Only delivering Brexit on 31 October can return normality to British politics
Exactly three years ago this morning I walked out of Milbank Tower, Westminster, after an all-night party arranged to take in the results of the UK’s EU referendum. I had a smile as bright as the dawn and wide as the Thames itself. We had only gone and done it; the campaign to leave the European Union had blown the bloody doors off. British politics would never be the same again.
I was always confident about the outcome of the referendum and repeatedly cheered-up my less optimistic colleagues that they were in the process of making history. Although behind in the polls for most of the campaign the cross-party and non-party coalition of Leave supporters had at least three advantages that gave us an underlying edge. The first was Prime Minister David Cameron had been poorly treated by the European Union’s political elite who stupidly dismissed his attempt to show he could win reforms. This was a serious political misjudgement by Merkel, Hollande, Juncker, Tusk and their aloof colleagues, displaying a symptomatic arrogance and condescension that continues to this day. Had they conceded deliverable reforms demonstrating a willingness to decentralise and loosen their inexorable drive towards ever closer union then the Leave campaign would have had a far harder fight on its hands.
Although Cameron’s shuttle diplomacy is mostly forgotten now its repudiation set the context in which the referendum would be played out – the British looking for the repatriation for more controls (what the EU once championed as “subsidiarity”) against a European establishment who had stopped listening and paid only lip-service to keep troublesome natives docile.
The second advantage was that there was not one campaign to Leave – but many. While Vote Leave eventually won the official designation to run the Leave campaign the competition to win the designation that came first from Leave.EU (for which I was Head of Press) and latterly from Grassroots Out, meant there was not one strategy reaching out to voters but three. In addition, a long list of dedicated groups that had been campaigning for at least a generation, such as The Freedom Association, Bruges Group and Global Britain had been joined by the likes of Labour Leave to reach out to people that might otherwise have fallen off a centralised campaign grid. Together with UKIP members – a party originally founded by the Scot Professor Alan Sked in response to the Maastricht Treaty, and then made politically successful by Nigel Farage – they also provided boots on the ground that were willing to work with the many Conservatives who took the brave pills and opposed their leader and Prime Minister.
It is thanks to the happenstance of this hydra-headed approach that the Leave result was achieved despite the official campaign, rather than because of it.
The third advantage was the solely negative approach taken by the Remain group, which learned nothing from the almost fatal negativity of the Better Together campaign in the Scottish referendum. After dropping any mention of Cameron’s fudged and worthless reforms George Osborne, Nick Clegg, George Carney and their lieutenants relied upon a constant feed of scaremongering and doom-laden reports, forecasts and supercharged extrapolations of unreliable predictions to frighten voters of what might come – not just in the future but “immediately following” a vote to leave.
Just as many of the similar threats did not cut through in the Scottish referendum they failed dismally to motivate support for the European project that had been the common purpose of the global political elite and their civil servants since the Second World War. Even rolling out President Obama worked against British pugnaciousness. Most economic threats were seen as out of touch and simply not believed, but where they might have ben effective were still dismissed as irrelevant – people wanted control of their lives back. That is why cities such as Sunderland and Derby with their Nissan and Toyota car plants, or Redcar with its closing steel mill, still voted Leave – and still support it today.
That the UK should go on to create over 950,000 new jobs in the following three years and maintain its lead in attracting Foreign Direct Investment ahead of Germany and France (put together) demonstrated who really lied in the referendum. Nor should we forget the Remain campaign outspent the Leave campaign by £19.3m to 13.3m not counting the Government’s own pamphlet that cost £9.3m to print and distribute to 27m households before expenses rules kicked-in. The result was determined not by money but by having messages that chimed with what various voters thought.
The fallout since that day three years ago has been immense.
Cameron broke his promise to stay only for another remainer, Theresa May, to replace him unchallenged. Her litany of broken promises are well recorded and I offer no sympathy for it must be understood, she dealt her own hand and then played it badly. It was she who relegated her government from a working majority to an imploding minority; she who chose the strategy of repeated concessions over the advice of her ministers tasked with the negotiations; and she who refused to listen when confronted with defeat, after defeat, after defeat.
Instead of capitalising on the Conservative failure Jeremy Corbyn has prevaricated so often that Labour politicians compete to claim which direction he faces – Leave or Remain, second referendum or general election? Likewise the SNP has become trapped in the Leave headlights, fooling itself that Brexit can deliver independence rather than seeking to deliver a successful government.
Having retired, believing his job was done, Nigel Farage has come back and formed the Brexit Party which has earned him the plaudit of bringing down two prime ministers without him even being in the House of Commons. Now he must hold the feet of Boris Johnson or (less likely) Jeremy Hunt to the fire. Farage has identified what the British people have been saying for years – our political leaders cannot be trusted – and it is a rich seam to be mined.
The EU referendum has reset British politics. If Labour turns its back on leave voters it will lose seats in the North. If the Tories don’t deliver Brexit by 31 October they will lose seats wholesale. Only once the referendum result is delivered in a form recognisable to its supporters can politics be reset again, by which time it may well be unrecognisable.
• Brian Monteith is an MEP-elect for the Brexit Party