Saturday

25th Mar 2017

Column / Brexit Briefing

Searching for a voice and standard bearer

  • The House of Lords may prove to be yet another sticking point for Theresa May (Photo: ukhouseoflords)

Most of Britain’s beleaguered pro-Europeans have been in hiding since last June’s EU referendum. Tortured by the combination of imminent Brexit and Donald Trump in the White House, switching off the news and unplugging the phone takes the edge off the grief.

Perhaps pro-Europeans should wear black.

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It’s no surprise. Remainers are yet to find a political voice that can counter the new "one party Brexit state" of Theresa May.

Tony Blair found that out last week. Such is the ferocious hatred of anything related to the former prime minister that his remark that, "the British people voted to leave Europe. And I agree the will of the people should prevail," didn’t stop Brexiteers accusing him of treason and insurrection for suggesting that people might change their minds about leaving the EU.

"We have to build a movement which stretches across party lines, and devise new ways of communication," Blair said.

Most of his message was and is valid. But pro-Europeans need a different messenger if they want to have a chance of being listened to.

In the firing line this week was the House of Lords. As an unelected assembly dominated by former politicians, diplomats and academics, a care-home for the Establishment, the House of Lords is a soft target.

The Lords can’t block the bill. Nor is it in their interests to seriously try. Right-wing pundits are saying that the Lords should face abolition – or have their expenses cut - if they dare amend the Article 50 bill.

Boasting around 250 out of over 800 members, it’s much harder for the government to build majorities in the Lords than it is in the Commons.

Consequently, a handful of amendments are likely to get tacked on to the bill next week when it reaches committee stage. The most likely contenders include an amendment to guarantee an open border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland and guarantees on the rights of EU citizens in Britain and the role of parliament in scrutinising the process.

Securing small concessions on the negotiations is as good as it will get in the short-term.

No buyer’s remorse

In the meantime, the 48 percent of Remain voters – and anxious Leave supporters – need a political movement to rally around if and when Brexit turns ugly.

There is currently no vehicle for their views. Labour is rudderless and divided – party sources estimate that around 7,000 members tore up their party cards after leader Jeremy Corbyn instructed his MPs to support the government’s bill to trigger Article 50 earlier this month.

Labour and its EU sister-parties are holding a post-Brexit conference in London on Friday and Saturday (24-25 February), presumably in a bid to work out what they stand for in the post-Article 50 world.

The failure of UKIP to take an extremely winnable seat in Stoke-on-Trent - the only piece of good news for Labour from Thursday's by-elections - should offer some encouragement to those hoping Labour remains a pro-European centre-left party.

The Liberal Democrat and Green parties, for their part, are simply too small to pose any serious opposition to the May government.

The Open Britain campaign group, which was formed from the members of the losing Stronger IN campaign team, has focused on retaining single market membership but accepting Brexit. It has had little media impact recently.

For the moment, any talk of another referendum is for the birds. There is little sign of much buyer’s remorse among Leave voters and considering the low quality and viciousness of last year’s referendum campaign, most would be forgiven for not wanting a rerun anytime soon.

Turn of the wheel

But the divorce and renegotiation are not going to be a long game.

Already 35 percent of Britons want a second referendum on the terms of exiting the EU, a figure which will probably increase if a successor trade agreement is not agreed before the Article 50 process comes to an end in spring 2019.

Outside dictatorships, political debate does not stop just because one side wins an election, Remainers have every right to keep campaigning and hope for a change in the political weather.

During the first House of Lords debate on the Article 50 bill this week, Nicholas Macpherson, a former Treasury mandarin, told Remainers to "not be too downcast".

"These islands have been seeking to define their relationship with continental Europe for the past 2,000 years. The referendum result represents a turn of the wheel, and the wheel will one day turn again," he said.

Pushing the wheel along, however, will first need a political movement worth the name.

Benjamin Fox, a former reporter for EUobserver, is a consultant with Sovereign Strategy, a London-based PR firm, and a freelance writer.

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