Euan McColm: George Osborne gives Brexit’s losers a voice

In a recent speech, former chancellor George Osborne warned against the dangerous purity of splendid isolation. Photograph: Neil Hall/Getty Images
In a recent speech, former chancellor George Osborne warned against the dangerous purity of splendid isolation. Photograph: Neil Hall/Getty Images
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Those who voted Remain in the referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union have been desperately badly served by the Labour Party since the result was announced.

Opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn’s immediate response to victory for the Leave campaign was to call for the process of extrication to begin immediately. This was reckless stuff for a man who claimed to have been in favour of continued membership; Corbyn gave no consideration to which sort of Brexit – hard, in all its grim isolationism, or soft, with concessions to Europe – might be in the UK’s best interests.

Corbyn’s parliamentary colleagues, most of whom hold him in contempt, were no better servants of the disappointed 48 per cent of voters who had wanted to remain members of the European club.

The majority of Labour MPs campaigned for a Remain vote but when the result was announced, they did not turn their fire on the Conservative government that had provided this unnecessary referendum; they did not focus their attention on working to ensure that the negative impact of Brexit, as they saw it, was ameliorated.

Instead, Labour MPs turned against Corbyn, and began an attempt to remove him from post. Yesterday, as Corbyn was reconfirmed as Labour leader, we saw the success of that particular wheeze.

It is undoubtedly true that Labour MPs would have moved against Corbyn at some point, but doing so in the immediate aftermath of the Leave victory meant that the new Prime Minister, Theresa May, was given an easy ride in the Commons.

Outraged Scottish Nationalists will, at this point, want to tell me that the SNP stepped up when Labour failed to perform the most basic duties of opposition. It is certainly true that First Minister Nicola Sturgeon was quick to react to the referendum result, but there was no substance to her intervention. The SNP was not – is still not – interested in the shape Brexit might take. Instead, its priority is to exploit the result in favour of drumming up support for Scottish independence.

Sturgeon’s reaction to the shock – and it was, for many millions of voters a shock – of victory for the Leave campaign was to say that a second independence referendum was now back on the table. Polls have not provided the First Minister much comfort, however. The prospect of Brexit has not shifted public opinion in favour of Scotland departing the UK.

Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron has tried to position himself as the champion of those who believe in the value of co-operation across Europe but his party remains in the doldrums. Farron may have a strong message but few are willing to listen.

So if neither Labour nor the SNP nor the Liberal Democrats speak with authority on behalf of those who believe close co-operation with the EU is the wise and progressive path, who does?

This may pain many pro-EU supporters of those parties, but the answer would appear to be former Tory chancellor, George Osborne.

Osborne has emerged as a much needed voice of common sense in the debate over the shape of Brexit.

In a very good speech in Chicago last week, Osborne – a backbencher after the PM sacked him when she succeeded David Cameron – insisted that the UK did not vote for “hard Brexit” in the referendum. It was essential, he added, that there should be compromises in the exit talks to come.

To hardline Eurosceptic Tories – Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, David Davis, for example – Osborne’s intervention will be irritating, perhaps even infuriating.

By those who believe the decision taken by voters on 23 June to have been a mistake, it should be warmly welcomed.

Osborne warned against “the dangerous purity of splendid isolation” and urged the Prime Minister to pursue “the closest possible economic and security relationship with our European partners while no longer being formal members of the EU”.

And he skewered the arguments of those who would have voters believe that the EU will capitulate to whatever demands the UK makes.

It was important to be realistic, he said, and to accept that Britain could not expect to retain all the benefits that came from EU membership without incurring any of the costs or obligations. There would have to be compromise.

Osborne’s old pal, Cameron – whose recklessness in calling a referendum he believed would neuter his party’s Eurosceptics has led us to where we are now – may have left the political stage, but the former chancellor is clearly keen to get back into the spotlight.

Cynics – or bores, as I prefer to call them – will doubtless say that Osborne is guilty of political opportunism, that he’s trying to carve for himself a new role in our political debate. And this may, to some degree, be true.

But so what? Somebody had to step up on behalf of the millions who believe Brexit to be the wrong path.

Osborne is just 45 years old and we should not be surprised to learn that he still harbours political ambitions. If he wishes to channel that ambition into becoming a leading voice against to-hell-with-them-all hard Brexit then those of us who regret the result of the referendum should be pleased.

There is much to be discussed before the UK leaves the EU and the formal process of departure will not even begin until the Prime Minister triggers Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. Until that happens, the shape of Brexit remains unclear and those who voted to Remain have a significant interest in ensuring their voices are heard.

The Labour Party should be prosecuting the case in favour of compromise with the rest of Europe but, under Corbyn, the party remains unfit for purpose, led by a man whose own history of Euroscepticism is well documented.

Instead, the progressive, liberal voice on the biggest issue of the day belongs 
to a man disdained by opponents as a Tory toff. Labour MPs should be ashamed that Osborne has stepped in where they failed.