Rob Wilson is a former Minister for Civil Society, and was MP for Reading East from 2005 – 2017.
The Brexit debate exchanges continue to be harsh and shrill, as the reaction to Jacob Rees-Mogg’s piece in the Daily Telegraph demonstrates. Following the referendum campaign, the mistrust is deep and so ingrained between leading Leavers and Remainers that any form of rapprochement seems impossible. Both sides believe in their righteousness and their rectitude as they repeat the same platitudes over and over again. To the public, it is not enlightening but it is both unrelenting and often unedifying. Neither side is prepared to back away or give even a little ground because it has turned into a late-night street brawl between drunks. All proportion and rationality have been removed from these hard-core pugilists as the uncoordinated haymakers try to find their target.
For much of the country, the prevailing view is to accept the outcome of the democratic vote, accompanied by a wish for the politicians to “just get on with it”. The public wants the country to move on from referendum divisions and is reasonably happy with the Government’s preferred solution: out of the single market, out of the customs union, a partnership with close co-operation and mutually beneficial trade agreement, but the UK free again to control its money, its borders, its laws and its trade. A huge majority now wants the Government to negotiate and, more importantly, actually deliver. Delivery of a successful Brexit is now crucial to the Government and Conservative Party’s future.
But there is devil in the details and politics of the negotiations. It’s not so simple when the EU does not really want the UK to leave – the money, defence and security know-how, plus our more enterprise-driven economic model, makes the UK useful, yet if we do leave we can’t be allowed a good deal because Brexit can’t be allowed to look successful or the EU might break apart (although it might do that anyway, it would be less likely if the UK remained). All the outstanding issues would be entirely resolvable were this not the case and the divisions between Leavers and Remainers so entrenched and stark. To be fair to the EU, this later point makes understanding the UK negotiating position difficult, both with a split Cabinet and seemingly having to negotiate with both David Davis and Olly Robbins – who appear to have different agendas.
Getting the EU to want to give the UK a fair deal will depend on things largely outside of the UK’s control. The migrant crisis, Germany’s weak government, the trade war with the USA, the politics of Italy and southern Europe are good examples. A damaging trade dispute with a big European economy would be the last thing the EU needs, and Theresa May would do well to remember this as we get towards crunch time in negotiations. It’s also why walking away from a bad deal must remain on the table and be properly prepared for. Is the EU really going to risk the health of so many of its member states and the EU’s economy, putting the whole project in jeopardy? It seems extremely unlikely.
But is there anything we can do within the UK to help resolve the ongoing division and bitterness? A second referendum is out of the question, as that would be anti-democratic – voting until one side gets the result it wants is simply not fair. A ‘Peoples’ Vote’ on the deal is largely an attempt to undo Brexit, so would not be deliverable for any government. However, there might be an offer to Remainers that would allow them to accept the new order and perhaps even to give it a chance.
The Prime Minister could agree to negotiate a concession from the EU that it would be wise and sensible to accept, although EU politics could make it difficult. As a sign of good faith and an acknowledgement of Remainers’ concerns, May could negotiate an agreement to allow the UK back into the EU on at least the same terms as on the leaving date, which could not be activated for a set period of time – say a minimum of 25 years after the triggering of Article 50. The deal must also be that any UK Government that activates the measure must have it confirmed by a referendum of the British people within six months. If, as Remainers suggest, Brexit means we are all going to hell in a handcart, it is a wise precaution. If as Leavers believe, Britain adapts and prospers, its triggering will be unnecessary and unwise.
The brawl we are in means the idea is likely to be dismissed vehemently by both sides and for a range of reasons – the drunks are still preoccupied with taking the next swing. But to bring the country together, a concession of some sort to the concerns of the 48 per cent needs to be made without changing the outcome of the vote for the 52 per cent. If the Prime Minister manages to finalise her negotiating position at Chequers this weekend, she will then need to get the country behind her, with both Leavers and Remainers willing her to succeed. This is one measure that might at least begin the sobering up process so that a sensible discussion can follow..