When the tide goes out, you see who’s swimming naked. So says Warren Buffett, the folksy billionaire investor, explaining that tough times expose which firms have poor management. The same is true of politics, and especially Brexit.
2018 was the year the tide went out on Brexit, and we saw too many of our politicians’ failings exposed in all their shrivelled glory.
The tide was, like all tides, predictable. As we neared the end of the two year Article 50 period, the outline of a potential exit deal had to emerge, and that deal would show that, contrary to fantasy, the EU holds the better hand of cards in this game. Any agreement to leave the EU was always going to involve compromises, decisions to accept something less than what you hoped for. That’s what happens in international negotiations of any sort, of course.
The fact that the EU played its cards quite well was less predictable: I confess to being slightly surprised at how well the unity of the EU27 has held over the course of 2018. Surprising or not, the EU’s willingness to stand behind the European Commission should have shattered forever the notion that Germany (and its mythically decisive carmakers) would simply take over the process and enforce a deal favourable to Britain.
In 2018, the tide went out on the fantasies that underpinned many of the claims in favour of Brexit. And look at how the authors of those fantasies reacted to being caught naked.
Many of them simply ran away.
How else to describe the resignation of David Davis, the high priest of the German carmaker cult?
Having served as Brexit Secretary before, during and after the December 2017 Joint Report he appeared to realise only in July, shortly after the Chequers deal, that that report — which he helped negotiate — committed Britain to the backstop arrangement. This ensured that when Northern Ireland becomes, to the EU, part of a ‘third country’, the EU’s external border (and thus, the common customs area) is not open to the unrestricted entry of goods imported to the UK without being subject to EU tariffs. Which necessity, of course, is partly a factor of Britain’s insistence that there should be no hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic.
As the tide of reality started lapping around his knees, Mr Davis scarpered rather than explain why the thing he said he was resigning over was in fact a thing he’d helped agree.
Not long afterwards, Boris Johnson legged it too. He offered his own explanation for quitting in July over something he’d known about and assented to in December 2017: he blamed someone else.
‘I remember going in to see the PM and her advisers and being absolutely reassured that this was just a form of words that was necessary to float the negotiations off the rocks. What has happened is that the issue has been allowed to dominate in a way that we were expressly promised would not happen,’ Mr Johnson said in September.
In other words, the then Foreign Secretary says he rested his understanding of an international agreement struck by the British Government not on the text itself, not on the legal or diplomatic advice of his officials, but on the assurance of a fellow politician (who was trying to sell him something). That none of that stuff mattered because something better and unspecified would turn up in due course that would mean we didn’t, in fact, have to make compromises after all. I’ll leave it to others to reach conclusions about what that account exposes about Mr Johnson’s approach to governing.
Then came Dominic Raab, who managed a few weeks as Brexit Secretary before also resigning in horror at the revelation that securing a deal in a negotiation with a bigger interlocutor with less to lose from the failure of negotiations than Britain would, in fact, require Britain to make compromises.
In late November, at The Spectator’s Parliamentarian of the Year dinner, Mr Raab and Mr Davis swaggered onto the stage to collect a mocking joint award for ‘resignation of the year’. They may have been fully dressed on the stage that night, but the mood in the room (where there were many Conservative MPs in the audience) suggested that the true character of both men had been comprehensively exposed.
Lest anyone think this is the partisan rant of a sneering Remoaner (Yes, I voted to Remain) let me say that some Brexiteers have enhanced their standing this year, while a lot of Brexit’s opponents have stumbled badly.
Probably the most interesting, and consequential, response to the oncoming tide of political reality came from Michael Gove. While his fellow Leavers ran away, he stayed, albeit with a wobble or two. If — and do not rule it out — Mrs May’s deal passes the Commons in January, remember that it couldn’t have happened if Mr Gove had quit in 2018. For the third time in three years, Mr Gove has decided the course of history. (If he’d backed Remain in 2016, Remain would have won, because Boris would have been for Remain too; if he’d backed Boris for PM in 2016, Boris would have become PM.)
What’s Mr Gove up to this time? I don’t know and in a sense I don’t really care. He may well, as some bitter former comrades whisper, be calculating that playing the loyal soldier is his best route to higher officer. But he has also looked at the facts and accepted that an imperfect deal born of compromise remains better than jumping off a cliff in the belief that winged unicorns will catch you before you reach the ground. He is acting like a grown-up.
Much the same can be said of Liam Fox. Having talked some of the worst nonsense about Brexit in earlier times (July 2017: ‘The free trade agreement that we will have to do with the European Union should be one of the easiest in human history.’) the trade Secretary has this year joined the reality-based community by accepting in November that ‘a deal is better than no deal.’
