When asked by audiences why he committed such a strategic blunder in calling the EU referendum, David Cameron says it was inevitable. What he means is that the civil war over Europe had reached such fever pitch in the Tory party he feared for his job if he didn’t give in.
Similarly, when Theresa May says she cannot thwart the public will to take Britain out of the EU lock, stock and barrel, she means she doesn’t want to expend any political capital standing up to those same ideologues, whatever the economic cost. She chooses to invest instead in Donald Trump.
In both cases, Cameron and May mistake the Tory party for the country and a proportion of Leave voters for the public as a whole. Amongst those who voted, the country was evenly divided.
Aren’t those who voted Remain – and those who didn’t vote Leave in order to make themselves poorer – entitled to some consideration too?
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May should have summoned her political courage – and statesmanship – and said something like this: “we have been through a divisive vote but the Government’s job is to respect the result. We will do so, however, in a way that safeguards the economy. So while Britain will leave the EU we will not jeopardise our existing trade links and we will build the closest possible relationship with our former partners.”
This is what a country like ours does – it takes decisions in a rational and unifying way. Not operating on the principle of “winner takes all” regardless of the consequences – and not on something so fundamental to Britain’s national interest where the country is evenly divided.
This is what Parliament’s role is in a democracy: to deliberate and weigh up the most sensible way to reflect public opinion.
Instead, May has gone full pelt to avoid any public debate about Britain’s options in Europe while rushing off to Washington to show we are not friendless.
No attempt has been made to generate goodwill amongst the people with whom we will negotiate. We are told by people who know her that Theresa May “doesn’t do” relationships. Fine, but it’s the whole country’s future she has in her hands, not just her backbenchers and the media fantasists she is being forced to indulge.
Brexit ministers are busy reassuring themselves that, when it comes down to it, EU negotiators will meet Britain’s demands because they have too much to lose. I would not bank on it. Just as politics are driving Britain’s negotiating position, politics will outweigh economics in the EU and their priority will be the safety and stability of their bloc.
Senior Tories argue that after a shakey start negotiations will settle down into a simple trade – money for access. In other words, we will get all the trade we want as long as we pay enough into the EU’s coffers.
They are deluding themselves. The single market operates on the basis of an agreed rulebook – standards of trade and regulations that every state abides by and which the European court enforces – and no amount of money will exempt Britain from playing by these rules and respecting the court’s role.
The Government promises to negotiate a settlement that delivers us, in the words of David Davis, the “exact same benefits” outside the single market and customs union as we currently enjoy inside. This is the biggest delusion of all as there is simply no alternative arrangement that could give us the same as membership provides now. Otherwise, what would be the point of membership?
Until the Government gets this they will not negotiate a deal that delivers the continuation of the trade we depend on in Europe.
When a deal is reached the country is entitled, either directly or through parliament, to pass judgement on what’s on offer. That’s what Tony Blair was arguing for in his speech and he is right to do so. I hope the House of Lords secures this right. If what replaces EU membership is a pale imitation of the benefits we have currently, we should have the chance to send the Government back to the negotiating table to secure a deal that gives us what we need.
This moment is some way off. But we should never lose sight of what’s at stake – not economic growth or inflation figures for this year or next but the country’s prosperity for decades to come.
The whole of the country is entitled to make up their minds on this, not just half of it.