As a Remain voter who believes that Britain must leave the European Union, I’m finding the Brexit seas ever harder to navigate. In particular, the siren call of the outraged Remainers grows louder.
I have little time for many people on the Stop Brexit extreme of the debate, and that includes those who hide beneath the cloak of calling for a People’s Vote. Such people did as much as the headbangers on the no deal side to kill attempts at compromise that could have seen Britain leave with a deal and even – my preference – continued membership of the Single Market. Even Remainiac pin-up Ian Dunt – rightly – laments the People’s Vote campaign’s assault on the Norwegian option as irresponsible ‘purity politics’.
My preference in all this is an outcome that respects the central decision to leave the EU in a way that has political legitimacy. That means something that at least takes account of the views of everyone affected by that exit, and not just the opinions of the self-proclaimed tribunes of 2016’s majority.
The ‘winner takes all and the losers shut up’ approach to political decision-making that has scarred British debate since 2016 is, to my mind, worse than even the gravest of the economic and strategic losses we’ll face if we get Brexit wrong and leave without a deal. So I’ve tried to argue, here and elsewhere, for approaches to Brexit that make everyone a bit unhappy. Avoiding outright victory for either group of ultras in this fight seems to me an important goal, since it might just keep alive the habits of compromise and concession by which representative democracy reconciles differing opinions and positions. A lot of people use ‘fudge’ as a pejorative term, suggesting there’s something wrong with muddling together conflicting positions in a way that doesn’t entirely satisfy anyone.
I like fudge. I like it a lot more than one bunch of idiots proclaiming outright victory over another bunch of idiots and demanding the defeated idiots shut up while they smash things up, because that only leads to more shouting and more smashing, which will make us all more poor and less free. You say ‘fudge’, I say ‘constraint on excessive executive power that ensures the continued legitimacy of representative democracy and a market economy.’
These days, I sometimes think I barely care what the Brexit outcome is, as long it’s not either no Brexit or no deal: all of the points on the spectrum between those two poles are bad in different ways and to differing degrees, but sometimes all we can do is choose what sort of bad we get.
But my new problem is this: how do you compromise on the rule of law? How do you find a middle way between people who think that law must be upheld and those who do not?
Of course, I do not know if Boris Johnson will go through with the things that he and people on his team are talking about. I do not know if the Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland really would refuse to implement an Act of Parliament because doing so would be politically inconvenient to him.
But I do know this is now a possibility. And that worries me. Which brings me back to the siren call of the outraged Remainers. When I consider the state of play today, when I ponder Johnson going into battle with not just Parliament but the judiciary, I am sorely tempted to give up on equivocation, balance and compromise, to join the chorus of Remain fury.
It would be easy, and satisfying, to write a long, angry column here, for the very magazine Johnson used to edit, explaining the horror of a Conservative prime minister deliberately binning one of the governing principles of British national life.
I could easily explain how refusing to uphold the law would trash Britain’s international standing: it would be a gift to Putin and the rest. How it would scare business too: the UK is a global economy in part because people elsewhere place absolute faith in our laws and courts. How it would forge a terrible weapon that would, sooner or later, fall into the hands of others: if Prime Minister Johnson can pick and choose the laws he obeys, Prime Minister Corbyn could too. How undermining the referees just makes the crowd lose faith in the game.
But honestly, if you’re smart enough to read The Spectator, you’ve heard all that stuff already. And you either believe it matters or you don’t. And if you don’t, a few paragraphs from me, no matter how nicely written, will not change your mind.
So this column is really for the people who do believe it matters, the people who agree with me and are as angry and worried as I am about the erosion of conventions and the undercutting of institutions. My purpose is not to echo and channel that anger and fear, but to ask some questions.
Why would a Prime Minister even contemplate this course? Why would Boris Johnson and a number of his allies think it could possibly be a good idea to set aside an Act of Parliament and potentially go head-to-head with the Supreme Court on whether the British Government must request another Article 50 extension?
Johnson is not mad and nor is he a fool. He has not been bewitched by Dominic Cummings, who is neither Rasputin nor Sauron. Comforting as it may be to think of these men as crypto-fascists in league with Steve Bannon, Matteo Salvini and Satan himself, they are not. For all the myths woven around them by an industry of analysts and sages intent on imputing Napoleonic strategy to the mundane business of government, they’re just a couple of middle-aged men in politics trying to work out what the hell to do next.
(That is what government almost always comes down to, in the end, incidentally: the stuff about grand strategy is written in after the fact.)
And when people in politics don’t know what to do next, it’s usually a safe bet to assume they’ll do what they think will be popular. And this is the bit that angry Remainers should be thinking about.
