People attack the whole business of having an EU referendum, but one of its pluses was that it invited millions of people who had never before been asked to form an opinion on the European question to do so. They responded thoughtfully — perhaps more thoughtfully than people do in general elections when a sizeable minority vote pretty much automatically for one party or another. We quickly developed a much more educated electorate. The idea, strongly touted immediately after the result, that the voters’ majority view could be set aside by Parliament because they didn’t know what they were talking about has almost completely vanished from political debate, with the noisy exception of interventions by Kenneth Clarke. Theresa May’s strong recognition of this in her speech here at the Conservative party conference last Sunday makes this one of the most extraordinary party conferences I have ever attended. This is not because of any high drama in the conference hall, where the debates have, if that is possible, been even duller than ever. It is because of the complete and almost calm reversal of a policy which the Tories had until now maintained since the end of the 1950s. Without a flaming row in her party, Mrs May has said unambiguously that the orthodoxy of Macmillan, Heath, Major and Cameron, the orthodoxy which vanquished even Mrs Thatcher, has been dethroned. We’re leaving, and the divorce, though intended to be friendly, will be absolute. The effect on those present is oddly reassuring. Even most Remainers seem keen to get on with leaving. The skill of the pro Europeans over more than half a century was to make people believe that the alternative to membership was unthinkable. In the last six months, everything has moved. First it became thinkable; from this week, it becomes doable. At some point — probably at several points — the negotiations will go badly wrong, as they did indeed when we were trying to travel the other way in the 1960s and General de Gaulle was being difficult. Nevertheless, a sincere decision to leave cannot ultimately be prevented. The Tories are all too used to insincere promises about Europe, but this week they decided that Mrs May is sincere.
This is an extract from Charles Moore’s Notes, which first appeared in this week’s Spectator magazine.