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The most serious challenge to Theresa May’s Brexit strategy in recent weeks has come not from the opposition Labour party or even dissident Conservatives, but from the ghosts of government past.
After making a speech last month calling on Remain supporters to “rise up in defence of what we believe”, Tony Blair, the former Labour prime minister, is recruiting a fundraiser and policy experts as he prepares to launch a new pro-EU, anti-populist institute. This, he hopes, will act as a rallying point for opposition to Theresa May’s supposedly “hard” Brexit policy.
This week he was joined in his message by Sir John Major, the former Tory prime minister, who criticised what he called Mrs May’s “unreal and over-optimistic” approach to Brexit — and attacked Brexit supporters for trying to bully those who have misgivings about leaving the EU into silence.
These interventions reflect a frustration at the lack of effective opposition from parliament and business to Mrs May’s tough negotiating stance, which they fear could lead to Britain crash-landing out of the EU without a deal.
Supporters of Mr Blair and Sir John say they have a duty to speak out, claiming that serving MPs and business leaders have been cowed by a strident media and pressure from Brexiters not to defy the “will of the people” as expressed in last year’s EU referendum.
Other grandees to have joined the fray include Michael Heseltine, the former cabinet minister who voted in the Lords in support of an amendment to the Article 50 bill that would give parliament a final say on the final Brexit deal; and Ken Clarke, another ex-minister, who was the only Conservative MP to oppose the bill in the Commons — condemning what he called a “Wonderland” approach whereby “suddenly countries throughout the world are queueing up to give us trading advantages”.
But Bernard Jenkin, a leading Eurosceptic Conservative MP, dismissed the idea of a silent mass of Remainers who has been cowed into submission. “A lot of hardline Remainers in the Conservative party are shocked at how isolated they are,” he said. If Sir John believed there was a conspiracy to stifle debate, he added, it was taking place “in his own mind”.
Mrs May’s domination of British politics is unparalleled in recent years. She expects to enter Brexit negotiations with the EU without any conditions imposed by parliament. Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the Labour party, has backed the prime minister’s Article 50 bill and most of his MPs have fallen into line.
With Labour uneasy but largely acquiescent, the speeches of Mr Blair and Sir John were striking enough to lead the news bulletins — suggesting their views still carry weight even though Mr Blair left office in 2007 badly damaged by the Iraq war and Sir John was ejected from Number 10 some 20 years ago after years of civil war with Tory Eurosceptics.
Some of Mrs May’s cabinet say the views of former prime ministers who are no longer even in parliament do not deserve such airtime. “It’s just you lot,” said one minister, referring to the media. “You just like a big name.”
Tim Bale, politics professor at Queen Mary University of London, said the ex-leaders’ interventions might not have much impact with ordinary voters but they might shape opinion at an “elite level” among MPs and journalists.
But James McGrory of Open Britain, an organisation set up to champion close British links with the EU, hopes Mr Blair and Sir John can encourage a more open public debate about the shape of Brexit. “It’s hugely important,” said Mr McGrory. “There has been one-way traffic for too long. Their speeches can have a galvanising effect for people who want to make the arguments out in the community, to their friends and family.”
Peter Mandelson, a former EU commissioner and an ally of Mr Blair, said the former prime ministers were trying to lead the debate because Mrs May was locked on a course that was “extremely high risk”.
“The government is pushing towards a hard and harsh Brexit and nobody is pulling on the other end of the rope,” he said.
Anna Soubry, the former Tory business minister and an outspoken pro-European, also welcomed their interventions, saying that extra-parliamentary interventions were welcome at a time when many MPs were afraid to speak out.
“People are not prepared, with a few exceptions, to put their head above the parapet, for fear they will be shot down by the four newspapers that appear to be running the country,” she said, referring to the Sun, Daily Mail, the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Express. “People have gone to ground. Where’s the voice of business?”
While business has been muted on the government’s Brexit strategy in recent weeks, there are signs of a stirring. Paul Drechsler, president of the CBI employers’ organisation, warned on Thursday that the prime minister would open “a Pandora’s box of economic consequences” if she followed through on her threat to walk away if a good deal was not on the table.