Euan McColm: Power to the people if Brexit descends into farce

In the event of a failure to deliver on their manifesto for a new dawn, Brexiteers are duty bound to let voters pass their verdict, writes Euan McColm.

Blair has been accused of trying to impose his will on the UK electorate. Picture: Andreas Solaro/Getty

Central to the campaign to wrench the United Kingdom out of the European Union was the idea that, by supporting Brexit, voters were “taking back control”.

Anti-EU campaigners drove home that notion that faceless bureaucrats in Brussels were – at considerable financial cost to each and every one of us – imposing their will on the UK.

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This caricature of shadowy puppet-masters manipulating our lives was clearly compelling. Which Brexiteer didn’t put “sovereignty” at the top of their list of very good reasons for embarking on this course of action?

But those who once insisted that their motivation was the empowerment of the people have begun to sing a different song. Now letting the voters have a say is the last thing they want to do.

Former Prime Minister Tony Blair is, I’m afraid, too polarising a figure to have any real impact on the debate over Brexit. Or anything else, for that matter.

Those who despise Blair do so with such intensity and at such volume that even those who admire him recognise that his presence on the pitch isn’t especially helpful. But, until someone else starts making the arguments put forward by the former PM about the Brexit decision, he will have to do.

Last week, Blair published an article on his website in which he argued that, once the terms of Brexit are known, voters should have the right to change their minds. This could be through a parliamentary vote, an election, or even a second referendum.

During an interview with the BBC’s John Pienaar after the article’s publication, Blair warned Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn that Brexit would make it more difficult for the party to deliver its promises if it wins power; Corbyn would be in “exactly the same position” as the Tories now find themselves, with Brexit a distraction from other issues and a shortage of the money required to implement policies.

Labour, under the career-log Eurosceptic Corbyn (though he insists he voted Remain), currently supports Brexit. The party is also opposed to a second referendum.

Blair’s intervention was “utterly unhelpful”, said one anonymous member of the shadow cabinet.

By Thursday afternoon, the internet sagged under the weight of opinion pieces explaining why Blair should 
shut up.

The thrust of much of this reaction was that Blair was seeking somehow to impose his will – and, by extension, the will of the hated “metropolitan liberal elite” – on the voters of the UK. Surely, the opposite was the case? Surely Brexiteers who fought so hard for the people to be given a say can recognise that Blair was doing the same thing.

The confidence with which leading pro-Brexit politicians such as Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage and Michael Gove predicted the benefits of leaving the EU was quite something. They and their fellow travellers painted a picture of a UK revived, of a new era of prosperity.

While politicians – insulated from the impact of Brexit by wealth and privilege – told us that a stronger, more competitive UK was just a step away, a bus told us the NHS would be £350 million a week better off if we were out of the EU.

Why wouldn’t these honourable campaigners want to show the voters of the United Kingdom precisely what Brexit deal they have been able to achieve? They cannot have anything to hide, can they? After all, they really were insistent that Brexit was all upsides and no downs.

With the UK scheduled to leave the EU next March, the terms of Brexit will have to be nailed down this year. And, when they are, won’t the Brexit Secretary, David Davis, want to shout from the rooftops about the amazing deal he’s struck?

It pains me to conclude that the reason Brexiteers are so fiercely opposed to the public being given any further say on this issue is that they are not about to deliver on their promises.

Labour’s current position of supporting Brexit come-what-may is a peculiar piece of political self-harm. Brexit is the only issue on the agenda and if Corbyn’s stance is that it must be supported then the official opposition is effectively absent from the debate.

Sure, Labour might flex its muscles along the way on details of process, but the party has shown its hand at the start of the game.

Scottish Labour’s position, however, is that opposition to a second referendum might change, depending on what sort of deal is forthcoming. This throws up the fascinating prospect of Scottish Labour and the SNP standing side-by-side on the issue.

The hysterical reactions from Brexiteers to any criticism of their plans – or, indeed, to the perfectly reasonable request to examine what they are – reveals the extent of their insecurity about their ability to deliver anything vaguely resembling the post-Brexit UK they so vividly described.

In the face of such defensive anger from Leavers, Labour’s failure to at least ask obvious questions about the Brexit process is doubly frustrating.

Why shouldn’t a second referendum be the patriotic choice? Why wouldn’t it be held in the same spirit of empowerment – as described by Brexiteers – as the 2016 vote?

The standard Leaver response to anyone questioning the good sense of Brexit is to level accusations of elitism. This is cheap and lazy stuff. We should hardly be surprised that people who’d stand by a lie about NHS funding would resort to the cheap and lazy, but it’s no reason to stop asking those hard questions.

At some point this year, Prime Minister Theresa May will have to nail down the terms of the Brexit deal. Perhaps the UK will walk away with a fantastic bespoke agreement. Perhaps it won’t.

But, either way, what harm could 
there possibly be in asking the voters of the UK to examine and approve the plan? Surely the Leave campaign would win again, and by a greater margin. Wouldn’t it?

What can Brexiteers have to fear about allowing the people to take back control once more?