How to sound like you know what you’re talking about on Brexit in 2019

The stock phrases and responses required to sound credible and sensible on the year’s most complex political conundrum

Armand Richard David
Saturday 05 January 2019 14:20
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Brexit: What will happen in 2019?

Brexit is set to dominate our conversations for some time to come. There’s a risk that it falls into the religion, sex and politics “no-go” area at dinner parties. But it’s really unavoidable; it’ll sit there like the elephant in the room, lurking ominously, and it’s best you understand how to approach it sensitively around your aperitifs if you don’t want it to trample in unannounced. As it may already have done over the Christmas break. Here’s a guide on how to sound credible and avoid offence in discussing the topic, ahem, du jour, in the weeks and months ahead.

‘The PM’s failed again’

Whether you’re talking about Cameron or May, the failures of the prime ministers of the last three years have been multiple and self-evident. Cameron’s failure to see through the consequences of the referendum he himself promised. May’s failure to take a sensible negotiating position. Her failure to win a compelling majority in a general election, even her failure to deliver a compelling agreement with another party (bribing the DUP hasn’t made anyone happy, not even the DUP). Her failure to bring her own party together around her own deal, including the ministers responsible for drafting and negotiating it. Her failure to avoid a vote of no confidence.

Whether you’re pro-Remain or pro-Leave, one of the few unifying themes is the disappointing performance of those in Number 10. Commenting on it is really the equivalent of saying “looks like rain”, as far as British conversational gambits go.

‘Poor Mrs May, I have a lot of sympathy for her’

While her failures are many and copious, the combination of an absence of any credible alternative, being handed a time bomb by the cowardly David Cameron... and being challenged with the unenviable task of trying to marry the irreconcilable goals of a functional economy, reduced immigration (but continued freedom of movement when convenient), and “sovereignty” – whatever that means to whoever’s talking about it – means that most of us are left scratching our heads as to what we’d do better.

And while there clearly are MANY things she could be doing better (among other things: more transparency, a mediation-led approach to the negotiations, a more ferocious and unambiguous response to the more xenophobic elements in her party, fewer robot dances and beyond), on the whole many feel bad that this one-time Remainer is now left holding the short straw and seeing her only chance at leading the nation take on the bitterest of flavours.

Conversational risk: low-to-medium. Only risky if there are politicos in the room who know exactly how ghastly her voting record has been.

‘What exactly is Corbyn’s plan?’

Even the most ardent Corbynistas will be vague on the detail of how Jeremy is going to rescue Brexit. It’s clear now that he is unambiguously (and to Remainers’ minds, disappointingly) set on pushing through Brexit with a “better” deal/negotiating position. Particularly strange in a context where most of the Labour membership wants at least a second vote on it, if not a Brexit reversal. But what has been made clear in no uncertain terms by the EU leadership is that there will not be arbitrary compromise around Britain’s desire, as Hugo Rifkind put it, to deliver a “submarine made of cheese – ie, an impossible thing, free trade without freedom of movement. This central compromise is unattainable, and without freedom of movement the fragile situation in Northern Ireland risks shattering. It’s a submarine built on lies, and Corbyn seems set on maintaining that he can deliver this cheese contraption. So if you’re confused as to HOW he plans to deliver the impossible, you’re not the only one.

Conversational gambit level: “They reckon it’ll get colder next week.”

‘We don’t really know what’s going to happen till it happens, do we?’

That’s certainly true. And a very, very small gambit to make. But if you aren’t preparing for the possibility of some very bad things happening as a result of any Brexit consequence OTHER than a non-Brexit or extension of Article 50, individually or as a business, you’re probably not being conservative enough in your planning.

Conversational gambit level: “Do you think we’ll have a nice summer?”

‘The pound and property market has taken a bit of a dip thanks to this Brexit lark, hasn’t it?’

They have, and unambiguously so. While the wider equity market held up surprisingly well through 2017 (fuelled perhaps in part by the weak pound), 2018 has been a much more challenging year; many investment houses (and beyond) are sending out notes of caution about the conditions in the year ahead, and advising on how they have “de-risked” themselves in the UK (aka – sold up) and are looking set to “capture value opportunities” as they emerge (aka – descend on undervalued stocks as the deflation continues and the pound weakens). And anyone trying to sell a house (or buy one) will have found it a strange market, as properties discount repeatedly to try to find buyers waiting for more stability in the market.

Conversational gambit level: “I hear it’s even colder up north.”

These last two topics are a little riskier, so handle with care:

‘Boris and Rees-Mogg haven’t really got a scooby, do they?’

The transparently childish behaviour of Boris must be evident to most people now. I mean, he invited a photographer to witness him sign his resignation letter! And since then, he has been largely absent from the debate, other than briefly popping up on his bike to be slightly smarmy on the day of the no confidence vote.

As for Rees-Mogg, having failed to unseat Theresa May, his position on the specifics of a Brexit deal are scary: basically, Brexit and to hell with anyone that can’t afford the consequences. “No deal plus” is the way he’s trying to spin it; freedom from the “EU shackles” at any cost. Never mind that most of the EU shackles were drafted by British bureaucrats. It’s telling that the vast majority of the members of Rees-Mogg’s rebellion are old, wealthy white men (note the panel in the picture here, of “Grey Men”), somehow representing the views and aspirations and hopes of the Brexit voters who are categorically not from this 1 per cent background by whipping them up with lies about a cheese submarine.

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Conversational gambit level: this one’s a bit higher, this is a bit like saying you “think that nice Carol Kirkwood is wrong about the forecast”. No matter how many times she may have got it right (or not, as the case may be), some people will believe the contrary. Although now that I think about it, this whole metaphor is rather harsh on Carol. Sorry.

‘Shouldn’t we get a say on the final deal?’

It is frustrating that many of the checks and balances that are either in place or have been voted into existence to limit the damage of a totalitarian decision being made lack any legislative rigour. Even the delayed “meaningful vote” would only drive political necessity, not legal requirement. And it may well be voted through because it’s better than no deal, not because it’s actually good for Britain.

It’s hard to know if anything could happen that would make any difference to what Theresa May signs us up for in the end. Whether that’s a parliamentary vote, or a “People’s Vote”, or whatever.

But I’m occasionally hopeful. A growing proportion of the public at large want a say in the final deal (though it’s hard to tell, due to the complexities of describing the poll questions), and perhaps more will in the weeks leading up to 29 March. Theresa May cannot want to go down in history as the leader who destroyed Britain’s economy, social infrastructure and global standing with a terrible deal. While David Cameron’s reputation is fixed, as the man that led us into this mess, May still has an opportunity to decide as to whether she’s going to shovel deeper, or she’s going to try clamber out of the hole we’re in.

And her travels around the country trying to build support for her transparently terrible deal is something that smacks of someone that would really like the decision to be taken out of her hands by the will of the people. So maybe a another public vote will happen – after all, May was as adamant she wouldn’t call a general election as she is about a “People’s Vote”, and we all saw what happened there (more U-turns here).

The conversational stakes around this discussion are dropping, and if it was once something that simply landed you with a “Remoaner” tag, it is now a chorus that is being slowly being joined by Brexiteers and former Brexiteers concerned about a terrible outcome if things continue to go in the direction they seem to be going. With time, more will flock to this banner, particularly as our absence of a plan or any kind of sensible, acceptable deal becomes more apparent.

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There you have it. Your guide to reasoned, semi-calm discussion around controversial topics. Let the healing begin!

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