By MARCUS STEAD
IF YOU have a roof that needs repairing, should you hire qualified professionals or let the cowboys do the work? All sensible beings know it is far better to pay a bit more and get suitably-trained people in rather than risk shoddy workmanship or even danger from the cheaper option.
We face a similar dilemma with our approach to the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union. The result was a clear, but not overwhelming victory for ‘Leave’ (52% to 48%), and a degree of magnanimity towards our opponents who voted ‘Remain’ is desirable. But the make-up of the House of Commons, and the leadership of the main political parties are dominated by ‘Remain’ supporters.
In other words, we have put the task of guiding the country out of the EU into the hands of politicians who, at best, don’t really believe Brexit is in the UK’s best interests, and at worst, will try to sabotage the process to suit their ‘I told you so’ agenda. In turn, this may lead to a ‘half in, half out’ Brexit, or, quite possibly, a poor deal that does so much damage to the economy that within a few years the UK will be begging to re-join the EU on whatever terms it can get (which will almost certainly mean adopting the euro).
I have never, for a single second, doubted that my ‘Leave’ vote last year was the correct one. I am absolute in my belief that the UK will be freer and more prosperous outside the EU than in it, but the UK’s departure from the EU needs to be handled correctly, by people who actually believe in Brexit. Let us put the current crop of political leaders under the microscope:
Theresa May became Prime Minister because nobody else wanted the job. She had a long and utterly unremarkable track record as Home Secretary, where she failed to meet the key 2010 manifesto pledges of bringing annual net immigration figures down to the tens of thousands (which is itself impossible for as long as the UK is in the EU) and the repeal of the Human Rights Act (a piece of legislation nowhere near as nice as its title suggests). Her handling of the fallout from the Jimmy Savile scandal was also nothing short of appalling.
There is little sign she disagreed with much of the New Labour project, and even less sign that she has ‘conservative’ instincts. There is personal warmth between her and the New Labour ultra-feminist Harriet Harman, and May once said at the dispatch box of the Commons that she ‘loved’ the foul-mouthed rock musician, ‘Sir’ Bob Geldof.
Mrs May kept her cards close to her chest during the referendum campaign. She was a ‘Remain’ supporter, but wasn’t very vocal about it, which was clearly a calculation on her part that by being relatively quiet, she would be in pole position for the leadership.
Most of the people in key Cabinet positions were ‘Remain’ supporters – Chancellor Philip Hammond, Home Secretary Amber Rudd, Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt, Defence Secretary Michael Fallon, Education Secretary Justine Greening, and Conservative Party Chairman Sir Patrick McLoughlin, to name but a few.
Even Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson’s support for ‘Leave’ should be treated with suspicion. He waited until the last possible moment to declare his hand before the referendum, and indeed had a newspaper opinion piece drafted, though never published, in which he outlined his support for ‘Remain’. A few years ago, I wrote an article about Johnson’s long CV as an unprincipled opportunist. He had no track record whatsoever as a eurosceptic campaigner prior to the weeks before the referendum.
Liam Fox, with his trade portfolio, has for years been described as a ‘eurosceptic’ in the press, but it was only in the run-up to the referendum that he stated he wanted to see the UK leave the EU. Before then, he appeared to be one of those ghastly hybrid characters who says they dislike the EU but would like the UK to remain in a reformed EU (anyone with any understanding of how the EU operates knows that this is a far-fetched pipe dream).
The only major Cabinet figure with a solid background in euroscepticism and who appears to be on top of his brief is Brexit Secretary David Davis, though even he was once pro-EU and served as Europe Minister for a period in the John Major government of the 1990s. Yes, I do believe his long-ago conversion to euroscepticism is genuine, and yes, I do believe he is a political heavyweight. He also comes across as sincere and affable, and is on good terms with MPs from other parties. But he cannot undertake this arduous task alone, and I have concerns about the mandarins and support network that surrounds him.
A few weeks ago, James Chapman, the former political journalist who became a civil servant, had a very public breakdown on Twitter in which he declared his hatred of Brexit. It subsequently became clear that Chapman is mentally unwell and we should wish him a return to health. But what is of wider concern is that Chapman spent a year working alongside David Davis in the Brexit Department. How many other people with similar views still hold significant positions of influence within the civil service?