On the Remain side of the ledger, 2018 has exposed the weakness of those who seek to reverse the 2016 referendum result. The painful compromises involved in Mrs May’s deal; the power imbalance it results from; the even greater challenges that will flow from it (future trade talks with the EU will make the last two years seem dreamy. Never mind Article 50, start reading up on Article 217); the relative weakness of the UK economy relative to the EU’s. All of these vindicate the Remainer argument that leaving the EU means major costs and only the hope of gains to one day justify them.
This should have been the year the Stop Brexit campaign triumphed, bringing huge numbers of Leave voters over to the Remain camp. In fact, UK opinion is still split close to 50:50. Sir John Curtice currently scores it 53 Remain and 47 Leave. Yes, that’s different to the referendum result, but as John notes, it’s still close enough to mean that a new referendum would essentially be another coin toss. (And if you want to get into the detail, most of the small movement from 2016 comes from differences in self-reported likelihood of voting, not people changing sides.)
In other words, there has been no fundamental shift in opinion over Brexit. That’s despite all the #FBPE tweets, all the marching and waving of the EU flag, all the ‘we told you so’ and all the money poured into yet more opinion polls in the hope of detecting that fundamental shift.
That, I think with a great deal of sadness, exposes the failure of many of those seeking to Stop Brexit to engage with the reasons many people had to vote Leave.
If Brexit is such a bad idea, and 2018 certainly hasn’t weakened that argument, why do more or less half the electorate still back it?
I’ve written here more than once that Brexit is born of a misreading of the nature of the EU, but the Remain side’s misreading of Brexit voters is almost as bad and sometimes worse. It’s still far, far too common to hear in Remainer circles tropes about Leavers being misled and bamboozled into their vote, or perhaps bewitched by internet-wizards and Russian enchanters. And click on #FBPE and you’ll quickly find someone impugning the motives of Leave voters. It pains me that even some of the people I admire most on this side of the debate have signed up to the claim that voting Leave was often an act of racism. There is no convincing evidence to support that hunch.
Another Remain narrative is truly awful: ‘relax, we just need to wait because Leavers are all OAPs who are slowly dying off.’ This, I think, is about as nasty and divisive as any of the anti-immigration scare stories of the Leave campaign. It’s also based on a misreading of the evidence (Leave won among all voters over 45, and possibly the 35-45 bracket too). And more importantly, it exposes the continued failure of Remain campaigners to treat the people who disagree with them with respect, to respect and attempt to understand their motives and answer their concerns.
If your best hope of winning in politics is to pray for the death of those who aren’t persuaded by your arguments, neither you nor your arguments are any good. Which is why, I suspect, the significant shift in public opinion some Remainers consider inevitable still hasn’t arrived. Not that I expect its failure to materialise to shake their faith; whether it’s the supposed stupidity and bigotry of the electorate, Russian meddling, Facebook fiddling, BBC bias or the supposed power of the Right-wing media, there will always be an excuse for the failure to persuade others to change their minds.
The faith of the hard Brexiteers is just as solid. Never mind that 2018 has shown beyond reasonable doubt that Brexit really is far harder than they dreamed, that the outcomes must be far worse than they promised. They too will always find excuses for failure, including their political failure to persuade: if Brexit is the self-evident triumph you insist it is, why are no new voters moving to your side of the argument?
In between the two groups of true believers, of course, stand the realists, the pragmatists, the people — who voted both Remain and Leave — who now just want to make the best of the bad job in hand. Who think that the 2016 referendum means that we do indeed have to leave the EU, but who want to minimise the harm that does to Britain’s economy and politics.
This, of course, is where I stand on this whole mess, so you might expect me to heap praise on the pragmatists who stand up for the painful compromises embodied in Mrs May’s deal, or some other Norwegian-flavoured version of it. And I could list the hard-headed folk, in both the big parties, who do indeed take this view. But having observed the failings of those who make other arguments, I’m bound also to observe that 2018 has exposed the fact that those of us who make the case for compromise in the centre of the Brexit battle are so far failing too.
How else to explain that one large chunk of the electorate supports the economic self-harm of no deal while another chunk supports the political self-harm of no Brexit. If you endorse either of those positions, it means the pragmatists’ argument for a compromise that leaves everyone a little bit disappointed have failed to convince you. Deadlock in the Commons over Brexit reflects a deadlocked electorate where voters increasingly define themselves as either a Remainer or a Leaver. See this excellent paper for more on that: 90 per cent of us now define ourselves in terms of our Brexit position; less than two-thirds identify themselves in terms of party political allegiance; Brexit is now the defining question of British politics, and a question to which the electorate offers no clear answer .
And that, really, is what 2018 has really exposed about Brexit. Yes, we’ve now seen the reality of the process, the reality of international economic and diplomatic relations for a medium-sized nation in a world dominated by big power blocs. We’ve seen exposed the limitations of both our machinery of government and many of our politicians. We’ve had the evidence about Brexit, its causes and its consequences, laid out before us in vivid technicolour, yet still precious few of us are prepared to change our minds and admit that we might have got some things wrong.