We told them so, didn’t we? We said it was a terrible idea and would all end in tears. We pointed out that the UK doesn’t send £350 million a week to Brussels, that Turkey was not about to join the EU, and that Britain held the weaker hand and couldn’t dictate the terms of any new relationship.
Now, 30 days out from our supposed departure date, Remainers find ourselves in the strongest position yet to thwart Brexit. Parliament has been unprorogued, the government’s hands have been tied, its majority obliterated, and opposition parties have learned to work together (more or less) to frustrate ministers.
But — there was always going to be a ‘but’ — at the height of Remainers’ political power, where does our intellectual case stand? I have ten questions for my fellow Remainers.
1. Where do we go from here?
Remainers are great at saying what we’re against, but what exactly are we for? One of the reasons it’s taken our side so long to reach this advantageous position is that we have failed to agree a common agenda. Are we for or against a ‘government of national unity’? Are we for or against Jeremy Corbyn leading it?
Voting against Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement three times would have been reasonable if there were obvious parameters established for a Remainer deal. In or out of the customs union? In or out of the single market? Free movement: yes or no? No one knows what Remainers want, least of all us.
2. Where will the unity come from in a ‘government of national unity’?
Some of our number are keen on a ‘government of national unity’. Without getting into the details (that bit comes next), what exactly would be unifying about installing a government composed of those who wish, variously, to delay Brexit, block a no-deal Brexit and scupper Brexit altogether? A ‘government of national unity’ implies that the nation will be unified but the 52 per cent who voted Leave would either not be represented or would be vastly under-represented. The only unity would be between MPs, academics and leader writers at the Financial Times.
3. Are we prepared to put Jeremy Corbyn in power?
None of the leading advocates of installing a caretaker Prime Minister thinks Jeremy Corbyn is fit to run a fruit and veg stall, but of all the reasons he is unsuitable, antisemitism takes prime position. Almost 86 per cent of British Jews believe him to be antisemitic, just under 40 per cent would ‘seriously consider’ leaving the country if he came to power, and the party he leads is currently under investigation by the Equality and Human Rights Commission. So much of the case against Brexit emphasises the effect on Britain’s standing in the world. Do we really believe making a man like Corbyn our Prime Minister will elevate our international reputation?
4. What happens if he decides to squat in Number 10?
Those willing to countenance Corbyn insist he would only be there long enough to secure an extension from Brussels. Now Labour MPs are suggesting parliament holds a confidence vote, then installs a minority administration led by Corbyn for months. Whatever the scenario, what happens in the event that a Stalinist clique, handed the power it has sought for decades, refuses to hand it back? Will MPs (Labour or other opposition) vote to bring it down and risk the return of Boris Johnson and the resumption of his no-deal agenda? Corbyn, once in power, would have enormous leverage to keep himself there.
5. What price are we willing to pay for the SNP’s support?
A ‘government of national unity’ or minority Labour administration doesn’t stand a chance without the Scottish Nationalists. What happens when they ask for another referendum on Scotland leaving the UK in return? Are we willing to sacrifice the UK Union to save our membership of the European Union?
6. Do we want a second referendum or simply to revoke and remain?
There is no common position on this. Remainers can’t succeed if they don’t know what they’re aiming for.
7. Will leaving without a deal be an option in any referendum?
Yes, yes, no deal is a terrifically bad idea but, as John Curtice points out, at least half of Leave voters want it and another quarter would be up for it rather than having another Brexit delay. Besides, you can’t spend three years harping on about how ‘no one voted for no deal’ then hold a referendum without no deal on the ballot paper.
8. What happens if Leave wins?
Will Parliament honour the result this time? Our premise has been that Leave, and especially no deal, would be disastrous; would we really be willing to carry forward such a policy, even if the public voted for it again?
9. What happens if Remain wins?
The 'What UK Thinks' poll of polls puts Remain on 53 per cent in a re-run of the referendum. Let’s say there’s another plebiscite and we win by this margin. How do we propose to unite the country afterwards? Almost half the electorate will have had their victory snatched from them. Who will tell them that the outcomes of referendums must be honoured? It’s true that leaving the EU will not let us ‘move on from Brexit’, but remaining will not let us move on from this populist moment. If anything, it may only prolong it.
10. What’s so great about the EU?
Trade, investment, free movement, consumer and environmental protections, security cooperation, global influence. Yes to all these and more, but have we ever stopped to think about how we frame the EU in our arguments against Brexit? We said leaving couldn’t be achieved when David Cameron was PM, when May was PM, and now under Boris too. We said Brexit risked undermining peace in Northern Ireland, imperilling the Union and weakening national security. We are in danger of giving the impression that leaving the EU is impossible without crippling economic and political punishment in return. The EU is one of the greatest pro-trade, pro-peace endeavours in human history but our best argument for staying in is that they’ll kneecap us otherwise. We are signalling to the voters that this isn’t a cooperative marketplace but a vicious protection racket. Brexiteers reckon their biggest mistake was to stop campaigning after the referendum, but in fairness we have been making their central argument for them ever since.