Cast your mind back to before the general election. Theresa May was governing with authority. The centre-right press was fully behind her. The anti-Brexit coalition that stretched from trade union leaders through Keir Starmer through Tim Farron through the CBI to Philip Hammond was cowed – and balanced out by pro-Brexit forces such as, most credibly, Vote Leave’s successor organisation, Change Britain. This was able to send talented backbenchers, such as Gisela Stuart on the Labour side and Michael Gove on the Conservative one, into the TV studios and onto the airwaves. The Tory European Research Group, marshalled via WhatsApp by Steve Baker, was working productively with Ministers.
As we write, Theresa May’s authority is broken. Today’s papers are stuffed with leadership speculation, naming Philip Hammond, Boris Johnson, Amber Rudd, David Davis, Sajid Javid, Priti Patel, Dominic Raab, Brandon Lewis, Jo Johnson, Jesse Norman and the non-available Ruth Davidson. The next Conservative leadership election cannot feature all of these, and its winner may well be none of them. The anti-Brexit coalition is revived. It does not challenge the referendum result that was delivered almost exactly a year ago – mostly, anyway – but hopes that a future election will provide a mandate for a government to do so. In the meantime, it aims to spin the transition period that will accompany any Brexit deal out into the never-never, thus gaining time for voters, they hope, to turn against having formally left – thereby allowing the EU 27 and the EU institutions to take Britain back on our present terms (which they might or might not be willing to do, but that is another story).
The anti-Brexit coalition will, we read, try to amend the Great Repeal Bill and other legislation. The support from Jeremy Corbyn that would be needed to force Single Market membership isn’t there, and the same seems to apply to staying in the Customs Union – a position with which the Chancellor appeared to dally before retreating last weekend. But Parliament could put markers down against the Government’s “no deal is better than a bad deal” position, and against any control of EU immigration that would deliver a substantial cut in numbers over the medium-term. That this would have the effect of bringing back Nigel Farage from the dead, together with a revitalised UKIP or the equivalent, does not yet seem to have struck some Conservative MPs.
Meanwhile, Gove is back in government and Stuart has left the Commons. The new Environment Secretary has been joined in office by Raab and Baker. This site congratulates all three of them, but three experienced pro-Brexit Ministers in government means three fewer pro-Brexit backbenchers to roam the airwaves and studios freely. The big guns of the centre-right in Fleet Street are no longer firing on all cylinders: their proprietors and editors have lost confidence in the Prime Minister, and are by turn sulky, angry and confused. Furthermore, luck is running against her, at least for the moment, and the media as a whole is herding against the Government.
Part of it is simply anti-Brexit, exemplified by George Osborne’s Evening Standard. Another part is reflexively anti-May. Downing Street pre-election made a point of pride in not feeding the Fleet Street beast, and the Prime Minister’s two former Chiefs of Staff got up the noses of some senior journalists (as it did those of some senior Ministers). Now the beast is clawing and biting back. Furthermore, the way the media works in Britain is, as a rule, to scrutinise Westminster very closely indeed and Brussels much less so. There is little probing of differences in, say, the attitude of the Commission and the EU27 towards the negotiation, or of variations of view within the 27 themselves.
The effect of this is to magnify every engagement as a British defeat and an EU victory. Andrea Leadsom called last week for the media to be more patriotic. This was not the right way of describing the status quo (and most Remainers are no less patriotic than most Leavers in any event), but the collective lack of media interest in Britain’s interlocutors echoes, in a strange way, a flaw which the pro-Brexit movement is sometimes accused of: that’s to say, of living psychologically in a country “cut off by fog”, uninterested in the tone, colour and texture of politics and culture on the continental mainland. Finally, Change Britain is in abeyance: a click on its website reveals the words: “we won’t be campaigning during the election period, but we’ll work with whoever gets elected after June the 8th to make Brexit a success”. The date as we write is June the 25th, and the clock is ticking.
It is not at all surprising that the pro-Brexit movement is suffering from fatigue – activists, Ministers and donors alike. There is a substantial crossover between the last and Tory donors, and some are bound to feel, to borrow a phrase from the Prime Minister herself, that “enough is enough”. They will be thinking that they have poured money into the pro-Brexit cause, and that May and Conservative politicians are messing it all up (a view for which one can scarcely blame them). But the brutal truth is that, if they now desert the field, Britain may well get not so much a Clean Brexit – in other words, a negotiation in which the Government is backed by a Parliament which allows the Repeal Bill a fair wind – as a Messy Brexit, with the bill on the rocks.
The news is not all bad for pro-Brexit campaigners. There is a consensus across the two front benches, however heavily disguised, that the referendum result is inconsistent with Single Market membership. The drive for Customs Union membership has been seen off (for the moment, anyway). The European Research Group is in the hands not only of up-and-coming Leavers, such as Suella Fernandes and Anne-Marie Trevelyan, but of thoughtful former Remainers, such as John Penrose and Charlie Elphicke, who recognise that “Brexit means Brexit”.
None the less, the struggle for hearts and minds cannot be won by backbenchers alone. During the next few months, Ministers must somehow rise above the detail of the negotiation, with which they are necessarily engaged, to paint a big picture of the kind of Open Brexit that this site called for last year – of a cheaper-food, investment-friendly, globally-engaged Britain, actively engaged in seeking trade deals outside the EU as well as with its members, and with a sustainable pathway to bringing EU migration down over the medium-term.
But Ministers and MPs and Parliamentarians can’t deliver a coherent Brexit alone, either. This needs what politicians call “third party endorsements” – in other words, mobilising not only the 51 per cent who voted to leave the EU last June, but roughly half of the 48 per cent who voted to stay in it, and have now come to accept that Britain must make the best of leaving. That means a mass campaign. And that in turn means a revitalised Change Britain, or something like it.