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Fantasy and reality
17 Dec, 2018

Chair's message to members - 17 December 2018


Dear Member or Supporter

The Conservative leadership challenge was only partly about Theresa May's personal failings as Prime Minister. Their latest manifestation in delaying the vote must have led many would-be loyalists to cast their ballot against her. The challenge was mainly down to the ERG's unwillingness to acknowledge that the Brexit of their dreams does not exist in reality. Changing Prime Minister would not have changed that. Though it might have brought in a dreamer who ignored reality and implemented the ERG's preferred Brexit actions; but they would not have brought about the ERG's desired Brexit results.

The most revealing Brexit fantasy was Norway-for-now. We would join EFTA and the EEA briefly, leaving after a few years once the new FTA with the EU had been negotiated. It's off the agenda - Norway refused to go along with it, declining to have: all the hassle of onboarding the UK; being directly affected by the fall-out from the UK's political collapse which would show itself as harmful behaviour to its new partners; followed by the disruption of the UK's exit. The proposal was a bit like saying "Darling, please marry me, sell your home, give up your job; but only for a couple of years then I'll leave you for a younger more attractive model; and I'll spend the years of our marriage looking for them". Norway-for-now revealed the absolute certainty of Brexiters of all stripes that the rest of the world would go to untold trouble to facilitate whatever it was that the UK wanted.That we only had to state a wish and other countries would hasten to make it come true.

That attitude underpins the ERG approach to Brexit: the belief that we are still top nation; or if we are not then we should be and it is only our entanglement with the dastardly foreigners which hold us back.  Theresa May moved immediately on her appointment to reassure the ERG that she subscribed to their ideas, with her red lines, her "citizens of nowhere" and her support for no-deal. She herself slowly learned some hard truths over the two years of negotiations and Civil Service briefing. But she has not done much to pass them on. Just as in the general election debacle when policy U-turns were described as "nothing has really changed" she continued to talk full-on ERG-speak while inching towards compromise. 

So the Leave electorate still feels entitled to the fantasy Brexit it was promised. The failure of the Prime Minister - and Jeremy Corbyn - to educate voters is the reason why the 2019 referendum will be so bitter, with Leave driven by disappointment and a sense of betrayal by the Government and Remainers and motivated by a "Tell them again!" slogan.

It's different for the ERG for whom Brexit is life and for the Government who actually have to deal with it. But for most in politics Brexit is a second order issue. The SNP want indyref2; the Irish nationalists want Irish reunification; the Ulster Unionists wish to preserve the Union; Labour want to be in Downing Street. So all offer fantasy positions on Brexit - for or against - that support their primary objectives. We can debate whether it is their fantasies that oblige Theresa May to continue hers or whether her fantasies sustain theirs. But fantasies are all there are. Even Norway Plus - although presented as the grown-ups' Brexit - is a fantasy where millions of Leave voters have somehow ceased to object to freedom of movement or the loss of sovereignty of being a rule-taker.
In her statement to the Commons postponing the vote the Prime Minister was uncharacteristically clear. She set out some obvious facts and said "The challenge this poses must be met not with rhetoric but with real and workable solutions.". She went on: "Those members who continue to disagree need to shoulder the responsibility of advocating an alternative solution that can be delivered. And do so without ducking its implications." before explaining the problems of all the alternatives. 
She has left the education process a bit late. But the Prime Minister is right. She has delivered a realistic plan for Brexit. It is a hard Brexit, ending freedom of movement. It is a messy compromise leaving the UK as rule-takers, reflecting the realities of power. It pleases no-one, certainly not me - I'm for Remain every time. But her Brexit is available IRL and is the only one that is.


How will Jeremy Corbyn turn about?

The most damaging fantasy is Labour's. Corbyn remains in full-on Boris mode. Jeremy's Better Brexit is unavailable cherry-picking where we end freedom of movement and nonetheless have the exact same benefits as being members of the single market; where we are in a customs union and have a say over what the EU does. After encountering EU reality his deal would end up essentially the same as the Prime Minister's. The Financial Times columnist Henry Mance explained in his satire the meaning of "Jobs-first Brexit": Corbyn to May: "It means I want your job first and then I’ll think about Brexit".
Even now, Labour's approach to Brexit prioritises a general election where its pitch would have to be that it will be able to negotiate the Brexit of voters' dreams, that the failure to deliver was down to the incompetence of the Government not the realities of the situation. Jeremy Corbyn's incoherent response to Theresa May's statement postponing the vote was clear only in blaming the Government.
Labour now claim the failure to call for a vote of no-confidence was a tactical masterstroke to allow the Conservatives to tear themselves apart in a leadership election. But Theresa May is now safe for a year. One can understand Corbyn's not actually moving to obtain a vote he expects to lose - though it looks a bit odd given his criticism of the Prime Minister for doing just that. But then he should stop saying he wants a no-confidence vote. Instead he should face up to his dilemma: Brexit or Remain?
How after 30 months of pro Brexit speeches can Jeremy Corbyn and his top team come out for Remain? They could have done it differently. They could have said to the electorate (more tactfully than I am writing it) "Remain is the best answer - let's see whether the Government can actually deliver the promises of Leave campaigners - if as we assume they can't then let's all think again"; or perhaps "we back Brexit but it will require a load of compromises because reality is different from what ERG believe. This is how the world is and so this is what a real world Brexit might be like. Do you want it?".
But they didn't. They promised that they would deliver the fantasy Brexit. So what can Jeremy Corbyn actually say to justify a turn to Remain? To just declare previous statements "inoperative" hardly works, even without the echoes of Watergate. That his eyes have been opened - bit of a slow learner then. That the world has changed (Trump &c) - overnight? That Brexit is fine as an idea but this particular deal is so bad that Labour cannot retrieve the situation in government and therefore we must Remain - hardly credible since sovereign UK will spend all our independence in permanent negotiation with the EU and the biggest real difference between the deals is that Labour would implement the backstop Customs Union and Theresa May says she would try not to. That Labour tried, really tried, to support the Government in its negotiation, but it seems Brexit cannot be delivered - but that too shows slow learning/ lack of confidence in their ability to negotiate improvements when once in government.
It is easier to see a speech coming out for a referendum on the terms with the option to Remain (public vote, People's Vote). That would be justified on the ground that the Prime Minister's deal is so far from what was promised that the electorate should have the chance to say whether they still wished to go ahead with it. 
But even then, Jeremy Corbyn should be arguing for his Brexit fantasy to be the other option on the ballot paper, not Remain. And whether it is or is not, he should in the referendum be arguing for Brexit on the basis that problems with the deal can be repaired afterwards. A statement that he wants Brexit but is bowing to party democracy will leave Labour voters as confused on the party's stance as many were in 2016.
Both main parties are led by people who are backing Brexit. Theresa May has faced down her leadership challenge. There does not seem to be one for Jeremy Corbyn. But those who want the present leaders to back the People's Vote and campaign for Remain need to write the leader's speech where they announce their conversion without loss of face.
One means to send in that model text for a leader's speech is Twitter: we now have over 5,000 followers - thank you - on @London4Europe. Our e-mail messages go to 8,500 subscribers. So please do encourage your friends and voters whom you canvass to sign up to both streams via the L4E homepage and on Twitter.
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