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Angry Leavers must accept that ‘hard’ Brexit died on election night

14 December 2017

11:56 AM

14 December 2017

11:56 AM

Some Brexiteers are angry. This is not news. This has been true since about 20 minutes after the referendum result was declared. There are some Leavers who have been looking, since 24 June last year, for a new grievance, fresh evidence they are being betrayed and denied, generally by some shadowy group they describe as ‘the establishment’ or ‘the elite’. (Please note that I say ‘some’ Leavers, not all. More people in politics and journalism should distinguish between members of a group and the whole group).

Some of that anger is understandable. For years and decades, anyone who espoused leaving the EU was ignored and marginalised and called a crackpot. I’d be angry too if someone told me my views were illegitimate or mad. But understandable anger doesn’t mean all the expressions of that feeling are justified. Some Brexiteer anger after the referendum, especially last autumn, went beyond the realms of reasonable discourse in a democracy. Questioning the patriotism of people who disagree with you isn’t nice.

Some Remainers have been stupid and horrible too. Internet gags about Leavers all being racist throwbacks are nasty and wrong, and there remains a distasteful undertone in many Remainers’ arguments about Leavers being tricked that implies those voters were just too thick to know what they were voting for. My fellow Remainers should judge less and listen more – and reflect much more on why Remain lost, why it failed to persuade.

Which brings me back to those angry Brexiteers, the ones shrieking about the need to tar and feather and deselect Tory MPs who voted for Parliament to have more of a say on the Brexit deal. It would be easy to denounce them as shrill hypocrites (‘You said you wanted to take back control for Parliament’) and paranoids (‘Calm down dears – we’re still leaving’), but I think it’s more useful to think about why they’re so angry, because that might just make it easier to manage that anger.

And it needs to be managed. The hard-Brexit wing of the Tory Party doesn’t have the votes or the public support to get its way, to command a Commons majority or pick the next Tory leader. But it can still do an awful lot of damage, deepening and directing that sense of imminent betrayal some (that word again) Leave voters really do feel. The European Research Group of Tory MPs cannot form a government of its own, but it can paralyse someone else’s.

So consider why people like Nadine Dorries are so, so cross with (honourable and admirable) colleagues such as Dominic Grieve, Anna Soubry and Nicky Morgan, so cross they think those MPs should be deselected. Calling for deselection, incidentally, is about as serious as it gets in parliamentary spats: it amounts to urging a colleague’s local party association to turn on their MP, which a lot of members consider unforgivably hostile, not to mention plain bad manners.

The question again: why are they so angry? Why the fury about ‘their’ Brexit being taken away? Well the truth – and this is awkward – is that they’re right. Their form of Brexit is being taken away. They are losing. Actually, it’s more accurate to say they have already lost – more than six months ago, in fact.

A lot of people talk about the referendum result as the ‘will of the people’, which is fair enough. The result, in my view, means Britain must indeed leave the EU. But the people get more than one chance to express their will, and in June this year they decided to deny Theresa May the parliamentary majority she said she needed to implement her chosen form of Brexit. 

That is the central fact of British political debate on Brexit today, but one that is often overlooked by some Leavers, who seem to think that Mrs May can and should simply continue on the same course she set before the election. Notably, Mrs May doesn’t appear to agree: hence her compromises over money, transition and the ECJ that allowed her to reach an initial agreement last week.

The EU27, incidentally, are also well aware of this central fact; arguably, they have a better grasp of British political and parliamentary dynamics than some of those angry leavers. To be clear, the idea that last night’s vote weakens Mrs May’s position in Brussels today is a bit silly: it was weak to start with, and the EU27 knew that perfectly well. Last night’s vote didn’t tell people in Brussels anything they didn’t already know. Smart Leavers know this too. One senior, sensible Brexiteer told me in August with a wistful shrug that ‘hard Brexit died on election night’. That sort of realism drove many Tory Leavers to swallow the compromises Mrs May made to get her agreement last week. By contrast, the fact that there is no parliamentary majority for the hardest Brexit or a no-deal exit seems still to be news to the angry faction in the Leavers’ ranks. Helping them accept and absorb that fact is now an urgent task.

Probably the worst thing for Remainers, especially Tory rebels, to do now is to act in way that suggests the balance of power in Parliament and the emerging alliance between Tory Remainers, Labour and Lib Dems will led to the outright frustration of Brexit. Living up to the angry Leavers’ fears about the referendum result being negated would very likely drive them (and their electorate) to new levels of anger and damaging behaviour.

Better, I think, for the Remain Alliance to offer the angry Leavers a joint understanding that goes something like this: you need to accept that your argument didn’t win the general election, so can’t have everything you want from Brexit, while we need to accept that our argument didn’t win the referendum, so we can’t have everything we want either. In other words, we’ll still leave, but the manner of our leaving will now be the subject of compromise and negotiation in Parliament, a body that exists for precisely this reason – to reconcile and aggregate competing opinions and desires.  

The final outcome will be messy and blurred and will almost certainly leave everyone feeling a bit disappointed and like they didn’t get everything they wanted. But that’s politics, folks: no-one wins outright. Anyone who can’t accept that is probably in the wrong business.


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