Cold calculation suggests there won’t be a second referendum. It could destroy both the Tory and Labour parties, and in any case, we appear to be heading for a classic EU fudge that will postpone hard choices. But as all predictions in 2018 are likely to be false, and the Tory right appears determined to provoke a crisis, it’s worth understanding why the People’s Vote campaign thinks that next time it will be different.
They will be the insurgents and the Brexiters will be defending the status quo. Running against a failed establishment has always been a good tactic, but never more so than in the 2010s.
Remain campaigners find in focus groups that the double standards of the Brexit elite have ‘cut through,’ as the marketing departments say. They will make great play of the investment funds set up by Jacob Rees-Mogg’s firm in Ireland, Nigel Farage’s children getting German passports and Boris Johnson’s large Telegraph salary. ‘Brexit is for the little people’ will be their slogan. The men who led you on have taken great care to protect themselves and their families from the miseries you are suffering.
The idea of rich men playing with Britain’s future in a game they can never lose will draw blood. As will absence of the Tory establishment from the Remain side. You only read the work of Tim Shipman – the British Bob Woodward – to see that David Cameron’s inaction did as much damage to the remain cause in 2016 as Jeremy Corbyn’s passivity. Cameron put the party interest before the national interest and vetoed aggressive campaigning against Johnson and Gove in the interests of holding the Conservatives together. ‘I’ve told Boris I’m going to make him competitive’ and he’ll get a ‘big job’ in Cabinet, Cameron said during the 2016 referendum campaign, as he reassured his opponents that there would be no hard feelings once the game was over, and reassured himself that he would win it.
The next campaign will not be fought on the playing fields of Eton. It will not be hobbled by the presence of the ultimate establishment figure of an upper-class Tory prime minister. It will hammer home that the problems Brexit is bringing are the results of divisions in the Conservative party, as it tries to split the Tories from the country.
I have neither knowledge of nor a desire to enter the mind of Boris Johnson. Somewhere in that mess may be a flicker of common decency. But it strikes me as at least plausible to argue that Johnson’s overriding desire is self-advancement, and that he supported Breixt and walked out of Theresa May’s government, not to advance the interests of Britain, but to advance his career.
Rich Brexiters are looking after themselves while cutting your living standards. Pro-Brexit politicians are playing you for fools to advance their careers. These are powerful anti-establishment arguments with the capacity to hurt as the 2016 distinction between the elite and the masses is turned on its head.
Brexit is now the elite policy of both the Tory and Labour leaders. The ‘insurgents’ have won and are our masters now. I’ll come to immigration later, but that aside, it is surely apparent that Brexit solves none of Britain’s problems. Rather, it makes them worse – and then adds some new ones just for fun. Brexit is the status quo now, and its supporters will have to defend it against a revitalised opposition.
I cannot overemphasise enough how strongly pro-Europeanism is moving the centre-left. Before 2016, it barely existed in Britain. Nick Clegg and Peter Mandelson trumpeted the virtues of the EU but successive Labour and Tory prime ministers could barely manage a good word for it.cHistorians as yet unborn will marvel at the idiocy of David Cameron, spending his entire career as Tory leader damning the EU and then tying his and Britain’s fate to a referendum to keep Britain inside it.
All that has changed. The reaction against Brexit has produced the first popular pro-European movement Britain has seen since the 1970s. Liberals and leftists, who are sick of the filthy internal politics of the Labour party, are throwing themselves into the cause. Their anger and energy will be on the Remain side. The Leavers will be divided between the Tory version of communists saying that the Brexit revolution has failed because it was not pure enough and a grim, ground-down Conservative establishment making the best of a policy it knows to be more trouble than its worth.
Whether the new spirit will be enough to win is another matter. Supporters of remaining in the EU have no answer to public worries about immigration. If they were brutal, they could say that we would allow free movement from the EU and suppress immigration from the rest of the world. If they were honest, they would say that business and public services depend on migration, and one way or another it will have to continue whether we stay or leave. As it is, they prefer not to talk about it. Nor do I think my friends have thought about how much resistance there will be to dividing the country again.
That said, if I were a Leaver, I would regard Johnson, Rees-Mogg and the rest of the Brexit ultras with real fear. The Tory right is the last best hope for Remainers. If it paralyses the government, if it makes any deal impossible, then the case for a second referendum becomes overwhelming. And next time the anti-establishment energy will be on the remain side.