It’s now a little over two years since a shellshocked Boris Johnson and Michael Gove appeared at that press conference and admitted that, yes, it seemed that the Leave campaign had been successful and that Britain would, in due course, be departing the European Union. From the looks on their faces and their glum and noncommital performance, it looked for all the world as if they had not expected to win and had no idea what to do next.
It was certainly not a referendum that David Cameron, who had finally seen no alternative but to grasp the Tory eurosceptic nettle, had expected to lose. The issue of the European Union had dogged Tory Prime Ministers almost since Ted Heath took us into what was then the Common Market in 1973. A referendum in 1975 confirmed that almost seventy percent of voters wanted to remain in the EU.
In the decades that followed the right-wing press peddled a steady stream of anti-EU stories, including one persistent myth that the EU wanted to ban curved bananas. This drip-drip in the ears of people who already resented what they saw as European meddling in British affairs eventually changed the landscape of opinion enough that, with hindsight, what happened next was inevitable.
Eurosceptic pressure grew within the Tory party, poisoning John Major’s premiership, and it became so acute – bolstered by what at the time seemed the all-conquering UKIP, itself a spinoff of disaffected Tories, at least in the beginning – that in 2013 Cameron proposed a simple vote to either leave or remain in the EU.
It was an act of towering hubris. Cameron saw that the Tories had won the now long-forgotten referendum on voting reform – which, to be honest, you could have missed even as it was taking place, there was so little interest in it – and he saw the Remain result of the 2014 referendum on Scottish Independence, and, in the 2015 general election, he put an EU referendum in the Tory Manifesto. He had, in effect, already won two referendums, and he would again. The People would not vote to leave, the issue of the EU would be put to bed in the Party for at least a generation, and he and George Osborn could go back to making the country miserable.
And maybe, in an alternate universe, that did happen. Unfortunately, we don’t live in that one.
I suppose we could look, as Cameron seems to have done, at Indyref as a kind of dry-run for the EU referendum. It was one of the dirtiest, angriest, most divisive campaigns I can remember and it caused divisions which remain to this day. There’s a real sense that, for Scotland, the subject is not yet closed.
And so it came to pass that the EU referendum was one of the dirtiest, angriest and most divisive campaigns the country has ever seen. Both sides lied and cajoled and promised and tried to scare people into voting for them. A slogan painted on the side of a bus by the Leave campaign promised that post-Brexit there would be £350 million a week of spare money which could be spent on the NHS – a promise that Leave politicians rapidly distanced themselves from once they’d won.
In the intervening couple of years, much has come to light about dodgy election funds, data analytics, and the raft of falsehoods built by both campaigns, but the simple truth is that Remain lost because it didn’t try hard enough. That was obvious at the time. Remain were quite unprepared for the sheer vehemence of the Leave campaign. And they didn’t expect to lose. Common sense would prevail, they reasoned. The People would do as they were told, as they always had.
I had a suspicion, in the closing days of the referendum campaign, that Leave might just edge it, but I went to bed on the night of the referendum with exit polls predicting a win for Remain and Nigel Farage seeming to concede defeat. The news the next morning was a bit of a shock.
In the aftermath, Cameron resigned, Theresa May was eventually confirmed as Tory leader and ad hoc Prime Minister, a series of frankly incomprehensible ministerial appointments followed – I suspect Boris Johnson’s tenure as Foreign Secretary will baffle historians for quite some time, as will the appointments of David Davis and Liam Fox, a man whose name is often prefaced by the words ‘disgraced former Defence Secretary’.
We were told, at the outset, that leaving the EU would be a piece of piss, that nations around the world would be queuing up to trade with us, that a new life awaited us in the offworld colonies, a chance to begin again in a golden land of opportunity and adventure. Okay, that last bit is from Blade Runner, but it catches the spirit of what was promised. Britain would be Great again and everything would be joyous.
It’s now eight months until we officially leave the European Union. Since the referendum, Theresa May has called a snap election which she very nearly lost, reducing the healthy majority left behind by Cameron to a point where she had to shackle herself to the DUP in order to get legislation through Parliament, a deal which she almost certainly regretted the moment it was struck. David Davis’s tenure as Brexit Secretary was characterised by a breezy self-confidence and a near-total lack of substance, and every time I see Liam Fox being interviewed on television now he looks utterly lost and out of his depth. Davis eventually quit his job over the government White Paper on leaving the EU; his successor, Dominic Raab, decided to establish his bona fides from the get-go by threatening that if the EU didn’t play ball Britain would withhold the so-called ‘divorce bill’. A few days after he was appointed, he was effectively demoted and Theresa May announced that she would be taking over negotiations personally.
