There was a certain inevitability about the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson’s speech yesterday. It was meant to reach out to Remainers by presenting a liberal case for Brexit, but instead it drew raspberries. Britain’s polity is bitterly divided. It was always going to take more than a few speeches to change that.
Is there anything useful to be learned from this episode? One of the central themes of the speech was perfectly sound, if unwelcome to Remainers. The result of the referendum cannot be reversed, and Brexit is going to happen in some shape or form. The reason for that is basic politics. The leadership of the Conservative and Labour parties have both signed up to it. The Tories can rely on Democratic Unionist support. We’ve already had a general election following the referendum. There simply isn’t the political support to reverse Brexit.
And as for another referendum, Mr Johnson made a perfectly sound point. Another period of political battle between the two camps will only make things worse. There is no sign of a major shift in opinion in either direction. Remainers are clutching at straws when they look at polls suggesting opinion has shifted. It was looking at the polls that got is into the mess in the first place.
That makes the case for Remainers to try and get used to the reality. But those facts don’t make the pill any easier to swallow. What Mr Johnson tried to do on top of that was persuade Remain supporters that Brexit will not be as bad as they fear. And here the speech was a complete failure. He came out the same old platitudes and generalities that have been a feature of the Brexit campaign from the start. There have always been two prongs to the Brexit case. One is an appeal to conservative voters who oppose immigration and feel strongly that national sovereignty is a birthright that trumps any freedoms in the world beyond the country’s borders. The second is an appeal to liberal types with the idea that post-Brexit the country can be a liberal haven, free from the restraints of EU obligations. The problem is that these two lines look dissonant. It is easy enough for Brexit supporters to concentrate on their preferred line of argument and ignore the others. For sceptics it is that very dissonance that worries them.
And to overcome that fear it will be necessary to address that dissonance. How? By moving on to the specifics. Which regulations do you want to dismantle to make us free? How will you satisfy the need for regulatory alignment promised to the Irish without becoming a vassal state of the EU like Norway? And how will the rights of young people to travel and work in Europe be secured? And so on. Mr Johnson did not begin to do this.
Only one government minister seems to have understood what needs to be done: Michael Gove, the Environment Secretary. He is trying to show us in concrete terms what opportunities leaving the EU might bring – for example in making the EU’s clumsy system of farm subsidies much more focused.
In the absence of such substantive proposals the government gives the impression that it has not made up its mind and is putting off hard decisions. We are instead told that such detail might harm the country’s negotiating position. But most of us suspect it is because of deep disagreements in the government, and not just between Brexiteers and closet Remainers, but between the Brexit liberals and their illiberal supporters.
It is a situation that is crying out for strong political leadership from somebody that has both vision and a grasp of detail, and from somebody that knows how to build and maintain political coalitions. That person is not our Prime Minister, Theresa May, nor is it the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. And yesterday’s speech showed us that it is not Boris Johnson either.