Let’s assume the next few weeks play out as badly as they could. Johnson refuses to write the extension letter Parliament has legislated for. A few more ministers and Tory MPs resign, but the ticking clock on the 31st October exit persuades them not to bring down the Government. Instead, a High Court action is launched, which quickly produces an order of the court for HMG to comply with the law. Another refusal takes the case to the Supreme Court and another order to comply; law officers say the PM faces personal sanction for refusal. The Cabinet Secretary instructs officials to write the letter; Johnson rips it up, live on TV. The executive is in open conflict with the legislature and the judiciary, and the uncodified constitution offers no clear route to resolution. British governance is broken. Meanwhile, the daily demonstrations and counter-demonstrations outside the Supreme Court become so large and rowdy the Metropolitan Police admit they are struggling to maintain public order.
What would happen to the public standing of the Prime Minister during such events? What would the electorate make of a leader refusing to comply with either the elected Parliament or – to use the deadly phrase – unelected judges? Who declared himself willing to endure any punishment, even jail time if needs be, before he would surrender from his mission to enact the result of that damned referendum and take Britain out of the European Union on 31st October?
No doubt many people would share my horror at such a spectacle, such a public repudiation of just about every tradition and habit that made Britain a cornerstone of the democratic West.
But not everyone. The grisly truth is that quite a lot of people would be quite happy with a Prime Minister prepared to go to such lengths to deliver their precious Brexit.
If – and I devoutly hope not – we reach the point where Boris Johnson stands in open defiance of the law and a court’s instruction to follow that law, what really scares me is that a significant number of voters would cheer him on, urge him to stick it to an out-of-touch Parliament and ‘unelected’ judges. To take on the Enemies of the People and do what Theresa May did not: defeat them and their values, their rules and their due process and their perceived contempt for Brexit and Brexit voters.
I am a creature of the Westminster bubble. My whole career has been spent here, but I started out somewhere very different. I don’t believe you need a battery of focus groups or the visionary genius his admirers impute to Dominic Cummings to understand that quite a lot of people in this country neither like nor respect ‘Westminster’.
Everyone has their own interpretation of the 2016 vote. Mine is that, offered the chance to take a swing at the British political and economic establishment, unfettered by first-past-the-post or party political shades of grey, a lot of people took that chance and swung, hard. When they connected, it broke our EU membership beyond repair, and maybe other things too.
The feelings that put such force behind that punch haven’t gone away. For many Remainers it’s axiomatic that Brexit is already a disaster: just look at the last three years. To many Leavers though, those years just prove they didn’t swing hard enough last time. Meanwhile the near-paralysis of domestic policy since the referendum means that if you thought your life and town and country were rubbish in 2016, politics has done pretty much nothing to change that since then.
These are the reasons I’ve always told Remain friends a second referendum would be a mistake: they might lose. Up against a Leave campaign directed by Cummings and urging ‘tell them again, harder’, they’d probably lose badly. You don’t have to share the man’s worldview to acknowledge his skill at strategic communications and campaigns.
And what worries me is that we’re about to get that rematched fight in a different arena, that Brexit Boris vs the EU Elite is perfectly winnable for the PM.
Yes, it would break the Conservative Party, break democratic norms, break the Union and possibly the law. It might break Britain as we know it.
But railing against those things, warning about what a disaster they would be, will not help to prevent them. We’ve spent three years demonstrating with erudition and eloquence why Brexit is inherently bad for Britain and why we must preserve our democratic institutions and traditions. And it has achieved nothing.
We’re weeks away from a possible no-deal exit. Roughly half the population still think leaving is a good idea; many of them are just angry it hasn’t happened yet. They might well be willing to line up behind an amoral leader willing to break any rule just to give them what they want in the hope he can bask in their affection and gratitude.
I don’t know what can be done about that. But I do know what’s been tried so far hasn’t worked. Fury at Johnson breaking the rules is righteous but insufficient and often counterproductive: it changes no minds, and may just harden hearts on the other side.
So even though I today feel more worried about my country’s future than I ever have before, I won’t be joining the chorus of anger. And I beg my fellow Remainers to look beyond your anger at Boris Johnson and his vandalism. Listen instead to the voters who would back him in it. And hurry. The clock is ticking but it’s not counting down to EU exit. That, in a sense, is irrelevant. Whatever the outcome of the current mess – and I do not even offer a prediction – the people and feelings and forces that broke our EU membership and could break our governance will not go away.
Averting a no-deal exit on 31 October is a noble aim, but that alone would not change anything fundamental, would not answer questions that have been left unaddressed since the referendum. You don’t win an argument by postponing it, any more than by just telling the other side they’re wrong. Whatever else has changed about politics, one thing remains true: you win by persuading the other guy’s voters to change sides and support you. Winning in Parliament or in the courts is necessary, but it will change no minds.
Leave won in 2016. Remain didn’t see it coming and didn’t understand why it happened. Unless those now hoping to derail Boris Johnson’s Brexit plans listen and learn from that experience, sooner or later Leave will win again, and the cost of that victory will be even higher.