On the Labour side, Jeremy Corbyn had a long, proud track record of euroscepticism stretching back decades. Corbyn’s support base is with the Labour membership, but inside Parliament, his own back benches are dominated by younger, careerist Blairites and Brownites who despise him.
In the run-up to the referendum, Corbyn feared his position as leader was insecure, and as an appeasement to his back benchers, he came out as a ‘Remain’ supporter, but he never looked very convincing. The telling point came when the alleged ‘comedian’ Adam Hills asked Corbyn on TV what his level of enthusiasm for staying in the EU was out of ten and he replied, “Seven and seven-and-a-half.” It was hardly a ringing endorsement.
Throughout the campaign, Corbyn’s support for ‘Remain’ seemed half-hearted at best. Most of the time, he sounded like a hostage reading out his captor’s demands. The leadership challenge came regardless last autumn in the shape of Owen Smith, a chancer with a bit of causal misogyny and thuggery thrown in. Corbyn won, thanks almost entirely to his support with the modern-day Labour grassroots of middle class students and Islington intellectuals, but he would have been better off sticking to his eurosceptic principles during the campaign. The leadership challenge was always going to come. If he’d stuck to his guns, he would have developed a strong bond with the traditional Labour heartlands in the north of England and in the South Wales Valleys, which in turn would have strengthened his hand in the inevitable leadership contest.
Corbyn’s political mentor was that fine anti-EU campaigner Tony Benn. If Benn was still around, I find it inconceivable that Corbyn would have done his damaging u-turn to appease the New Labour disciples who continued to despise him in any case. The vast majority of Labour MPs are both pro-EU and anti-Corbyn. Even now, after a general election campaign in which he exceeded expectations, Corbyn struggles to get enough support from his own backbenches to form a Shadow Cabinet.
The likes of David Lammy, the slippery and calculating Stephen Doughty (in whose constituency I live), and around 200 others, will have to put up with Corbyn’s leadership for as long as he is seen to be doing well. But they have numerous ways of tripping him up, and are biding their time for the opportunity to remove him and replace him by a clean-shaven, sharp suited type in the mould of Blair who will block or reverse Brexit.
Even with Corbyn at the helm, the party’s policy appears to have changed towards committing the UK to membership of the Single Market, and more importantly the Customs Union, which effectively means being a member of the EU in all but name. I will address the difference between the Single Market (which I am open-minded about) and the Customs Union (which I am strongly against) in an upcoming article on this website.
The sarcastically-named Liberal Democrats and their leader, ‘Sir’ Vince Cable (himself a leader as a result of a coronation rather than a contest), barely even try to disguise the contempt they hold for Brexit. With 12 seats, they are a rump of the party they were just two years ago, but it is clear they will use what little power they have to try and stop Brexit from happening.
Actually, I have some sympathy with old-school patriotic liberals in the tradition of David Lloyd George and Jo Grimond. In the years that followed the merger between the Liberals and the SDP, it gradually became clear that the so-called ‘Liberal Democrats’ were saturated by the political children of the dreadful Roy Jenkins.
Our entire political establishment is dominated by those who support the EU project and hate the result of last year’s referendum. True eurosceptics are few and far between in Parliament, and even they are mostly pushed to the margins of their respective parties. The civil service appears to mirror Parliament with its lack of Brexit enthusiasts and its lacklustre preparation for negotiations so far.
A significant minority of backbench Conservative MPs make the right noises on Brexit, but not many of them are in Mrs May’s inner circle. The Labour Party has reliable Brexit supporters in the form of Kate Hoey, Frank Field and a small number of others, but they do not hold much influence with Corbyn, and in any case are massively outnumbered by admirers of Blair, Brown and either of the Miliband brothers, a group of apparent rivals who all strongly support continued membership of the EU. Actually, their much gossiped-about rivalries were always more to do with personality clashes and political ambitions rather than significant disagreements on policy.
All this does not bode well for a period in British political history that requires strong leadership and absolute commitment to the task in hand.
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