a decade or sooner: it is not lost unless we decide it is.

Sir Vince Cable is a former leader of the Liberal Democrats and a former secretary of state for business

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