James Kirkup

Both sides are to blame for killing soft Brexit

Both sides are to blame for killing soft Brexit
Peter Mandelson pictured in Westminster the day after the EU referendum (Getty images)
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Peter Mandelson's remainer credentials are impeccable. He is a former European Commissioner who helped run Britain Stronger In and then the People’s Vote (PV) campaign. He is as committed and eloquent a champion of EU membership as you’ll find. Which makes his Brexit intervention in the Guardian so important:

All the new benefits from every global trade deal we could ever aspire to will not begin to equal the size of our present European trade. This is the price we will pay for the triumph of hardline Tory Brexiters over those with a stronger sense of national interest in their party. It is also the price the rest of us in the pro-EU camp will pay for trying, in the years following 2016, to reverse the referendum decision rather than achieve the least damaging form of Brexit.

In Mandelson's view, the Remain ultras’ campaign to stop Brexit gave Britain a worse and harder Brexit that it could have had. I agree, and have been saying so here for several years. And just for the record, I voted Remain.

At several points in recent British political history, different choices could have delivered a form of Brexit that allowed Britain to trade much more freely with the EU that it will under whatever deal is – or is not – agreed in the coming week.

Listing and explaining all those turning points would take a short book rather than a column, but briefly the list starts with the Conservative party in 2016: if Tories had made Boris Johnson PM immediately after the referendum, he’d have steered the UK towards a much softer Brexit, and been able to take his party with him. (This, incidentally, is why Michael Gove did what he did that mad summer long ago.)

Instead we got Theresa May. She shifted the centre of debate on Brexit with her Lancaster House speech and her red lines on free movement. But after her early election disaster, there was genuine scope for her deal to pass the Commons on more than one occasion. That it didn’t was partly down to the woeful, juvenile stance of Conservative hardliners, who rejected a deal that was far harsher than anything they’d either demanded or promised barely months earlier. But Remain-leaning MPs bear some blame here too.

The May deal arguably doesn’t count as 'soft Brexit', but it was still softer (better) than the deal than the 'oven-ready' deal Johnson promised then abandoned. And the May deal could have passed. In the spring of 2019 (I know, that feels like a decade ago now), the Commons could have passed it if more Labour MPs had supported it. (In the event, only five full Labour MPs did so: Rosie Cooper; Jim Fitzpatrick, Caroline Flint; Kevin Barron; and John Mann.)

Why didn’t more Labour MPs vote for something they knew their constituents had asked for, and in a form that would be less bad than any of the alternatives that would flow from the May deal’s death? This takes us back to Mandelson and the hardliners on the Remain side, the People’s Vote campaigners, the Stop Brexit marchers and the FBPE keyboard warriors.

All those people helped create a political climate where compromise on Brexit was too painful and costly for the politicians who had to vote and decide on Brexit. And even now, even when Peter Mandelson admits as much, many of the Remain hardliners won’t admit it.

For Continuity Remain, it is an article of faith that soft Brexit was never possible, never really on offer. They base this claim on a fairly crude reading of Leavers and the dynamics of Conservative approaches to Brexit. In the FBPE version of history, the fanaticism of the ERG was an inevitable and immutable fact of political life: no matter what else happened in the world, Mark Francois and his mates would always have wrecked anything but the hardest Brexit, meaning there was no point in seeking a compromise. And so seeking to 'reverse the referendum decision', as Mandelson candidly puts it, made sense at the time.

That version of history is no doubt convenient and comfortable to people whose political mission has failed utterly: few of us find it easy to admit when we’ve monumentally screwed up, after all, so Mandelson deserves a great deal of respect for his candour. But of course, life is never as simple or comforting as the comforting stories we tell ourselves make it out to be.

Had some or all of the energy and political capital that was spend on trying to kill Brexit been applied to the cause of the least damaging Brexit, Conservatives who did not subscribe to ERG stupidity would have been bolstered. There was nothing inevitable about the Tories slide into headbanging fanaticism: in a different, less polarised climate, more Tories could have followed Nick Boles on the path to compromise. And in turn, more Labour MPs could have cast the votes they privately admitted they should. The centre could have held.

That it didn’t was down to the radicals on both sides who sought to destroy any common ground in pursuit of purity. The dance of death between the ERG and PV killed softer Brexit. Who led that dance? It doesn’t matter, because it takes two to tango, and it took two sides to destroy every attempt at compromise. However much the rump Remainers blame Leavers for it, they must take their share of the blame for whatever harmful endgame the Brexit talks are about to produce.

The Remain zeal that helped to kill soft Brexit still burns bright today. In FBPE Twitter, you can now find Remainers denouncing Peter Mandelson over his comments. He stands accused of questioning FBPE history of hard Brexit as an inevitable product of inevitable Tory fanaticism.

And so the myths of the pro-European hardliners lingers on; if even Peter Mandelson can’t shift the delusions, no-one can. So the FBPE Remainers who helped to give Britain a much worse form of exit continue on a journey that will see them one day recognised as the swivel-eyed loons of progressive politics.

Peter Mandelson is still one of the smartest people in politics. No wonder he wants to distance himself from all that.