Iain Duncan Smith is a former Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, and founded the Centre for Social Justice.
How the Westminster bubble got the referendum wrong. Remember its prevailing view at the start: that it would rapidly descend into a civil war fought within the Conservative Party, with others simply watching from the sidelines. Whilst the Conservative bit was right (not too many marks for predicting that), we now know that the referendum turned out to be much, much more divisive. After all, it was not just the Conservatives who were divided: the whole country divided on lines of income, geography, education and sometimes even religion. Even the media was divided – and (speak it softly) was sometimes just as angry as the rest of us.
In the biggest exercise in democracy we have seen in modern times, the country roared its answer and the tectonic plates of Westminster politics juddered. Yet despite the warning of Project Fear that we would be plunged into chaos and economic misery if we voted to leave, it is clear that we haven’t been. Indeed since the referendum, despite the forecasts of all those ‘expert’ doom-mongers, most people have simply gone back to work and got on with their lives. Kids still go school; businesses carry on; employment has risen, and people continute to spend their money much as they did before. Out there in the land beyond Westminster, to paraphrase John Lennon, life is what happens to you while politicians are busy making plans.
And how politicians do love to make plans. First, we pick over the carcasses of elections; then we re-write the past and finally, of course, we try to get even. Halfway through the party conference season, we can all now begin to see the results of some of those post-referendum plans.
First, Labour MPs used the referendum result to try to depose Jeremy Corbyn. His lacklustre performance during it was, they proclaimed, the final straw. What I find perplexing about this view is that, whilst Corbyn can be undoubtedly be blamed for being pretty uninspiring and taking the Labour more broadly into a cul de sac of extreme left-wing protest, blaming him for failing to persuade traditional Labour voters to go against their deeply-felt concerns about uncontrolled migration and vote to stay in the EU is verging on the absurd.
Yet blame him they did – and then plunged their party into a second leadership election which even the most optimistic of them must have realised was doomed to fail. Ironically, Corbyn is now in a stronger position than he was before, and we watch as the ‘moderates’ cling to each other in defiance, whilst nervously listening out for Momentum’s clattering tumbrils: oh, we do love a good plan at Westminster.
It was of course – if we cast our minds back to the 24th June – the Conservatives who were meant to be in chaos. Remember, we were going to be rudderless – tearing lumps out of each other for weeks and weeks whilst the country went to the dogs. Yet here we are just about to embark on the conference, with a new Government in place, a new Prime Minister since before August, and a new domestic agenda. Surely this wasn’t meant to be the plan: how did this all go so horribly…er, right?
Yet events last weekend reminded me that there are some who seem intent on sticking to the original plan, picking over the carcass of a dead event, re-writing the past – and getting even. Craig Oliver published his account of government, which I am sure historians will pore over in years to come seeking to discover rich seams of truth and enlightenment.
However, it does seem to have just the faintest element of re-writing the past. According to his account, we could apparently have struck a remarkable new deal with the EU if only Theresa May had agreed to it. Apparently, her reluctance to help left the Government unable to announce at the start of the referendum campaign that it had secured a reformed EU. Really? But I seem to recall that the Government did say it had secured a reformed EU, and had won agreement to control migration. Ah, I remember now – no-one much in the UK believed them, which must have been someone else’s fault. No: I am afraid that, as rewrites of history go, it all sounds a bit desperate to me.
Then we had the former Chancellor, (ensconced in the aptly named ‘windy city’), telling the Prime Minister that, despite his losing the referendum, he now has inside knowledge of what the British people voted for. He went on as the representative of the liberal mainstream majority (and, it appears, as their spokesman) to warn Theresa May, in terms redolent of Project Fear, that she shouldn’t govern from the extremes. Humility, it seems, can take many forms – though apparently not if one is mainstream, liberal or in the majority.
Still, it is always good to know that someone out there is sticking to the plan.
For the rest of us, who instead are optimistic about the UK’s future, I hope that – as we leave the Labour Party with its 1980s tribute act – we can ensure that the Government delivers on the important promises made by the Prime Minister on the steps of Downing Street in July. After all, the British people voted to take back control of their borders, their money and their laws; that seems pretty mainstream to me.