Remainers should take a note from Brexiteers and embrace aggressive debate – it’s the only option in this political climate

When no depth is too low for the other side to plumb, aren’t you setting yourself up to lose by trying to be as pure as the driven snow in response?

James Moore
Thursday 29 November 2018 15:47
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Do we, on the Remain side, owe a duty to the truth? I had this discussion on Twitter with Simon French, a former Cabinet Office civil servant turned chief economist for City broker Panmure Gordon, on that very subject last night.

He was objecting to some of the reporting of the fairly dire scenario put forward for the UK economy in the event of a chaotic no-deal Brexit by the Bank of England’s governor Mark Carney. French is an advocate of a “sensible evidence-led debate”.

I would argue that had one been conducted, we wouldn’t be in this situation.

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The Leave side set out its stall by burning through any and all evidence with lies (£350m for the NHS, we can have our cake and eat it, a deal will be the easiest thing in human history etc etc). Then it lied again, then it lied some more. It’s still at it. There are signs that these falsehoods are finally starting to wear thin with the public now that they are confronting reality.

This can be seen not just in the opinion polls, but also in the economic data, such as the declining consumer confidence numbers I covered for The Independent’s business section today, which are perhaps are more reliable barometer of people’s thinking (and are based on a larger sample than most polls).

French didn’t disagree. He did say that he fails “to see the merit in a race to the bottom”, as regards partisan reporting and that he continues to believe “Remain advocates must keep their/our standards high”.

That gnawed at me for the whole of the evening.

When no depth is too low for the other side to plumb, aren’t you setting yourself up to lose by trying to be as pure as the driven snow in response?

Isn’t it time, as Paul Giamatti’s character states in George Clooney's The Ides of March – the film about a US Democratic Party primary – to “get down in the mud with the f-ing elephants”?

With the future of this country at stake, can we really afford to indulge French in his idealism? I finally came to the conclusion that we just about can, if not quite to the level he would advocate, because the arguments are with us.

It’s actually possible to see the hysteria, the threats, and the ever more blatant mendacity indulged in by Brexiteers of late, as a sign of strength. Having comprehensively lost the argument, it’s all they have left.

Where we need to “get down in the mud with the f-ing elephants”, is in giving no quarter to them. That is, if you like, the lesson of Jo Johnson.

Nobody paid much, if any attention, to Boris Johnson’s Remain-backing little bro prior to his going nuclear by resigning from government office. He was perhaps best known for the disastrous appointment of right-wing yahoo Toby Young to the board of the “Office for Students” while serving as higher education minister, a decision that had to be rapidly reversed thanks to the misogynist content of some of Young’s tweets, among other things.

Since he pushed the button with his resignation and a fairly brutal assessment of Theresa May’s Brexit deal, combined with his advocacy of a fresh referendum, he’s been all over the media. His star seems to be ascending as quickly as that of the elder Johnson fades.

The attention given to his latest speech, bluntly warning of a Tory Armageddon if Brexit goes bad (and that’s odds on), is a case in point.

Some of the other Remain Tories are starting to see necessity of putting some metal inside their boxing gloves, as opposed to cleaving to the desires of the extremists in their midst for the sake of “party unity”.

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The laughably named European Research Group have never given a fig for that concept. They’re the elephants in the mud, who’ve been prepared to spray whatever muck it takes in pursuit of their goals.

It isn’t solely the Remain Tories, who’ve been guilty of thinking that you can combat Brexiteers by sticking to the norms of civilised behaviour. It’s a failing that much of the Remain side has arguably only recently recognised.

It is, however, just about possible to fight dirty with the truth, to satisfy the desires of people like the good French – a decent and civilised character – for accuracy while still wrestling with the elephants.

Because the facts are on our side, there’s no real need to go over the top with them. They are what they are. The Brexit backing government’s own figures showing every Brexit outcome leaves us poorer, and probably in quite a mess too, are a case in point.

It’s still going to take a few more people than Johnson going nuclear in response to them to get us over the hill, however, and perhaps for them to be even rougher than he has about it.

You can be honest in dealing with elephants and liars. But you can’t play nice.

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