|Michel Barnier: ‘It is Britain’s choice.’|
All our friends in the rest of the European Union have been doing is spelling out the consequences of leaving the club while desperately hoping we will change our minds. I fear that our educational psychologist friend must be a reader of those well-known newspapers that spent decades poisoning the minds of their readers with ill-informed or deliberately distorted reporting about “Brussels” before the referendum, and since then have continued their distortions of what has really been going on.
I am reminded of the time nearly two years ago when the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, spoke at the Ambrosetti conference I attended in Italy, where he simply pointed out that there would be consequences for us and the rest of the EU if we did not change our minds. When I returned to Britain I found that it was even being reported on the BBC that Barnier had said we would be “punished”, although he said no such thing.
When one thinks of the amount of time Barnier, and the president of the EU council, Donald Tusk, have devoted to this Brexit nonsense, it is remarkable that Barnier himself can still say: “Britain can always avoid no deal. It is Britain’s choice. Britain can ratify the withdrawal agreement or revoke article 50” (my italics).
All that patient work wasted? Not at all. It will have been worth it if this country finally gets its act together and changes its mind about courting catastrophe. And Tusk – to my mind one of the heroes of this bad business – tells us he still “dreams” of the UK reversing its Brexit decision.
There does seem to be a widespread recognition that a reflective referendum is the only way out of the stalemate
Which brings me to some encouraging straws in the wind which I hope our educational psychologist in the west London shopping mall has noted. First was the impressive recantation of his Brexit views by my old acquaintance Peter Oborne, former chief political commentator of the Daily Telegraph – the newspaper whose stablemate, the Sunday Telegraph, used for years to print made-up rubbish from their Brussels correspondent, one Boris Johnson. In a seminal article for Open Democracy, Oborne confessed: “It has become clear to me, though I’ve been a strong Tory Brexiteer, that Britain’s departure from the EU will be as great a disaster for our country as the overmighty unions were in the 1960s and 1970s.”
Personally I should say “a much greater disaster”, but let us not quibble when such an influential Tory commentator has such a Damascene moment. Oborne is particularly angry about what have proved to be the Brexiters’ “exaggerated and false claims” about the supposed wonders of Brexit and those imaginary trade deals, as well as the threat to the Good Friday agreement, which he agrees people like him failed to appreciate at the time.
Which brings me, talking of trade, to my good friend Kenneth Clarke. Like me, Clarke does not like referendums. If the Conservative party had had the good sense to elect him as leader, there would have been no referendum, and we should not have been in the potentially tragic position we are in now. He has reluctantly concluded that there has to be a compromise and that the “least bad option” (not “least worst option”, Today programme please note) is a customs union. He narrowly lost parliamentary support for that, having earlier surprised friends by voting for Theresa May’s deal.
To my mind, the only justification for Clarke’s voting for May’s deal is so that it can be offered to the British public as a substandard alternative to the status quo – that is, remaining in the EU. This would involve a referendum, but there does seem to be a widespread recognition that a reflective referendum is the only way out of the stalemate.
The high priest of British opinion polling, Sir John Curtice, tells us that 85% of electors have not changed their minds since the referendum. But, even allowing for the fact that people like our educational psychologist friend have shifted from Remain to Leave, I should be prepared to put real money on the view that most of the 15% have looked into the abyss and opted for Remain.
It remains, no pun intended, for the leadership of the Labour party to wake up to what most Labour members and voters want, and come out strongly and unequivocally for Remain.