Somewhere in England, the prime minister is speaking. He is in Downing Street, or perhaps in parliament. It is late December, or early January. His chin is out; his tone defiant.
“My friends, freedom can be scary. Freedom can sting. When you first move out of the family home, it can come as a shock. The rooms are less comfortable and the plumbing may be dodgy, the money is tight. But once you have tasted freedom you rarely want to move back to mum. So it is with Brexit, my friends. These first months may be tough. There are people who want to see us fail: those who did well out of the old regime; the EU itself. But this is a time for those who believe in Britain. The first steps may be tough but — trust me — in a few years we will wonder why we ever hesitated to take them.”
Well, OK, Boris Johnson’s speech writer may put it differently, but get used to this tone because, deal or no, you will be hearing plenty of it in the coming months. The worse the circumstances, the headier the brew of jingoism and fabulism. For Remainers, it will be hard to take. If the last four years felt like one long period of gaslighting, the next few months will feel intolerable.
And yet they must be tolerated. The temptation will be to point out all that is going wrong. In all scenarios, there will be disruption. And while a no-deal exit will be chaotic, even with one there will be many examples of a country patently ill-prepared for change.
The opportunities to crow will be legion. For Remainers, far too many of whom are still processing their grief, the desire to show they were right will be great. But even in the shambles of a no deal, they must restrain themselves. Cheered on by the Brexit-backing media, the Conservatives will easily paint valid criticism as the defeatism of the people who want Britain to fail.
And maddening as it may be, for a while this will work. Most voters do not want Brexit to be a catastrophe. They have to live here and want the UK to thrive. They know things will be difficult at first but they will give the government time to iron out the creases. Their patience is not infinite: if they conclude that Brexit is turning into a disaster they will not need telling who is to blame. Yet they will not reward those who appear to wish for failure.
There are signs that the Labour opposition leader grasps this. Keir Starmer wants his party to vote for a trade deal, however insubstantial. He understands that in the words of one prominent Labour remainer: “The public does not want to hear Labour saying ‘I told you so’ like a stuck record.” Sir Keir’s plan has provoked a backlash even among his allies, and many Labour MPs will insist on abstaining rather than be made accomplices to Brexit. In truth this matters little. No one now remembers that the Conservatives voted for Tony Blair’s Iraq war. Just as he owned that, so Mr Johnson owns Brexit.
There is only one escape for the Tories from a bad Brexit and that is if they can turn the issue into one of patriots versus defeatists. So opponents must avoid the continuation of what one calls “the Brexit culture war”. One shadow cabinet member adds: “There has been a tendency to triumphalism on the left every time the government makes a mess of something. The pandemic has reminded us the public don’t want to see the government make a mess of things.” Another Labour MP puts it more bluntly: “We can’t be jumping up and down looking smug, with each factory closure or business relocation.”
Assuming a trade deal, a bad Brexit is less one of pure chaos than of a gradual path towards economic underperformance. This will, in time, create an opportunity for a different vision — but only if voters have not switched off from what they perceive as a diet of negativity from unreconciled Remainers. (The terrain is different in Scotland, where nationalists can use every Brexit crisis as fuel for the separatist fire.) For Labour, Sir Keir needs to reach a strategic view on future relations with the EU, on security and trade, and what future compromises on sovereignty are justified for economic benefits.
This goes beyond Brexit to a wider alternative vision for the UK. The shadow cabinet member added: “We have to be a party that promotes Britain’s national interests. People want to be ambitious for this country and, however hollow his words, only Boris spoke to that in recent years.”
This is what Sir Keir understands, and what Remainers need to accept. The Labour leader is planning his first big “vision” speech for some time to coincide with the period around Joe Biden’s inauguration in the US. Part of it is stressing that the UK is still a significant global player and that, from climate change to global security, it needs to be on the side of those trying to pull nations together, not split them apart.
In an era when the demands for comment never rest, staying disciplined will be a challenge, especially as the inadequacies of the UK’s Brexit planning become apparent. But this is a long game. The template of constructive opposition the Labour leader tried to set over Covid is the model he will try to follow over Brexit. The battleground is competence and the failures of preparation. The charge is a government that is all hats and no cattle.
What Remainers cannot do is keep fighting the last war. The battle of Brexit is over and that must be recognised before the battle for a better Britain can be rejoined.
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