Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Tuesday, 7 January 2020

Was the Remain campaign always doomed?

In hindsight it is tempting to say that Remainers should have set their sights on something close to a BINO type deal (UK remaining part of the Single Market (SM) and Customs Union (CU)) rather than campaigning for Remain, and some have already suggested that. Is that a reasonable conclusion in the light of Remain’s defeat in December 2019?

In mid May it all looked so different. I wrote
“It seems odd writing that Brexit is on its deathbed, in a coma but with no chance of recovery, when a year ago the Remain cause seemed hopeless. The thing everyone under estimated was the way Brexiters themselves would effectively kill Brexit.”

The essential problem was that a significant section of Conservative MPs (and Farage) wanted no shared sovereignty with the EU (no ties to common standards etc), while another part of the party didn’t like the implications of this hard Brexit for UK business. So how did Brexit move from its deathbed to become a certainty within just 7 months? What mistake did I make, and could it have been foreseen?

I was right about the prospects for Brexit under May. May was going nowhere because there was no way to avoid a hard border in Northern Ireland with any UK wide deal acceptable to the Brexiters, and both May, the DUP and many Conservative MPs seemed adamant that a border in the Irish Sea was not on. A lot of this was already apparent to me a year and a half earlier.

It is easy to say that a new Prime Minister made all the difference, but that isn’t enough. In May I did write “A Conservative party committed to No Deal is the only way the Tories have to neutralise Farage.” I could have added that many Tory MPs would be unhappy with that, which is why that path was not sufficient for Johnson.

What he did would have been hard to anticipate in May. I think Johnson got there through trial and error rather than having some master plan when he was elected. He had to convince both Farage and the Brexiters that he would go for no trade deal rather than anything that ties the UK to the EU, yet convince everyone else that he really was going for a deal. The way he achieved that was to agree to the EU’s original proposal for a border in the Irish Sea, but also by committing not to extend the transition period beyond a year.

The other key ingredient was the devastating Conservative result in the European elections. Not only did it ensure May’s departure, but it also became clear to Tory MPs that they risked disaster at a General Election if they didn’t get Brexit done. So they rejoiced when Johnson got the deal that Johnson had said earlier was something he couldn't possibly agree to. They didn’t ask questions when Johnson refused to extend the transition period, even though they knew full well no trade deal worth anything could be done with the EU within a year when the UK didn’t want a level playing field. 

Equally Brexiters and subsequently Farage were persuaded that Johnson would stick to his pledge for no extension of the transition period, because to question it was to put Brexit at risk. Both sides heard what they wanted to hear from someone they knew was the least trustworthy politician in the UK. Now we have seen all this happen it is easy to imagine it, but in the first half on 2019 you would have been almost clairvoyant to see all that detail. As a result, Remainers optimism at the time was not unjustified given the information we had, and so compromises were less likely.

What you could have done was be pessimistic at a more general level. Many hoped that after the vote public opinion would gradually lose faith in Brexit, but that happened only to a small degree. If you believe as I do that the Brexit vote was the product of Brexit press propaganda coupled with BBC disinterest in informing viewers about reality, then why would people change their mind? As a result of solid Brexit support, the fate of the Conservative party became linked to getting Brexit done, so the party had to find a way.

Of course Remain could have won the General Election, and a failure by the Conservatives to get an overall majority would have meant the end of Brexit. Ironically Corbyn both created the conditions that allowed Remain to be optimistic (Labour’s victorious defeat in 2017 and the consequent DUP veto) but they also helped create the conditions for a Conservative victory. Labour’s performance in 2017 changed the Brexit political dynamic, but the last people to understand that were the Labour leadership. I wrote in January that Labour’s refusal to oppose Brexit is becoming a historic error, and events in the first half of 2019 proved that was correct. [1]

Johnson’s victory did not just depend only on the Remain vote being split. During the election period Labour clawed back a lot of the votes they had lost to the LibDems, but the LibDem and Green vote was still 50% up on 2017 levels. Corbyn was very unpopular among many of the kind of traditional Labour voters who had voted Leave: the media gave us two more years of negative coverage of Labour, and Corbyn’s past was a gift in that respect. But a detailed assessment of why Labour lost is for another time.

There was another sense that fence sitting by Labour did not help Remain. I noted above that public opinions about Brexit did not change significantly after the referendum vote, but we will never know if that was inevitable. The way broadcast media work is to cover what the two main parties say, even on an issue like Brexit. Corbyn’s stance after the vote meant that Labour felt unable to attack Brexit rather than the government’s handling of it.

There is a counterfactual history where Labour MPs played things better (i.e waited until the beginning of 2017) to provoke a leadership election, Corbyn lost that vote and his successor campaigned against Brexit. This gave Labour a poll bounce that dissuaded May from holding an election, allowing Labour to campaign against Brexit for the next three years. It might have not worked out that way, but we know for certain Corbyn as leader did not work out.

To sum up, I don’t think I and other Remainers were being unrealistic in aiming for a Remain outcome. But I do think we have to be realistic about the next five years. It is just possible that Brexit will lead to the next five years being obviously terrible, and that public opinion will move against the whole project. If that is the case opposition parties, and particularly Labour, should not be afraid the join the dots and make that case. More likely, however, is that things continue as they have been over the last three years. Not good at all, but not bad enough for anyone to change their beliefs about Brexit.

If the lessons of austerity and the last three years carry over, the more some talk up impending disaster, the more poor performance will be portrayed as the vindication of Brexit. The reality is that powerful forces have imposed a policy on half the population that do not want it. It is rare that we see a government implement a policy that all experts say will do the UK serious economic and political harm, which is why those overseas who are not on the extreme right or left think we are utterly stupid. At least those that have fought this policy all the way can hold our heads up high and say we did all we could to stop it.

[1] There are some who still insist that Labour’s eventual adoption of a People Vote in all circumstances was a ‘suicide note’, but Labour’s policy before then would have been much more disastrous. You may discount the European elections, but polls both before and after that had Labour around 25% and the LibDems touching 20%. Labour’s 2017 result had created the political dynamic of strengthening Remain, creating a political vacuum that Labour didn’t fill so the LibDems did. Labour would always have clawed back some of the voters who chose LibDem during the election period, but in the absence of a commitment to a Public Vote their final percentage would have been well below the 32% they actually achieved. That is because Leavers would not have come flocking to them, because the lure of 'getting Brexit done' was too great.

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