OK, so “it was Vote Leave wot won it”.
Well it wasn’t, of course, but for once let’s not quibble over the suggestion that Leave was always in the lead or indeed that it was the 20% of “liberal Leavers” who took Leave across the 50% winning line.
Let’s at least acknowledge the truth that Vote Leave, mainstream Tory euroscepticism and its estranged UKIP sibling were the predominant voices for Leave during the referendum campaign. Because let’s be frank, in the final analysis there was little to choose between all of the above. Differences such that they existed at all came down to presentation. Fundamentally all of them were animated by the same things: ending free movement; highlighting the costs of EU membership; and ending the reach of EU regulation into British life (meaning an end to single market membership as well). Plus of course that thing called democracy and being a self-governing nation once again.
Aside from presentation style, there was little to distinguish Michael Gove from Nigel Farage, which is no doubt why the latter was increasingly comfortable with the former.
The whole campaign was constructed to push the public’s emotional buttons — on high costs, on the NHS, on fear of the other — with facts being treated like an embarrassing uncle. It was only fortunate for Leavers that the Remain campaign was even worse.
And when I say ‘embarrassing’, I mean embarrassing in the context of a teenager’s worldview: Of the inconvenience of hard realities getting in the way of daft, ill-thought-out juvenile notions driven by over-excitability and generated in a fanciful fog of dreamy, plan-less idealism.
The problem now is that by being at the forefront of the winning side, this prevailing and all-pervasive approach to ‘Leave’ has been legitimised. This preeminent form of Leave is what I call “Euroscepticism 1.0”, and beneath the squabbling, it is now more united than ever before, while “Euroscepticism 2.0”, represented by so-called “Liberal Leave”, seems to have been sidelined indefinitely.
But look at the Conservative leadership contest to get an inkling of how Euroscepticism 1.0 works. Or rather, how it doesn’t work.
Four figures firmly linked to Vote Leave up against a long-standing experienced minister who held one of the great offices of state (plus someone else who evidently spends too much time on his phone).
The four teenagers squabbled, as teenagers do, and ended up backing an obviously unsuitable compromise candidate with a nice smile, and thereby collapsed their combined leadership ambitions in the space of a fortnight.
And so we had a coronation of Theresa May. A woman of substance who launched her campaign with a zinger of a speech. A woman who, by her carefully-chosen words on the single market and free movement, signaled that she already understood the outlines of a deal and a roadmap with the EU that the teenagers quite obviously did not.
The “reshuffle” — or “the new government”, for that’s what it is — gives us further clues to what Britain’s second female prime minister might be thinking.
Firstly, the obvious placements of Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary; David Davis as Brexit minister; Liam Fox at International Trade. All three were linked to Vote Leave (Davis less so) and are all firmly aligned to “Euroscepticism 1.0”. So are Andrea Leadsom at DEFRA and Priti Patel at International Development, both managing departments that face Brussels to a greater or lesser extent.
That leaves Chris Grayling, the one Leaver who was at the forefront of Vote Leave and prominently supported Theresa May from the very start. Yet Grayling appears to have been shoved into the relatively lowly position of Transport Secretary, leaving the commentariat scratching their heads.
So here’s my reading of what is going on.
The prime minister requires that Euroscepticism 1.0 faces the consequences of its position on the EU and delivers on it. In so doing, she is putting the full machinery of government at the Leavers’ disposal.
But I regret to say that this is a bit like getting your 16 year old teenage daughter, who has moaned about having to go to the British seaside for several years, to organise an entire family holiday to Thailand with you as the parent simply providing the phone, internet and money to sort it out.
Given what we know about Johnson’s and Fox’s positions on the EU and Davis’s position(s) on how to exit the EU, we can already see where this will end up. Sure, let them have their day in the sun but for them that sunny day could very quickly feel like being dropped naked in the middle of the Sahara Desert one summer’s dawn, armed with only a half-used bottle of Factor-10.
There is no supporting knowledge architecture. There doesn’t even seem to be the most basic understanding of what they are dealing with, betrayed by a thrashing around of what their Brexit model might look like and still landing on one (CETA) that doesn’t even touch what Britain would need.
The problem is that Euroscepticism 1.0 has spent years simply talking to its core vote…and Johnson hasn’t even done that. They are totally ill-equipped for what is about to hit them.
But this is where we come to the method in Theresa May’s apparent madness.
Euroscepticism 1.0 needs to blow itself out by facing the consequences of its victory and the tough decisions that will flow from it. That could very well come down to a choice between a deep recession/economic damage versus an alleged betrayal of Leave supporters. Given the rainbow-chasing already under way (an extension of Vote Leave’s approach), one wonders whether it will even get that far or whether the big three Leave positions in the cabinet will replay exactly what happened in the leadership election and shoot themselves and each other.
Just imagine Davis’s and Fox’s sinking feeling as the trade experts in the civil service and beyond tell them they can’t actually set up new trade deals until Britain’s position is settled vis-a-vis the WTO and the EU. Yet Davis’s “strategy” is to do exactly that.
Welcome to unicorn land.
But what about Chris Grayling sitting out of the way in the Transport Department? My view is that the canny Mrs May is not sidelining him at all, but rewarding him and protecting him from the coming self-destruction of his former Vote Leave colleagues and of Euroscepticism 1.0 with it.
After all Grayling is a man who, despite being one of the figureheads of Vote Leave, has been much more careful in his language since the nonsense ‘exit plan’ with his name on it was reported on the front of the Financial Times on 15th June.
By contrast, on the day Leave’s victory was declared — 24th June —Chris Grayling said he wanted “a trading agreement that is very similar to what we have now.” He has also openly acknowledged that we did not elect Vote Leave — that this was not the meaning of the referendum; it was merely to give the government a popular mandate to leave EU membership.
On 27th June, Grayling intriguingly admitted that the civil service does have a plan, and on Newsnight later that day, he was surprisingly coy when questioned by Evan Davis on the Norway Option.
Then on 10th July on the BBC’s Sunday Politics show, Grayling’s welcome transition to more careful May-like language about Brexit became fully apparent. For example,
- he suggested the government would “…stop unfettered free movement…”
- reiterating again that we did not elect Vote Leave on 23rd June, with the full implication that a Theresa May government would not feel bound by their promises apart from simply leaving EU membership.
- saying that while he thought Britain would be out of the EU by 2020, he crucially would not guarantee it or give assurances on it.
What was interesting at the time was the contrast with David Davis who on the same day was reported in the Sunday Times as saying that in order to get Davis on board with her campaign, Theresa May had said to him privately that border control must take priority ahead of single market participation.
This tells me that Prime Minister May needed/needs Davis to carry the can when Euroscepticism 1.0 fails to deliver, along with Liam Fox and of course the better-known Boris.
And when that happens, we will arrive at a form of Euroscepticism 2.0 with trusted lieutenant and Leaver Chris Grayling transferred out from an obviously-unaffected cabinet position to deliver Theresa May’s wishes on Brexit, which are much more pragmatic and come with an “interim deal” and the concept of a longer-term process. Such wishes will also likely be delivered against a handy backdrop of falling net immigration.
With Euroscepticism 1.0 finally discredited, the political path will be clear for Euroscepticism 2.0.
And in a final twist of irony, it’ll be mostly Remainers who deliver it.