It may not be this week. It may not be Boris Johnson. But eventually a minister will break with this tottering government and establish himself (or herself, for it could be Andrea Leadsom) as the leader of the diehard right. Brexit is crying out for its Ludendorff; the scoundrel who can blame his failures on everyone but himself. The smart move for today’s right wing politicians who find their careers blocked is to break with the Tory leadership – whatever or whoever that may consist of – and resort to old slogans.
The referendum delivered a mandate to leave, Johnson, or whoever takes up the challenge of building a new nationalist right, could say. The failure of Brexit to deliver the bright confident morning the Brexiteers promised the British is not the fault of the leave campaigners. For how could it be? How could so many politicians, influence peddlers and journalists be wrong? No. The ‘elite’ has stabbed the people in the back.
I believe we are on the brink of seeing all the old warnings about the dangers of referendums being vindicated. Clement Attlee dismissed plebiscites as a device for dictators and demagogues precisely because they allowed complicated issues to be simplified to a binary choice. All referendums do that. Last year’s Brexit vote represented the reduction to absurdity in its clearest form, however.
Vote Leave dissolved as soon as the contest was won. The referendum thus dispensed with the most basic democratic requirements. The winners were not accountable for the promises they made. In their history of the campaign, Jason Farrell and Paul Goldsmith quote the Leave campaigner Gisela Stuart saying that she thought the referendum was an ‘abuse of democracy’ because no one who campaigned to leave was accountable for what happened next.
It seems a little rich of Ms Stuart to wring her hands now the rest of us must live with the consequences of the Brexit she fought for. But her point remains a good one. The leave campaign could make the most fantastic promises and tell straight-out lies because it need never live with the consequences.
In these circumstances, Brexit can mean whatever you want it to mean. Because the referendum boiled down all the complexities to a deceptively simple question, because the men and women who brought us leave are not answerable for their actions, the scope for demagogic politicians to claim the people have been betrayed is vast.
More than a year on after the referendum, with the Article 50 clock ticking, we still do not know what British policy is. It feels as if we are building to a great British foreign policy disaster: another Munich or Suez. What distinguishes 2017 from 1938 and 1956, however, is that the potential for disaster was ingrained in the referendum process. The Tories can put the party interest before the national interest and bicker among themselves because it settled none of the hard questions. For example, when Amber Rudd and Philip Hammond try to give companies and the government some breathing space by arguing for a transitional deal are they defying the people’s will or aren’t they?
Meanwhile, one senior civil servant source told the Financial Times:
There has been a failure of diplomacy. We have had the prime minister talking about no deal being better than a bad deal and [foreign secretary] Boris Johnson suggesting we aren’t bothered about getting a deal. The mood on the other side of the Channel is awful.
But because the referendum was not specific, Johnson and May could argue that a bad deal, which kept free movement and UK contributions to the EU budget, betrayed the referendum result. As the voters were not asked about the detail, any interpretation of the outcome is possible, and the most hard-line interpretation can sound the most plausible.
We deserve a public inquiry into this mess. If we could get one, it would surely look at how Brussels trounced Whitehall. As you will remember, Britain wanted to bundle all the talks together. The EU was having none of that. We would have to agree on the lump-sum payment and Ireland before the EU would talk to us about future trade agreements. Instead of worrying about a national humiliation, however, charlatans can consider the demagogic opportunities ahead. An unscrupulous politician (and Britain produces unscrupulous politicians as fast as BMW manufactures cars) could object to paying a penny towards the divorce bill. If we are leaving, we are leaving. Why should we give the EU tens of millions of pounds?
Given the vagueness of the referendum, any compromise can be repackaged as a betrayal. Vince Cable has already goaded Boris Johnson by suggesting he plans to lead the right-wing opposition from the backbenches. Johnson could and so could many others. They would have the support of the Express and the Mail, and possibly the Telegraph and the Sun. I guess a fair proportion of the 17 million who voted leave would back them too. They would prefer to hear that they have been betrayed than been foolish.
Theresa May threw away the last election by adopting an extremist position on Europe because she was more worried about being outflanked on the right than reassuring moderate opinion. She still could be outflanked on the right as could any of her successors. Brexit has made Tory government inherently unstable.
Stab-in-the-back theories were not only deployed by the Nazis and their predecessors to explain away the German defeat in World War I. They are a staple of democratic politics. Throughout its history, the left has heard variations on the theme that we would have had true socialism had not corrupt social democratic leaders sold the movement out. Right-wing stab in the back theories are not so different. Instead of the put-upon working class, they imagine the put-upon ‘people’ – usually racially defined. The people make their views known, they express their democratic will, only to be frustrated by the scheming elite.
Stab-in-the-back theories are incredibly powerful, for they pit the virtuous against the devious; the honest many against the sinister few. David Cameron opened the door for every opportunist to claim that the people’s will on Europe is being flouted. I think we are about to get right-wing and possibly far right-wing politics with a vengeance as a result.