It’s only a year but it feels like a lifetime. Twelve months ago today, Britain voted to leave the European Union. Nigel Farage declared 23rd June 2016, Britain’s ‘independence day’. This followed a brutal campaign which plumbed new depths of dark spin, lies and misleading claims, especially from those advocating a No vote in the referendum. The Remain campaign peddled some nonsense too – especially on the short-term disastrous economic cost of a Leave vote and the prospect of an emergency budget being needed to save a damaged country – but the £350 million big red bus lie stands as the biggest, most blatant lie told to the electorate in this or any election in living memory.
The campaign was also marked by unseemly squabbling between and within political parties, name calling, dog whistle racism and, tragically, the unspeakable murder of Jo Cox MP. Her death cast a shadow over the campaign and the country – a shadow which still falls over us to this day.
The campaign was won by Leave (52% to 48%) for four main reasons; they had a positive, clear message about the future (taking back control); they spoke to the concerns of the majority of the voting public (especially on immigration); they had popular, high profile, high energy and effective leaders and spokespeople (Johnson, Farage, Gove and co); and, the Remain campaign was a mess. Sound familiar? The echoes of the recent general election campaign are loud and clear – the Remain Tories (who were in the majority in the leadership of the party) clearly learnt nothing from twelve months ago or from the shambolic London Mayoral election campaign.
So, the decision was made – not the decision I voted for and hoped to get. I was devastated by the result but quickly came to accept it and started to focus on the future. Keep calm and carry on. Those who advocated a second referendum and/or spoiling tactics in parliament have simply been playing into Brexiteer’s hands and hardening the pro-Brexit opinion in the country.
After the noise of the campaign and the last fractious year, we have finally started the formal negotiation process this week. Four things strike me.
- Debates about hard and soft Brexit are meaningless. The type of Brexit achieved will be determined less by what the government wants and more by what it can get for a price it can accept. There is no soft Brexit available without an eye-watering price tag or reduction in the amount of control that people voted to take back. Whether we like it or not – and it’s a not for me – we are leaving the EU and as a result the single market and the customs union. The price, politically and economically, for anything different cannot be paid.
- The government still – a year on – cannot articulate a positive message about Brexit. Their messaging is all about getting a good deal, a global Britain, Brexit means Brexit etc – but none of this tells a story about how Britain in the future will look, feel and work. There is no positive vision for the future. No picture of a how Brexit will make the country richer, stronger, safer. It’s no wonder so many of us are in a “let’s make the best of it” place, rather than a “I’m really excited by the opportunities” place.
- The Tory party remains totally and utterly split on Europe. David Cameron’s decision to call the referendum was an attempt to end the internal Tory debate over Europe and to shoot the UKIP fox which was threatening to continue to eat into Tory election prospects. Of course it failed – catastrophically. The decision was taken on the assumption that Remain would win. Ouch. Just watch now the far from subtle activities of all parts of the party – it’s like 1992 all over again – and no wonder with anti-Europe fanatics like Iain Duncan-Smith and pro-Europe obsessives like Ken Clarke still playing leading roles. The internal war will go on as long as the party is built around these characters and their heirs and successors.
- The next 2 years will be hard to watch. This week has shown us how awkward and painful the process of leaving will be; and not just the sartorial comparisons between the lead negotiators – it is clearly already 1-0 to EU following Michel Barnier’s stylish outing this week. It was a shame that David Davis had been dragged through a hedge just before their meeting! Mrs May’s tone deaf – those four words are appearing a lot together recently – performance at last night’s summit also jarred. EU leaders want to use summits to do normal, non-Brexit business so what did Mrs May do? She hi-jacked their latest get together with a lukewarm offer to EU citizens on their rights to remain in the UK. Wrong offer. Wrong time. Wrong place. Why not leave this to the Davis-Barnier talks? Why poke her fellow leaders in the eyes? This was all about Mrs May trying to rebuild her authority and relevance – but it just served to alienate other EU leaders. 2-0 to the EU. This sort of messy interaction will continue all year – certainly as long as Mrs May is Prime Minister.
The early skirmishes after the phoney war have not gone well for the UK this week. I can only hope that the UK team does have a strategy and it will last the course. The 27 vs. 1 mathematics mean that the UK will always be on the back foot and responding to others during this process – that cannot be completely avoided – but this can be handled better with the right communications approach. Sadly, I haven’t seen that clear, coherent, positive approach yet.
For those of us who voted Remain, the fact that we are leaving the EU is still hard to take but take it we must – it is happening. I take some comfort from the fact that Team Jones all have Irish passports. Whatever happens in these talks and however painful it gets – nothing and no-one can tell us we’re not citizens of the European Union. We will still be here long after Mrs May and co have exited, stage right.