The Sun is in many ways a great paper, often nicely balancing light and shade, humour and hard news. It has probably produced as many memorable headlines as the rest of Fleet Street put together.
On Brexit though, the Sun has lost its lightness of touch, going in for increasingly tub-thumping, anti-EU rhetoric. True, there are still moments of wit – last week’s “Two fingers of fudge” splash, reporting on Theresa May’s agreement to time limit post-Brexit regulatory alignment, was great fun. Nonetheless, the paper’s clear line of attack is one that demands Brexit at whatever cost and without further debate. Nuance is not permissible.
Today, ahead of votes in the Commons on key elements of the EU (Withdrawal) Bill, the Sun lays out the supposed dichotomy facing MPs, telling them they have a choice: “Great Britain or Great Betrayal”.
If that wasn’t clear enough, the Sun’s editorial explains that the “duty” of potential Tory rebels is not to follow their consciences, or the wishes of constituents if they happen to represent a Remainer heartland, but rather “to give the government the strongest possible hand in negotiating our exit” (even if they think, as some of them do, that any Brexit will be disastrous).
Many responses to the front page (some with Sun-esque humour) have honed in on the irony of the imagery that the Sun deployed to represent Britain’s greatness. The Shard, it has been noted, was designed by an Italian; the Mini by a man born in modern-day Turkey to parents who were Greek and German; while the Thorpe Park “Colussus” ride was manufactured by a Swiss firm, Intamin.
What’s more, as is so often the case with Brexit, the nation’s brilliance appears largely set in the past, which is hardly promising. Spitfires, castles and Routemasters loom large.
The other oddity is that the most obviously sign-posted venue on the Sun’s front page is London, which was plainly the epicentre of Remain sentiment during the referendum. And while the Angel of the North is located in pro-Leave Gateshead, let’s not forget that neighbouring Newcastle voted Remain too.
What arguably grates most of all, however, is the use of a picture of parliament in an item which effectively seeks to tell MPs what to do. The primacy of UK parliamentary sovereignty was front and centre of the pro-Brexit campaign and yet any hint of MPs using their position to seek further clarity is seemingly an outrage.
It’s not just the Sun of course. The Daily Express, that most ardent of EU-haters, carries what it explicitly terms a “warning to our elected representatives” – “Ignore the will of the people at your peril”. Chummy it ain’t.
Ignore the menace though; this headline really exposes the nonsense on which it is built: that the will of the people, as bluntly expressed in a vaguely worded referendum, on the back of disingenuous and sparsely-informed campaigning (by both sides), somehow provides a clear roadmap for a particular kind of Brexit and is set in stone.
Whatever you think about where Brexit should go – full-steam off the cliff, screeching into reverse or somewhere in between – the idea that MPs were given definitive directions on 23 June 2016 and that there can be no subsequent manoeuvring is baseless.
Newspapers’ ability to sway elections has long been exaggerated. Such is the availability of information (and of social media echo chambers) in the digital age, that the influence of media barons is probably now even further reduced. That is unlikely to end the kind of hectoring we have seen today, however, as the Express and the Sun play to partisan crowds.
As to whether MPs will take tabloid headlines into account when they cast their votes on the Brexit bill, we shall probably never know. Whichever way they go, they will be criticised by one side or the other in this never-ending saga.
But it is inflammatory and specious to contend that anyone voting against the government is betraying the “will of the people”. The only betrayal on show is from those who dressed Brexit up as an easy-as-pie event; and from those who continue to demand no further debate of a question to which the answer remains frighteningly unclear.
* This article originally referred to the roller coaster pictured on the Sun's front page as Alton Tower's "Smiler", which was made by a German firm. In fact, it is Thorpe Park's "Colussus", which was manufactured by a Swiss company. 12/6/18
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