When you settle into a political role, over time it forms everything about you – your priorities, your tactics, your thinking, even your manner and your view of yourself. Such roles can therefore be hard to break out of when your circumstances change. There has been no bigger change in political circumstances in generations than the EU referendum, and accordingly players on both sides are struggling to adapt.
For Eurosceptics, it can be a happy challenge but a challenge nonetheless. After decades of rebellious obscurity – dismissed as “swivel-eyed loons” and “bastards”, banned from ever holding ministerial office, forced to fight a guerrilla war from the backbenches and associations of the Conservative Party, or driven into exile in UKIP – suddenly getting used to being the winners is quite hard. Not only does it mean finally getting to grips with how to make that once-distant dream of Brexit a reality, it means shaking off the mindset of the underdog.
The evidence of that internal struggle is there for all to see. Even after victory, with the biggest vote for anything in British democratic history tucked under our arms, we haven’t managed to completely leave behind the factionalism which is better suited to a radical fringe movement. The ghost of suspicion – the habitual feeling of Eurosceptics that we are about to be betrayed again – still lingers, most obviously in the repeated claims by Sir Nigel Farage and Arron Banks that Conservatives can’t be trusted with Brexit (they also said a Conservatives couldn’t be trusted to fulfil the promise of a referendum, or to allow Leave to win it).
But, as I say, these are happy difficulties to face – if the price of winning is having to come to terms with doing so, then it’s a price just about every Leaver will merrily pay.
More unpleasant is the difficulty facing vanquished Remainers. Two days after the referendum I wrote about why Eurosceptics, of all people, ought to empathise with and understand the grief of defeat – but cautioned that rejecting the result was the most painful and least productive response. So it has proved – those, like the Prime Minister, who adjusted swiftly to the new reality have adjusted best and most easily. At the opposite extreme, those who still refuse to accept the result entirely – maintaining it was the illegitimate verdict of racist, ignorant, old people, backed by lies and funded by Putin – find themselves plunged into a flag-waving purgatory, seeking imaginary silver bullets to make it all go away while the rest of the world gets on with it.
Somewhere in between the two (though a little closer to the latter group than the former) are a band of Conservative MPs who accept the referendum result enough to vote for Article 50, but still hope to frustrate and dilute Brexit sufficiently that it becomes either unrecognisable or at least pointless.
With a small majority, they certainly have an opportunity to become a new generation of “bastards” if they want – though May could always call their bluff and go to the country, aided by Jeremy Corbyn. The problem they have is that for the most part they are still in the early stages of finding and fitting into their new role. Being a really troublesome rebel – a pro-EU version of Bill Cash, say – involves taking on a whole new persona. It means acquiring inside-out knowledge of parliamentary procedure, thickening skin that might be more accustomed to the comforts of high office, dedicating obsessive amounts of time to puzzling out just about every possible opportunity to be a pain in the neck, and – ideally, though not essentially – trying to avoid becoming a bore on the topic at the same time.
Those Remainer MPs who seem either tempted by or forced into this role have signally failed so far to adapt to it very well. There’s still time – there is plenty more Brexit legislation to come – and of course the Prime Minister’s mandate was in large part granted by the referendum, and may lose some lustre as time passes, but they have not made much progress so far. Changing people who never expected to have to take to the hills and hunker round camp fires into hard-bitten guerrillas takes time, and moulding such individuals into a co-ordinated group takes longer, as the long wilderness years of the Leavers will attest.
There is another option, of course. Instead of following an established route to internal opposition, why not invent an entirely new one? Holding one’s counsel during the inevitable early stages of the process before seizing a platform by becoming the editor of a major newspaper seems improbable, but it might just offer such a route. If it were possible – but doesn’t it sound too outlandish to believe?