The political conference season next month will be the most important ever in recent history. Starting with the TUC and finishing with the Conservative Party, can the combined forces of all those who have an electoral mandate in Britain plot a path out of the current Brexit maze?
More than a year after the referendum the nation has no clear leadership on offer from its elected elites on the meaning of Brexit and what should now happen.
Mervyn King, the former governor of the Bank of England, is right to say that a year has been wasted in the vapidities of sound-bites like “Brexit means Brexit” or the inanities of ultras like Liam Fox posturing about bringing chlorinated chicken and hormone beef to our supermarket shelves from Donald Trump’s America.
May has stuffed her cabinet with hard-line anti-Europeans like Michael Gove and Chris Grayling and brought back David Davis after 20 years of political exile to take the nation out of Europe.
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But Davis famously said in 2009 that “a democracy that cannot change its mind ceases to be a democracy” and this conference season is when that thesis should be put to the test.
The trade unions can begin by insisting on the primacy of the single market. It is time to drop weasel words like “maximum access.” As the Norwegians or Swiss can confirm, you are in or you are out. Trade union leaders are now looking at tougher measures to control the internal labour market and promote training and access to jobs for British workers. President Macron is insisting that a key EU measure, the so-called Posted Workers Directive, be tightened up to stop gang-master type employers from hiring disposable workers from East Europe.
The TUC can reassure its six million members that it is possible to stay in the single market and support local workers without the reverting to an enormously expensive bureaucracy of visa and work or resident permits.
The Lib Dems have to decide whether their only policy at this crucial moment in national history is to point fingers at their two bigger rivals. Instead can Vince Cable, who is a bigger and wiser politician than either May or Corbyn, rise above such point-scoring and outline a way to keep the UK in as much of Europe as possible?
For both him and Corbyn the key new evidence is the British Election Survey of 30,000 voters – by far the biggest examination of voters’ attitudes. This show that May and some Labour spokespersons are not telling the truth when they say that the June General Election showed that more than 80 per cent of voters supported leaving the single market and customs union.
On the contrary, the study’s authors, Professor Ed Fieldhouse and Dr Chris Prosser of Manchester University, showed that 10,317 of the 30,000 voters surveyed considered Brexit to be the main issue of the election and voted Labour to oppose hard Brexit. The study shows a large number of Tory Remainers holding their nose and voting for Corbyn because Labour was seen as the party of soft Brexit in contrast to the Tories who are seen as the hard Brexit party.
Strictly speaking, the party manifestoes were not that far apart but in London many Labour candidates defied the party line and stood on their own manifesto of staying in the single market and customs union and even won Kensington on such a pro-Europe line.
Since then the pressure has been growing from within Labour ranks for the party leadership to get off the fence and say more explicitly that Labour will not support the hard Brexit of leaving both the single market and customs union.
Many Labour MPs are still worried about the loss of traditional white working class support but Ukip only managed to win 1.8 per cent of the vote and even the BBC seems to have reduced the amount of uncritical platforms it used to give Nigel Farage.
By contrast, the BBC and other broadcasters still find plenty of space for Jacob Rees-Mogg or Daniel Hannan or the supporters of extreme Brexit amongst commentators like Gerald Lyons, Ruth Lea and Liam Halligan.
At some stage Tory MPs will have to decide if they want their party to be seen permanently as the party of amputational hard Brexit – a latter day version of the League of Empire Loyalists of the 1950s who tried to stop or slow down de-colonialisation – or whether they will re-connect with their lost general election voters.
The forthcoming conference season will be when narrow, swaying rope bridges over the crevasse of hard Brexit begins to be fashioned. The majority of Select Committee chairs went to pro-European MPs. It is perfectly possible to “leave” the EU but still be part of single market and customs union arrangement as both Norway and Switzerland can demonstrate.
After the conference season and the election of a new German government there are 12 short months until the Article 50 negotiations have to be completed by October 2018.
This September, our elected representatives have to show they are up to the task of pointing to Brexit solutions that can work. If it is still all about petty political point scoring and unwillingness to tell truth to party activists then Britain will be as adrift and without any leadership such as has not been seen since the 1930s.
Denis MacShane is the former UK Minister of Europe. His book Brexit, No Exit. Why Britain (in the End) Won’t Leave Europe is published by IB Tauris