How deliciously tempting it must be to do as the Times and FT has done today, along with many others since last Friday, and try to interpret the election result as somehow a vote against Brexit – or against the withdrawal from the single market. ‘The notion of a ‘hard’ (to be precise, a dogmatic and ideologically driven) Brexit should be promptly abandoned’, asserts a leader in the Times, echoing the sentiments of Tim Farron, Nicola Sturgeon, Ruth Davidson and many others.
How tempting – and how utterly wrong. The claim that the election result somehow undoes last year’s referendum result runs counter to the obvious evidence: that 84 per cent of the electorate voted for parties whose manifestos were committed to enacting the instructions of the British people in full. While anti-Brexiteers were chirping away yesterday, John McDonnell was on television confirming that Labour will support the Conservatives in withdrawing from the single market. And well he might: he and Jeremy Corbyn are both very much aware that their stronger-than expected showing in the general election is, above all, thanks to the party accepting the referendum result and agreeing to enact it. That allowed the party to scoop up many votes which it lost to Ukip in 2015 – when Ed Miliband was refusing to allow an in-out referendum on the EU.
If the British people really rejected Brexit they would have voted Lib Dem or Green in England, and either Lib Dem, SNP or Plaid Cymru in Scotland or Wales. They were the anti-Brexit parties, and between them they polled 12 per cent of the vote. Tim ‘twelve seats’ Farron might like to go round claiming that Theresa May is an illegitimate Prime Minister who has lost authority on her Brexit plans, but the reality is that his anti-Brexit electioneering strategy failed far more miserably than her campaign did. Theresa May did at least increase her share of the vote. Tim Farron took his party backwards even relative to the deep pit into which it fell in the post-coalition election of 2015. That cannot be unrelated to Farron irritating the 26 per cent of Liberal Democrat voters in 2015 who went on to vote Leave in the 2016 referendum.
McDonnell’s only comment yesterday was that Theresa May should pursue a ‘jobs first’ Brexit. That is an issue on which she and the Labour leadership will have no problem on establishing a consensus. Nor will it be an impossible challenge – in spite of the Treasury’s grim predictions last year that up to 800,000 jobs would be lost in the first two years following a vote for Brexit, employment has continued to grow.
There are many lessons to be drawn from last week’s election result, but the assertion that voters are regretting the vote for Brexit is not one of them.