If Brexiteers want to reassure Remainers they will have to start talking specifics

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

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.

12 thoughts on “If Brexiteers want to reassure Remainers they will have to start talking specifics”

  1. “…….it will be necessary to address that dissonance. How? By moving on to the specifics.”

    I don’t believe either side can do that, or could have done that during the referendum. The EU started of as a Common Market, then it was the EEC, later the EC and now its the EU. What will it be in another 10 years? The Confederation of European Sates? Is there another big European Treaty in the pipeline? Who can know?

    Who can know what deal will be offered or agreed to by the EU in the next year? Until we do we can’t say if there will be a big problem on the Irish border. Which could well be bigger for the EU than the UK.

    These kind of calls are unrealistic no matter which side of the argument makes them.

    1. We can’t know how things will turn out, but we can at least try to imagine what it is that we want. It is a fallacy to suggest that you can persuade people on the general principles first and sort out the specifics later. We need some of the specifics in order to grasp the general. On Brexit Micheal Gove is making a some headway, so it should not be impossible for anybody else. And in any case I thought the whole point of Brexit was that it allowed the British people to make up there own minds. To say that we can’t try to imagine what a post Brexit Britain will be like because it all depends on the terms the EU offer us sounds like something a Remainer would say.

      1. It’s more the terms that we would agree to rather than what the EU will offer. Maybe the EU will only offer us terms we can’t agree to. That has to be their call.

        “What we want” has to be all the advantages of the Single Market etc with all the disadvantages removed. This, as I’m sure we can all agree, isn’t likely!

        In some ways it would be better to make a clean break with the EU, stick it out on WTO terms for a couple of years so that we can then negotiate an agreement free, or freer, from all the political pressures that are on the EU side to be seen to punish the EU and so dissuade any others who are thinking of doing the same.

        But that obviously will disrupt the UK economy more than if can can reach some agreement.

        1. I understand the temptations of the “clean break”, or hair shirt approach to Brexit. In some ways British businesses have been cossetted by being part of the single market, and they may be more productive if given a shock. But the common sense in me suggests that is too radical. I would suggest a slower transition, with being part of the customs union, but not the Single Market, like Turkey, for a number of years. Quite apart from anything else the WTO is being dismantled by the the Trump administration. The EU is still likely to drive a hard deal on financial services, though personally I’m not going to stress too much about that, notwithstanding my former career. International financial services businesses are amongst the most flexible businesses in the UK and can adapt quickly.

  2. Might Corbyn be induced to change his mind on the second referendum issue, given that a substantial and increasing majority of his supporters favour one? And if one was held, might the dust settle a little differently from the previous 52/48 split? On such issues are the hopes of remoaners based. Meanwhile, I would agree that the forecast remains set for ‘out’ amongst somewhat stormy seas (and if Gove can calm the waters a bit with specifics, I await with interest).


    1. I think a second referendum would prove very divisive for Labour. Corbyn’s game is to keep his head down and hope that the Tories make a mess.

      1. Which I think the Tories will (make a mess). They have landed their leadership with implementing a difficult policy at the behest of 52% of the population who want inconsistent things after Brexit – a majority who want protection against (as they see it and fear) mass immigration setting up alternative cultures in their midst, and protection against the depletion/wiping out of uncompetitive industries such as has occurred in textiles; and a minority of cosmopolitans and free traders, such as Gove and Johnson , who want the opposite. How can they fail to disappoint some whose expectations they have raised? And this is not to speak of remainers like me who think that they have visited a constitutional outrage on our representative democracy – or of the Parliamentary difficulties of implementing a policy in which the majority of their MPs do not believe and with the Lords ready to throw a spanner in the works if they can.

        1. I agree Brexit will happen ,there is not at this moment, the political will to hold a second referendum, it would be seen as an undemocratic attempt to subvert the stated wishes of the people, and could sow the seeds for who knows what sort of political parties and agenda, The political plates are now in movement and all we know is that “the future ain’t what it used to be “
          On a more positive note I feel the effect could be as traumatic as in 1945 when that election threw up into the air, to be questioned, many of the assumptions, and beliefs held at the time and there was the chance fumbled (I feel) to alter the very structure of English society. Clamping down on public schools etc.
          And a left leaning party, or coalition of parties picking up the pieces after this current debacle, could attempt to forge a more equal society
          “A less positive result would be, as I feel the hard Brexitiers wish, we end up as Airstrip One, without the Thought police New Speak etc. but dominated completely by the USA, who knows to become the 53rd state

          If the end result is as bad as I really feel it will be, we must let the Tories handle it as the sign in the antique shop said “You broke it you own it . My Grandmother would say “you’ve made your bed so lie in it” and that is what we must do however uncomfortable.

      2. I think you’re right. By the time of the next election we’ll probably have left the EU or at least the process will be so close that EU membership won’t be such a big issue as many might now imagine it to be at the next election.

        Rejoining on the old terms won’t be an option. We’d have to reapply in the EU approved way and accept the Euro and Schengen etc and hardly anyone wants that. Of course, it depends on how the EU wants to play it. If they’ve any sense they’ll realise that it is probably better to move on to become the fully integrated EU it has to be to function properly. Common goverment, armed forces etc. A single country essentially.

        The UK isn’t going to be much help in that respect.

        1. I agree. I can’t see what can stop withdrawal, absent a major shift in British public opinion, which I can’t see happening for a long time yet. And I don’t think re-entry is a practical option for many years after exit either. As you say, the EU will change. Some kind of Associate status may evolve which will suit our politics better – to include Turkey and Ukraine too. That’s a long way off though.

Comments are closed.