‘Brexit means Brexit’ may have been the most gormless slogan ever uttered by a British politician – a species not previous famed for its gorm.
But you knew what Theresa May meant. Legitimacy in Britain flowed from the Brexit referendum. Parliament could not question it. Judges were ‘enemies of the people’ when they even discussed it. You could say that the Leave campaign had won by telling outrageous lies. You could say that leaving the single market would cause needless damage to jobs and living standards. No matter. The referendum result stood, and could not be gainsaid.
The Tory right in particular dismissed all objections. Seventeen million voted against immigration, so we had to abandon the single market and freedom of movement. Try as we might, those of us who thought the country was about to engage in an act of needless self-harm had no way out. Brexit meant Brexit and Theresa May controlled the definitions.
All that has changed. Democratic legitimacy now flows from the general election of 2017, not the referendum of 2016. Theresa May justified her dash to the polls by saying it was a Brexit election.
I am writing this at 2am and the count could change. But it is clear that, although no one has won this election, Theresa May has lost it. Even if the Tories sneak to a majority, she has still lost. She would still have gone into an election confident of winning a landslide, run a campaign that was insultingly bad, and just about got out alive. Her authority is shot to pieces, and the assassin’s smile is upon Boris Johnson’s lips.
The new Parliament won’t reverse Brexit but I cannot see Labour, SNP Liberal Democrats, Greens and indeed moderate Tory MPs accepting a hard Brexit that would risk tariff barriers, queues at Dover and needless damage being done to manufacturing, agriculture, financial services and the IT industries. To put it as its most basic, unlike the Tory right, they do not see our European neighbours as enemies but as allies. Frankly I cannot see them accepting May, or whoever takes over from her, even threatening a hard Brexit as a negotiating trick. The momentum will be towards compromise.
As a critic of Jeremy Corbyn and the far left, I must acknowledge that, unlike May, he has run a great campaign and motivated the young. But it’s also true that the young were motivated by a Brexit referendum that sold out their futures. They have had their revenge tonight on the old men and women who shared such scant concern for their children and grandchildren.
Three things flow from this election. The Tories, if they cling on, will be in a hugely weakened position in the Brexit negotiations. Indeed it’s possible that they could be distracted by yet another Tory leadership battle, and unable to take part in them.
Labour MPs revolted against Corbyn because he did not campaign hard enough to keep us in the EU. And indeed it is true that a large chunk of the Labour left has always been anti-EU. It doesn’t matter now. Neither his MPs nor his supporters will allow him to support a hard Brexit.
Finally, and I accept this is asking too much, the best thing we can do now that Theresa May has brought her coalition of chaos to British politics, is withdraw our Article 50 notification and not send it back in again until we have the faintest idea of what we are doing and where we are going.