I’m cheering up about Brexit. The moaning has to stop. Why be downhearted and edgy when you’re confident of your argument? Leavers: you’re all wrong. I’m not totally sure — one never can be — and certainly I could be mistaken: and one day we’ll know. Meanwhile I place my confidence in the judgment of those in British politics I most admire, people like Michael Heseltine, Chris Patten, John Major, Ruth Davidson and Kenneth Clarke; and, sticking to my guns and with a merry two fingers up to the lot of you, I leave you Brexit types to the snarling din emanating from your Brexit cave. Chins up, Leaver trolls — you won — remember? It’s all going to be fabulous — remember? Why the cross faces?
Out will go my whimpering about loutish Brexit bullies. For the Leavers, sympathy rather than resentment will be my watchword. Out will go my complaints about the nervily hectoring tone of the Tory media. And what’s the point of lamentation about the cowed state of the rump of Conservative Remainer MPs? That’s their problem: get a spine or deserve your fate.
From now on I start each morning with a cocky grin. So the populace has opted for Brexit? Spectator readers, of all people, ought to know the populace can be mistaken. Leavers, you made a massive mistake, but you had every right to: half the voters did too, but they had every right to. The people have spoken — and they have declared that two and two make five. Time will tell, and until time adjudicates, let them by all means stick with the peculiar arithmetic that is, also, their right.
Perhaps that sounds aggressive, but I make a serious point. Passive-aggressive is never an attractive look. From my fellow Remainers a bit more aggressive and a bit less passive is called for. We’ve become self-pitying. But instead of seeing the Leave side’s angry intolerance of dissent as threatening, we must find the confidence to understand it for what it is: symptomatic of anxiety. And how right they are to be anxious!
So every gnash of a Brexiteer’s teeth puts extra spring in my step, and I shall dive with added relish into the online readers’ posts beneath my columns to remind myself of the massive psychological insecurities of my critics. Nothing does more to renew confidence than a glance at the temper of one’s opposition.
The triggering of Article 50 will be upon us any moment now, quite possibly by the time I write here again in a fortnight’s time. After that, big storms are coming. It is time for us remaining Remainers to muster. I’m genuinely sorry to see Danny Finkelstein peel off — for, Danny, you were always able to make me think twice; but not this time. Time now to ratchet things up a notch.
Kenneth Clarke will not support even beginning the leaving process. Michael Heseltine will vote to insist MPs get a ‘meaningful’ vote before the process ends. John Major this week struck a typically careful note, simply warning against overconfidence or swagger; but he makes it implicitly plain that he still believes the whole thing a rotten idea.
I’m but a sparrow alongside these eagles but (for what it’s worth) I would not obstruct the triggering of Article 50, which surely became Theresa May’s duty after the referendum. I’d be with Lord Heseltine, however, in wanting a meaningful vote by MPs once the shape of the negotiated deal looks clearer. Mrs May has already undertaken to expedite a vote of some sort. But what (as Danny F. has asked in his Times column) could that vote usefully determine? Wouldn’t it be too late for us British to change our minds once Article 50 has been triggered?
Article 50 is incoherent. Any interpretation of how a late-stage impasse must be handled leads to logical absurdities of its own. Perhaps it’s futile to argue about what the Lisbon Agreement meant, when its authors probably didn’t know themselves. And both Leavers and Remainers have overlooked the EU’s habitual approach to an inconvenient text: where there’s a shared wish to slither out of compliance they usually manage to. So never mind what Article 50 says, I submit that a Commons rejection of a draft Brexit deal would lead to what our European partners would be quick to call a ‘new situation’.
Part of this situation would be an impression that the British electorate had turned against the deal — otherwise MPs would not dare reject it. No prime minister would then carry on regardless.
‘What do you propose to do about this?’ would be (I suggest) Brussels’s response. My strong belief is that there would be an informal assumption that we British could (after all) change our mind about leaving but not the terms negotiated for leaving. The government, however, could not abandon Brexit without the authority of a second referendum or a general election or both.
It follows that to ask for a meaningful Commons vote in 2018 is to encompass the possibility of a second referendum. We Remainers should now be upfront in saying so. Our estimable former EU commissioner Lord (Jonathan) Hill is just wrong about working with the grain, but for a ‘softer’ Brexit. There’s no reason to think a best-of-both-worlds deal will be available, and the softer your conjectured Brexit, the more insistent becomes the question ‘How is this better than what we had?’
But while openly recommending a second referendum, we Remainers must know there’s only an outside chance of any appetite for this. The odds do point to a bad deal or no deal — we’re right about that — but the worse it appears our EU partners treat us, the more defiant the public mood may become.
So where does that leave us? Picturing the Gadarene mob, squealing and snorting and hurtling with ever-increasing ferocity for the cliff’s edge. But — hey — Remainers, rejoice! We’re not among them! Politics may be sour, but how sweet it is to be on the right side of a great question.