Will the Brexiteers ever be satisfied? It seems not. Liam Fox, the International Trade Secretary, complains about unpatriotic Remoaners that would “rather see Britain fail than see Brexit succeed” and media who cannot report good economic news without saying “despite Brexit”.
Priti Patel, the former cabinet minister, has lodged a complaint with the Electoral Commission, alleging that Remain campaigns unlawfully coordinated their spending in the 2016 referendum. This is an attempt to muddy the waters, a diversionary tactic; the commission is considering two much more serious complaints about Leave campaigns. Both sides deny breaking the rules.
The real collusion was between Vote Leave, headed by Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, and Nigel Farage’s Leave.EU group. Officially, Vote Leave regarded Farage as “toxic” and wanted nothing to do with him. But it did have private contacts with him. Vote Leave distanced itself from his nasty “breaking point” poster showing a queue of refugees, but was happy to benefit from his playing the immigration card, and hoover up working class votes. Vote Leave would not have won without Farage; but Farage could not have done it without Johnson.
Patel is like a football manager who has won 2-1 but complains to the Football Association that it should have been 3-1. Perhaps she has been having lessons from Jose Mourinho or Arsène Wenger.
Her move reminds us that Brexiteers would never have accepted the result if they had lost; after such a close result, they would have fought on. So, with the country still split down the middle, Brexiteers can hardly cry foul now that Remainers plan one last stand in Parliament in the autumn to delay or block Brexit.
“There will be a moment,” one leading opponent told me. But the Remainers are 2-0 down and we are already in the second half. They don’t yet know what change of tactics they will deploy to persuade MPs their duty is to prevent the slow-motion Brexit disaster. It could mean asking them to extend the EU negotiations so Theresa May can get a better deal. It could be seeking a longer transition period than the planned two years, so the UK would in effect remain in the single market and customs union for the foreseeable future. It could even involve Parliament calling for a referendum on the Brexit deal, although there would first have to be a significant change in public opinion – probably polls showing consistently that 60 per cent would now vote Remain. There has been a small shift since 2016, but nowhere near enough yet.
Time is running out for the Remainers, as Tony Blair acknowledged in his call to arms this week. If Brexit is to be stopped, it has to happen this year. Parliament will probably vote on May’s deal in October or November. Unless MPs and peers throw a spanner in the works then, the UK will leave the EU in March 2019. Remainers would have to become Rejoiners, and begin a very different campaign – and much harder one.
Remainers need a game-changer. Some household name companies pulling out of the UK, perhaps. But the Government would do everything to lock them in, as it did with Nissan. The job losses in the City of London are not big enough to move the market of public opinion.
Remainers also need a leader. Blair would admit that he is not the right man; like Farage, he is seen as “toxic” by too many voters. What they really need is someone with the zeal of the convert – a Leaver who could now say: “We’ve tried our best to make Brexit work but I fear the deal on offer would harm the economy. Now we know the detail, people should get the chance to change their minds.”
Sadly for the Remainers, there is no sign of such a figure. May could have done it once, but not now; her party would implode. Johnson could say he meant to send the alternative, pro-Remain article he drafted in 2016 before coming out for Leave. Dream on; Boris wants to lead his party. David Davis? Too locked into the negotiations. Michael Gove? Too ambitious, still.
The clock might prove May’s enemy in the Brexit negotiations, but it could be her friend in her battle against those trying to stop Brexit.
Perhaps it’s time for Remainers to admit that a draw is now as good as it can get: leave the EU, but stay in the single market and customs union. This “Norway option” would be a lot better than a limited EU-Canada style deal, which is where May is headed despite brave talk about an agreement covering services. It is a prize still worth fighting for.
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