It was one of those moments when your eyes are suddenly opened, your illusions are stripped away and you are forced to confront the world as it really is rather than as you’d like it to be. Lord Ashcroft’s bag-carrier, teller of pig tales, and ghost writer for Arron Banks, Isabel Oakeshott, was dancing to her pay-masters’ tune on last week’s Question Time when she declared Theresa May had little choice but to walk away from negotiations. There was no alternative to a No Deal Brexit, she insisted.
In homes like mine – little bubbles of Remainer smugness – her words were greeted with the customary derision. What a stupid stance: to favour an option which would prove so demonstrably disastrous. Hadn’t opposition leaders spent the week trying to force May into taking No Deal off the table, precisely because it would throw the country into the kind of crisis that leads to job losses, stranded lorries and empty supermarket shelves?
In the venue in Derby, a city where 57.2 per cent voted to Leave, however, it provoked a cheer so loud it could probably be heard in Westminster. There, those MPs who have ploughed their energy into publicising the worst-case scenario in the hopes of averting it must have wept bitter tears over their wasted words.
Certainly, Oakeshott’s intervention subverted the narrative being peddled by the woman on her right. Labour shadow cabinet member Diane Abbott had understandably assumed the unpalatability of a No Deal was a given. Jeremy Corbyn demanded it be taken off the table because everyone – even members of the Prime Minister’s own cabinet – agreed it would be a catastrophe.
But Abbott was kidding herself. Like many Labour politicians she was speaking in the “best interests” of the working classes without understanding their motivations. What a shock it must have been for her to discover that May had it right all along; that even if it were technically possible to take a No Deal off the table, it would provoke many Leave voters into a state of righteous fury. Such is the frustration among those who already fear they will be fobbed off with Brexit-lite or – worse still – no Brexit at all, such a provocative move could lead to civil unrest. It was palpable in the Question Time audience, that volatility; the sense of a mob ready to take to the streets if thwarted.
From a Remainer perspective, all this makes no sense at all. Late last year the UK Trade Policy Observatory estimated a soft Norway-style Brexit would lead to 1,350 job losses in the Derby North and Derby South constituencies, while crashing out without a deal would more than double the figure to 2,800. How could anyone be so self-destructive as to court such economic devastation?
And yet, there they were, a significant gathering of people, not merely accepting devastation, but actively embracing it; demanding to be royally screwed over, and contemptuous of any patronising do-gooder seeking to save them from themselves.
Despite two and a half years where the sophistry of the Brexiteers has been flagrant and the UK’s insignificance in the scheme of things has been mercilessly exposed, those people are still cleaving to the fantasy that drove them to the Leave camp in the first place.
As newspaper headlines in the other 27 member states openly mocked our state of paralysis, one audience member referred to the EU playing a “really good game of poker”.
“Angela Merkel needs to sell us 850,000 cars. I think if we walked away the phone would be ringing pretty quickly,” he added, with all the false confidence of a man on his fourth pint who is convinced he is going home with the barmaid.
Pitched into a sphere where lies are ubiquitous, this man and others like him long ago lost their ability to distinguish between fantasy and reality; the most flagrant falsehoods serve only to shore up their belief that the EU and eastern European immigrants are robbing them of what’s rightfully theirs.
Some of the Brexiteers are still at it: last week Boris Johnson stood in front of a JCB digger and flatly denied having ever raised the spectre of Turkey joining the EU. It makes no difference that there is footage of him saying it; it makes no difference that Fact Checkers dispute his version. Some people have gone so far into Oz, they don’t even want to find their way home.
Alongside this willingness to buy into Brexiteer delusions, is a nihilistic compulsion to mix things up; a punky desire to upend the status quo, say f*** the system and let anarchy reign.
It’s the kind of reaction to the tedium of everyday life that once made the likes of George Galloway attractive – the frisson of excitement that comes from the threat of chaos. Except now, the threat is coming not from fringe mavericks, but from senior party figures. And we have been confronting chaos head-on for a considerable length of time.
How anyone could have endured the past two years and crave more trouble is a mystery; but there were many in that Derby audience who backed No Deal regardless of the upheaval it might cause; perhaps even because of it.
It was horrible to watch because it exposed the emptiness of all the to-ing and fro-ing, the political posturing over red lines and compromises; of hopes of a second referendum and/or the revocation of Article 50.
On the evidence of Thursday night, who is to say a second referendum would bring a different result? Sure Remainers would be less complacent this time; they would put up a harder fight, but those minded to Vote Leave are likely to buy into the propaganda no matter how directly campaigners are challenged.
As for the revocation of Article 50 – it’s terrifying to think where that might lead. Brexit has already brought us the murder of Jo Cox, and more recently Tory MP Anna Soubry was surrounded by shouting yellow-jacketed pro-Brexit supporters outside parliament just for backing a “People’s Vote”. Any attempt to back out of Brexit and one suspects those Question Time audience members would quickly form a resistance.
To be fair on them, had Yes won the independence referendum, campaigners would have felt justifiably aggrieved at being told Scotland couldn’t separate from the rest of the UK after all because it was too difficult. So you can understand where they are coming from.
Added to all that, the UK is now soiled goods. If the EU were to take us back, it would be on sufferance. No fatted calves would be slaughtered to celebrate the return of this prodigal son. We would – in essence – be worse off than before.
So where does that leave us? Inching ever closer to a No Deal, it seems. MPs can keep on issuing their stark warnings about the prospective repercussions. But it seems the only way many people will believe that crashing out of the EU with no agreement is a terrible idea is to experience it first-hand.