Looking beyond March 29 2019
Earlier this week I wrote about the likelihood that Britain will leave the EU on the current scheduled date of 29 March 2019. My logic was simple: the timetable is preset, adjusting it requires the consent of a lot of different parties and there is no sign yet that many people in Britain have changed their minds. You can still back that proposition at 5/4 on Betfair and it still looks to me to be outstanding value.
For the last few months, the polls on the referendum have shown a pretty consistent picture. With the benefit of hindsight, the public is evenly split but on balance thinks that leaving the EU was the wrong decision. Few have changed their minds. Slightly more Leave voters than Remain voters are open to the idea that they got it wrong but the shift has been caused by non-voters at the referendum breaking decisively for Remain.
In the short term, this doesn’t really have any significance. Unless public opinion moves far more decisively towards a change of heart, the momentum from the referendum vote will comfortably carry the country over the precipice of leaving the EU next March.
Then what? Imagine a Britain where no one ever changes their mind about Brexit. It’s easy if you try – social media is full of hardcore supporters on both sides yelling at each other across a chasm of values. The public has had over two years of hearing the arguments on both sides. Perhaps it’s not that surprising if most people should have reached a firmly settled resting point.
If everyone has picked their side in the Brexit values war, how does the war end? It’s a war between young unhappy metropolitans and old uneducated provincials: the blue and the grey, if you like. In this war of attrition, the young have time on their side.
In a very few years with no one changing their mind, Leave supporters will die off disproportionately, leaving a substantial structural majority for the pro-EU side in a surprisingly short space of time unless the members of the Leave Majority who have joined the Great Majority are replaced by new recruits. A country that eventually decisively believed that leaving the EU was the wrong decision would be highly likely to explore rejoining it at some point in the future. More than one clock is ticking.
What this means, therefore, is that Leave need not just to take Britain out of the EU but to start the process of changing their erstwhile opponents’ minds. They have three possibilities: the facts change to an extent that reachable Remain supporters change their minds, the public decide that regardless of who’s right or wrong they don’t want to think about Europe any more or Leave are able to reposition Brexit in a different place in the values war.
Leave supporters have done their best to minimise their chances on all fronts. What have Remain voters heard since the referendum? Accusations that opponents of Brexit are enemies of the people, saboteurs and traitors. Leave advocates have done everything to ensure that the public are forced to pick a side.
Those that have already picked Remain have been entrenched in that decision ever since. Leave supporters rightly note that dismal economic projections are not going to shift anyone from Leave to Remain. They seem unaccountably optimistic that good economic news might do the reverse. Values trump facts. This is not a one way street.
What of a charm offensive? Leave have gone in the opposite direction, claiming ever more stringent versions of Leave are required if Britain is not going to Brexit in name only. Boris Johnson supposedly sought to reach out to Remain supporters in his recent speech advocating a liberal Brexit, which, however, was trailed in advance with the use of the word “betrayal”. You have to wonder what is going on under that blond mop.
If Leave supporters really are going to make the case for a liberal Brexit, they are going to need to choose their language carefully. One-off speeches aren’t going to do the trick. Until you’re sick of the sound of your own voice, you haven’t said it enough. The most prominent Leavers, however, have the problem that many Remain supporters are already sick of the sound of their voices.
In practice, however, Leave cannot make the case for a liberal Brexit because a large part of Leave’s own supporters want no part of that. So a repositioning of Brexit looks predestined to fail.
Right now Leave’s best bet is sheer fatigue. But that would still leave the country in the long term believing that it had made a wrong turn in 2016 and was just making the best of a bad job. Even if that works, that’s not a very auspicious legacy, is it?
And that looks the likeliest best case scenario. At least as likely is a scenario where the public in time comes decisively to reject Brexit, rejoin the EU (presumably on worse terms than Britain left it) and where Leave becomes synonymous with a reactionary disaster.
So, how do Leavers propose to take things from here? They’ve spent far too long fighting the last battle. The next one is going to require a strategic genius.