Daniel Hannan is an MEP for South-East England, and a journalist, author, and broadcaster. His most recent book is What Next: How to Get the Best from Brexit.
This is it: the last column I’ll write for ConservativeHome as an MEP. We were supposed to leave the EU at the end of March 2019. Then at the end of June. Then at the end of October. Now, at last, it is happening. In nine days’ time, we’ll be out.
What an extraordinary three years. “If this were played upon a stage now,” says the poet, “I could condemn it as an improbable fiction.” The rise in the Conservative Party’s vote from 8.8 per cent at the European election in May (our worst ever result) to 43.6 per cent less than eight months later has no precedent. If anyone foresaw the turbulence, the vertiginous swings, the sudden reversals that followed the Brexit vote, they kept very quiet.
I certainly didn’t. Several things that happened after 2016 caught me completely off-guard. The first was the radicalisation of many Remainers. Euro-federalism had never really been a thing in Britain. To be sure, there were plenty of people who thought we should stay in the EU, but their reasoning had a pragmatic, faute-de-mieux quality. The usual argument for staying in was along the lines of “Yes, the EU may be expensive, remote, meddlesome and all the rest of it, but we’re in now, and pulling out would be disruptive”. The number of people who felt a visceral loyalty to Brussels, who responded emotionally to the 12-star flag, who identified as European, was tiny – until the referendum.
When people see the same issue leading the news day after day, though, they begin to take sides. As time passes, the side they have taken starts to become a part of their identity. In due course, they polarise, taking up harder and harder positions, more from tribal instinct than from changed circumstances.
It happened on both sides – partly during the campaign, but mainly after it. Leavers who had argued for years for “a common market not a common government” were suddenly arguing that a common market was “not Brexit”. Reluctant Remainers became passionate Europeans: the blue-and-gold flag, largely unseen in the UK before the campaign, began to flap at rallies. The handful of us who tried to argue for an EFTA-style compromise were shot down by both sides.
The radicalisation of the Remainers was the more striking. Until 2016, most of the loons had been on my side. I used to wince, during the 1990s, when Eurosceptic meetings were attended by angry, shouty people dressed as John Bull. After 2016, though, there was a polar switch. All of a sudden, the angry, shouty people were standing outside Parliament in blue-and-gold berets.
The second thing I failed to foresee was Theresa May’s charmless and inert premiership. In the immediate aftermath of the result, the almost universal assumption was that the Government would be led by someone who had voted Leave. Had that happened, I suspect the tone would have been very different. There would have been no sulkiness about recognising the rights of EU nationals in the UK. There would, I am pretty sure, have been a swift but soft Brexit, reflecting the narrowness of the vote.
But the new Prime Minister had no room for manoeuvre. Having voted Remain, she had to prove her credentials. She therefore overcompensated, digging in on relatively trivial issues – the timeframe, for example – while conceding on important ones, such as trade policy. Again and again, she insisted on making the whole negotiation about border control – sacrificing even sovereignty to that end. By the final days of her premiership, she was so desperate to get her deal through the Commons that she was conceding a second referendum.
My third miscalculation was failing to see how well Corbyn would do in the 2017 general election. It never occurred to me that the country would vote for a Marxist who sided against Britain in every quarrel.
It is worth asking what happened. After all, the disqualifications that counted against Jezza in 2019 were on display in 2017: his support for Hamas and the IRA, his anti-patriotism, his links with anti-Semites, his unaffordable spending pledges. Why didn’t he lose in the same way? Two reasons: first, he fought the 2017 election promising to respect the referendum result; second, he was against Theresa May.
Which brings me to my fourth mistake. I assumed that, after that election defeat, the Prime Minister would stand down. Had she done so, she would have left with her party’s thanks ringing in her ears. But, incredibly, she refused to budge. We were thus stuck with an anti-Brexit majority in parliament, an incapable Prime Minister and an EU that couldn’t believe its luck.
While all this was going on, the norms and precedents that sustained our system of government began to break down. Completely outré ideas – that referendums don’t count unless an absolute majority of eligible voters back something, that Russian agents had tipped the result, that previous promises to respect the verdict were void – began to be voiced, not just by online nutters, but by Labour MPs, columnists, academics and peers. When the Speaker of the Commons disregarded his officials to rule in a flagrantly partisan way, a large minority the country cheered. By the time May finally stepped down, I was concerned about the future of our parliamentary democracy.
How long ago all that seems now. Boris Johnson revived his party’s fortunes, won a stunning victory and restored normal government, The Brexit Bill has been passed, the Stormont assembly is back up and running and an ambitious democratic programme is being put before MPs.
Six months ago, just before Johnson was elected, I called in this slot for the democratisation of our administrative state, and suggested putting Michael Gove and Dominic Cummings in charge.
That is now happening. When I think that it might have happened in 2016, and that we might have been spared the anguish of the intervening 43 months, I almost want to weep.