When historians of Brexit write the chapter on the sweltering summer of 2018, will they remember the most important character of all? Not David Davis or Boris Johnson, who walked out of the Cabinet; not Theresa May, who forced through a deal she knew her own party could never accept; not Jeremy Corbyn, Michel Barnier, Vince Cable or Jacob Rees-Mogg.
The month-long heat-dream that parliamentary recess and summer storms have mercifully cut short had one true hero – Danny Dyer. Despite competing with what was already a crazy screenplay and an uncontrollable cast of characters, the real-life East Ender turned in the scene-stealing performance. Dyer spoke for a nation whose actual leaders have lost their scripts when he delivered the immortal line: “Who knows about Brexit? No one’s got a effing clue what Brexit is, yeah?” The intervention will be remembered for its verdict on David Cameron “in Nice with his trotters up”, but Dyer’s analysis of Brexit was just as damning: “No one knows what it is – it’s like this mad riddle.” Who could argue?
This weekend, Dyer followed up his rhetorical bombshell with a reflection of real substance, when he revealed a personal change of heart that mirrors the slow shift in opinion across the country. “I did vote leave and now I want to remain,” he said.
To fearful Brexiteers who see the tide turning against them, those words make Dyer Britain’s deadliest man. Two milestones in public opinion on Brexit have been crossed since the parliamentary summer holidays began: one poll suggested for the first time that a majority support a second EU referendum on the terms of the UK’s deal, then another put support for a so-called People’s Vote at 50 per cent, ten points ahead of those opposed.
It isn’t hard to see why Dyer has captured the public mood. Few would have noticed the Brexit White Paper if it hadn’t detonated under the Cabinet table. Now ordinary voters understand that Theresa May can’t deliver the Brexit she promised, and may not be able to deliver any kind of deal at all.
The Government followed up the triumph of the White Paper’s launch by turning up the volume on Project Fear MkII, actively fuelling speculation about the dangers of a no-deal Brexit. Davis once laughed at the idea that leaving the EU would be like Mad Max; now his successor openly talks about the stockpiling of “adequate food” supplies. Even the Prime Minister has a personal reason to worry about access to medicines if the Brexit talks fail, given that diabetics in the UK rely on European stocks of insulin.
At first, the Government was probably quite happy for these stories to start trickling out of Whitehall. They answered the demands of hardline Brexiteers and frustrated ministers, who wanted the UK to talk tough with the EU after months on the back foot.
In the fortnight that Davis and Johnson walked out of the Government and tried to upend the Prime Minister’s trade policy, Downing Street may have felt warnings about a collapse in trade under no-deal scenario served another purpose: to keep Brexiteers in line. Scare voters into backing the Prime Minister’s plans, and their MPs will have to vote for them in the Commons.
If that’s the strategy, then there are some fairly obvious flaws. One is that without a dramatic change in the EU’s approach to Brexit talks, May’s plan isn’t going to be the one on offer at the end of the process. Barnier and Brussels must feel confident they can push the UK further towards accepting a Norway-plus deal, inside the single market and customs union. Another is that the loudest voices in Tory constituency associations are likely to be those that reinforce Brexiteers’ opinions, rather than challenge them.
But the most important point is that the public, who have long questioned why their leaders can’t just get on with it and get us out, don’t hear the nuance about different Brexit strategies. What they are clear about is their dislike of supermarket prices going up, and they also take a dim view of politicians gambling with their loved ones’ health. If your partner or child needs life-sustaining treatment using EU-supplied medication or equipment, Brexit ceases to be an abstract. Your reaction to the Prime Minister saying that treatment could be at risk isn’t to throw your support behind her. It’s more likely to be: “Make this stop.”
You can see that at work in the government’s belated decision not to drip-feed its no-deal Brexit contingency plans over the summer, when TV news and papers are desperate for stories, but to hold onto them until the end of August.
If Dyer speaks for England, does that mean Brexit can now be stopped? The shift in opinion has given momentum to the People’s Vote campaign, with Tory MPs now joining demands for a fresh EU vote, and Labour leaving the door tantalisingly open to one.
The problem is that public opinion alone can’t deliver a new referendum. There would need to be legislation, and there is now less time until Brexit day in March 2019 than it took to get the original EU referendum through parliament.
There is growing speculation that the UK could ask for the two-year Article 50 process to be extended, to allow for more negotiating time – or to change its mind. In purely mechanical terms, a far easier way to stop Brexit would be for the Government to ask the EU to tear up the Article 50 letter – probably the only chance the UK has to keep its existing membership terms on Schengen, the budget rebate and the euro.
None of the above scenarios, however, can come to pass without a change of Prime Minister or a new election – and given the state of the polls and parties, it isn’t even certain that a new parliament could chart a way out of the current mess. The only certainty as things stand is that the UK leaves the EU with or without a deal in March. Even without the heat, the next few months promise to be just as oppressively turbulent as the last few weeks.
We await further instructions from the people’s tribune. Dyer is descended from royalty, you know.