Meanwhile, it seems the government is preparing for the possibility of a ‘no-deal’ Brexit by encouraging the stockpiling of food and medicines and Jacob Rees-Mogg, chair of the European Research Group – whose anodyne name hides some of the most extreme Tory eurosceptics – conceded recently that it could be fifty years before we know whether Brexit has been good for Britain or not. One does not have to be a writer of post-apocalyptic fiction to find all this slightly alarming.
Leave did not expect to win, and having won, they had no idea what to do next. They’ve been winging it for the past two years, I suspect to the increasing bemusement of the EU. There’s a line in Chris Wood’s ‘Hollow Point’. about the killing of Jean Charles de Menezes, which goes something like ‘they gave him no instruction that an innocent man would have understood’, and I have a feeling that’s how the EU negotiators have felt for the past couple of years. The clock has been ticking for two years and the British government has only just published the White Paper on what it wants from Brexit – and then promptly shredded it to please the European Research Group. If this is one of the easiest negotiations in history, as it was once characterised, the most difficult one must have been something to see indeed.
The thing is, very little of this changes anything. There are people living in this country who would rather live in a hedge and eat fox turds than remain in the EU. You could tell these people that Brexit would result in a hundred-foot tidal wave of volcanic lava scouring all life from Britain, and they would tell you it’s worth it. As far as they’re concerned, the EU is the bad guy here, bullying us as it has always done, a shady cabal of unelected euro-technocrats feathering their own nests at the expense of hard-working Brits.
Except that’s not quite true. The EU is trying to protect its own interests, as we would in its place. There’s a very real sense of British entitlement in the way we seem to expect the EU to accede to our every demand. If the wheels do come off the whole enterprise – which seems likely at the moment – the utter incompetence of the governent will not be held to blame. It will be the ‘intransigence’ of the EU, which will play into the narrative of the European Research Group.
That’s not to say that the EU are incapable of being utter bastards – their handling of the Greek financial crisis showed that – but in this case there is a legal and political framework in place for a country to leave the European Union, and it’s up to that country to work within that framework. That’s one of the things Leave supporters seem unable to understand: the EU is not going to bend the rules just because we’re British and we want them to, and it is not going to do something which threatens its own structures. The attitude of the government seems to have been that the EU, faced with the righteous Voice of the British People, would just roll over, no matter what the cost to itself, and there is a continuing subtext of shocked anger to some commentary that these uppity foreigners refuse to do as we ask, damn them.
To be honest, we were never really in the EU in the fullest sense. We negotiated a whole basket of opt-outs and rebates while cherry-picking the bits which suited us. We sit outside Schengen, we were never a member of the currency union. Of all the member states of the EU, we probably retained the most sovereignty while taking as much benefit as we could, and it was still not enough for some. The Ideal Brexit would be just the same, a situation where we were no longer part of any of the EU’s structures but we could still suck to our hearts’ content on the Eurotit, and I’m sorry to disappoint Leave supporters but it just doesn’t work like that and no amount of shouting and stamping your feet and screaming until you’re sick is going to change it.
There is, of course, the nuclear option, the no-deal Brexit. We don’t get what we want and we just throw our toys out of the pram and go our own way. How bad could that be? Well, it could be this bad. You’ll recall that none of this was on the side of a bus. Not that it would have made a lot of difference; the people who voted Leave because of immigration, because of resentment of EU legislation, because they wanted their curved bananas back, would still have voted the same way.
Any time someone tries to point out something like this, they’re shouted down. It’s ‘Project Fear’, it’s the ‘metropolitan elite’, ‘talking down the country’. As if throwing the wholehearted support of every living creature on Britain behind May, Davis, Fox and Johnson would have made them any less incompetent. Just having the temerity to say that Brexit might not be the best thing ever to happen to Britain is enough to get you called a traitor, and worse. Commentators characterise any opposition as ‘anti-democratic’. If you think Brexit is a mistake, you oppose Democracy itself. The whole thing is a bitter, black, shouty farce.
And that’s the lasting effect of Brexit. It hasn’t even happened yet and it’s already made us a meaner, angrier country. And it might get even worse.
So here we are, eight months to go. The EU has effectively killed Theresa May’s Chequers proposal, which was apparently the best thing the government could come up with after two years of infighting, and we’re in freefall again. Nobody knows what to do or what will happen and organisations on both sides of the Channel are making preparations for the worst-case scenario – not because they want it but because in the end it might be the only outcome. Meanwhile, May appears to be trying to perform an end-run on the EU by whistlestopping around Europe trying to drum up support from individual heads of state. Quite what she has to offer in return is unclear; she appears to be entirely out of bargaining chips, both abroad and at home.
Still, blue passports, eh.