Ten months to stop Brexit
London4Europe Chair Nick Hopkinson looks forward to the critical events of 2018 and identifies the key campaign themes we should put forward.
Happy New Year!
Where we are is that both main parties are still pushing for a fantasy Brexit where we have our free-trade cake and eat our immigration control. It will not happen. At some point, Brexit fantasy will collide with EU reality.
At that moment, the political parties and the electorate will have to choose how they interpret events: either as showing that Brexit is a bad idea; or by seeing “Brussels intransigence” as added justification for leaving. We need to be ready for that day. So we must lay the groundwork now.
What is coming up
In Parliament, the EU (Withdrawal) Bill will complete its Commons stages in January and then move to the House of Lords. That will create an opportunity for peers to provide for a referendum on the terms. But we should not rate our chances of success while Labour supports Brexit.
Over the course of the year there will be a number of specific Brexit Bills to implement elements of the settlement or to establish new UK regimes, eg for immigration.
At the end of the year, in about November 2018, there will be the legislation to implement the Withdrawal Agreement. That will be the last big set-piece chance to provide for a referendum that would give us the chance to stop Brexit.
What might happen
Jeremy Corbyn thinks there will be an election in 2018 – and that he would win it. Both elements of that forecast are certainly within the realms of the possible. Frankly, our politics are now so volatile and Brexit cuts so far across normal party loyalties that anything might happen. At the moment, a Corbyn election win would have no material impact on Brexit. Keir Starmer is always keeping one inch ahead of the Tories for the sake of differentiation and there is the hope that he is gradually seeking to nudge Labour (and the country) towards at least a softer Brexit. So the rhetoric and tone are different. But an inch is only an inch: at present Labour’s position is in substance indistinguishable from the Conservatives’.
The EU/UK talks might fail, and the UK head towards a no-deal Brexit. It seems unlikely at the moment, but must be still a possibility. In particular, the Stage 1 agreement on the Irish border is just fudge, though I suspect the joint EU-UK text is slightly more watertight than many argue. It is not clear when the various parties involved will stop pretending that they have all agreed to the same solution on the table; nor what will happen when they do.
The Withdrawal Agreement covering money, EU/UK citizens’ rights and the Irish border will be clear, detailed and binding. In addition, there will be a Framework for the future relationship. That will be vaguer, and consist of principles. One of Keir Starmer’s pretexts for not supporting a referendum is that the Framework Agreement will be so vague as not to allow people a meaningful choice. However, the EU seems to be aiming for a Framework that is clear and defined at the level of principles. We need opposition MPs to aim to ensure that the Framework Agreement is definite enough.
The Public Mood
The public remain stubbornly unmoved by all developments since the 2016 referendum. Reputable opinion polls show the country is still divided half and half on the merits of Brexit.
Remember that on headline numbers a useful rule of thumb for the margin of error on a poll is ±3 %age points. So a poll showing 52R:48L might just as well be 49R:51L. We saw with Theresa May’s general election campaign how a huge - strong and stable? - opinion poll lead can evaporate. So we should not take any comfort from polls showing small leads for Remain. Individual polls showing unusual results should be ignored until other polls confirm them.
What has changed is the proportion of Remainers who think that the 2016 referendum settled the question. Whereas about half used to think that the debate was over, that proportion has now fallen to about a quarter. Support for a referendum on the terms has in some but not all polls risen significantly; it is too early to say that support is solidly there
Implications for our campaign themes and targets
We must be clear about our strategic objective: stop Brexit. Not a soft Brexit, or a good Brexit, or EEA membership. But no Brexit. We wish to Remain in the EU.
We must be clear about our strategic method: a referendum on the terms. No other decision method has the democratic legitimacy to change – or confirm – the course we were set on by a referendum. A vote by Parliament alone will not be enough.
With the exception of the Liberal Democrats and Greens and some individual MPs in the main parties, MPs are following not leading public opinion. So we must reach Remainers, Leavers and MPs (both directly and through their constituents).
Remainers need to receive the messages:
- Brexit can be stopped. The Article 50 notification may be withdrawn unilaterally.
- The 2016 referendum result has been respected. The Government has pursued Brexit. But the 2016 mandate can only be provisional until there is a plan. It is democratic to vote on the plan – the terms of Brexit. It is democratic to have a referendum. The referendum on the terms would be different from 2016. For the first time we would know what Brexit meant.
- No other method for stopping Brexit (Parliamentary vote, general election) on its own has the democratic legitimacy that is needed.
- The arguments for Remain are as good as ever. Better, indeed, because we have learned to appreciate what we had taken for granted. The benefits of EU membership go much wider than trade. We can take the positive message about the EU to the country as a whole.
Leavers need to receive the messages:
- Brexit is not going to be as promised. Are you sure you are going to like it?
- No party can obtain for you a Brexit that preserves the benefits of EU membership (trade) without what some of you see as the costs (freedom of movement, budget contribution). You have to choose.
- The EU are not out to punish us. They are a club with rules, and they are applying the rules. That the settlement is not what you were promised by Leave campaigners reflects badly not on the EU but on Boris, Farage &co.
- The EU is not what you have been told it is. Laws are made by people who have been elected. Treaties require unanimity. The EU’s competence is limited – most UK policies are wholly domestic.
- Much of what is wrong in the UK is down to UK policies. We can change them even if we stay in the EU. It will be easier to change them because there will be more money to lubricate change and because the Government will not be distracted by a decade of implementing Brexit.
- There is much more to the EU than the economic focus of the 2016 Remain campaign or past discussion would suggest: peace, freedom, democracy. Are you sure you wish to throw that away?
MPs need to receive messages:
- All: public opinion is moving – albeit slowly - towards Remain and a referendum on the terms. It will move further as the negotiations get harder, the realities of the Irish Border issue come through and Brexit turns out to be worse than promised. You need to insure yourself by providing now for a referendum on the terms in case voters want a rethink.
- The public are going to see through your have-your-cake-and-eat it claims. Why not level with the public now? Explain the trade-offs, choose a side, fight for it.
- The referendum on the terms would allow Labour to overcome its internal divisions. As in 1975, individuals could campaign on either side.
- As opposition, you need to ensure that the Government agrees a Framework for future relations which is clear enough to allow the public to assess it.
- A referendum on the terms is just good government. No-one goes from idea to implementation without reviewing the project plan. You can sell the referendum to all your electorate.
- You are taking the UK out of the EU without the whole-hearted consent of the British people. When it all unravels you will be blamed. Ought you not to seek a referendum on the terms if only to cover yourselves?
- The Irish border is an insoluble problem under Brexit. The existing fudge will not solve it to the satisfaction of all parties. The UK government will prioritise the interests of Great Britain over Northern Ireland. The best way to ensure both peace and the avoidance of a hard border in the Irish Sea is to Remain.
Scottish National Party
- Are you sure that Brexit will be a recruiting sergeant for independence? Will it not just show how difficult independence would be? Why not prioritise stopping Brexit?
- Are you sure that abstentionism is more important than stopping Brexit, given the harm it would do to all of Ireland?
I have been so impressed by the dedication, initiative, enthusiasm and skill that London4Europe members and the whole Remain movement brought to campaigning in 2017. If we all ensure that our campaigning supports the strategic aim and strategic method, if we make sure that our campaigning sends out these messages, then we can stop Brexit. It’s all to play for.