Tag Archives: Single Market

Confession: I think the EU referendum was a mistake

I now think that holding a referendum on Britain’s continued membership of the European Union was a mistake. I have, I fear, reached this conclusion far too slowly.

I suspect it was the glamour of it all; the honour of working at the heart of a history-making political campaign that clouded my judgement.

I was in the midst of it all a 20-year old that had been given a fantastic first job I was arguably too immature for. That is not to say that it wasn’t anything other than a modest role, but to me it meant the world.

This, combined with occasional television appearances after the result, got to my head a little too much. I should have realised sooner that simply taking part in the referendum would not be enough.

It is a matter of head versus heart. The heart looks back with fondness at the privilege of campaigning and the many friends and contacts made.

But the head is nagging me about our constitutional difficulties, ambiguous Brexit options and unstable, incompetent leadership during such a sensitive period.

I always try my utmost to allow my head to win these battles. And so in this case I must concede that referendums are not the way to exercise ground-breaking political reform.

It has been quietly obvious for a while now that the real winner of the referendum was in fact David Cameron, who was able to use the result to slip out of government in time and avoid the mess we are now in.

He and his advisors probably saw all of this coming. I predicted as the results were coming through on June 23rd that he would step down as Prime Minister, but, rather naively, did not foresee the obstacles that acting on the result has since faced.

The main problem with last year’s plebiscite was that it did not provide clarity for those like Richard North who supported both Brexit and membership of the single market.

I wish I had taken notice of researchers like him (and indeed his blog eureferendum.com) much earlier than I did. He and his son Pete, bizarrely inept at social interaction, have yielded answers to complex questions for longer than our media has been able to keep up.

Referenda are binary, usually offered to appease the electorate and are and deliberately oversimplified. The options given lack nuance, ensuring they provide exactly the fertile soil for disruption and chaos. This is why governments tend to support the status quo option. 

Our EU referendum created the inevitable problem that, in the event of a Leave vote, which became predictable weeks before polling day, ambiguity over what kind of Brexit its voters would prefer caused poisonous hostility. 

Now, a simple way of getting round this would have been to alter ballots in New Zealand-style fashion and ask those voting for Brexit a second question: “Do you think the UK should remain a member of the single market?”

Of course, we know what the answer would be if folk were well-informed. Since immigration was the largest single issue aroused by our camp, most would have opted for a single market exit too.

But that is not the point. My point is that a referendum over such a huge issue created a mandate for a policy without a policy. We were left directionless in an uphill battle.

And what made it worse was the fact that we had a government responsible for addressing the policy that did not agree with its premise in the first place. 

Despite being an exercise in direct democracy, our referendum exposed a sharp disconnect between public opinion and the preferences of those in the Westminster bubble. 

Referenda are, as I now appreciate more fully, renowned moreso for the constitutional upheaval they generate. Crimea in 2014 is perhaps a more extreme example. 

Since signalling for EU departure is the most profound democratic decision made by the British electorate arguably in history, it is no surprise that our politicians can barely organise themselves to adhere to it. 

In hindsight, a much more durable alternative to a national poll would have been a clear manifesto commitment, from either of the two major parties, to leaving.

Both Labour and the Tories have more than their fair share of voters wanting out, and any party claiming to be government material must be able to embrace the possibilities that come with legislative repatriation.

Yes, upon election, there would still have been the grave difficulties of negotiation, but at least direction and mandates would be more clearly established.

The only reason why neither party dared to do this was because they were (and still largely are) afflicted by the lingering Blairism that for so long prevented them from carrying out policies supported by faithless voters.

David Cameron certainly wouldn’t accept such an inclusion in a Tory manifesto. He is as supportive of the European project as they come.

A mutual friend of Dan Hannan and I, and notable Flexcit supporter, once told me that during his years at university, Mr Cameron donned prized cufflinks sporting the EU flag.

And the party’s current stock of leadership contenders aren’t much different, I might add. A referendum may therefore seem like an escape from this problem, but in reality caused many new ones of its own.

Had there been no referendum, significant pressure from Tory party members would have spurned their politicians into action, I am sure of it. 

I sometimes wonder what the European Commission and fellow member states think of all this. They cannot possibly consider Mrs May to be tough negotiating material.

She made far too humiliating a mess of last week’s General Election to be considered so, and only remains in Number 10 thanks to a cynical, gentleman’s agreement from the DUP (who themselves favour what we call ‘soft’ Brexit).

I must also point out here that in no way do I regret my vote or campaigning last year. I am as fervent a supporter of our secession as one can be. I just think that our means of securing that exit were profoundly flawed.

And since elections are now heavily influenced by last year’s result, as was expected given how divided we are, it may as well have been a party decision to take us out after all.

 


In the end it was the Brexit election, but not the one I expected

Well, I was wrong about two things at this election. I think a lot of us were. The first was the absence of a Tory majority, the second the absence of a Lib Dem fight back, which I wrongly predicted a couple of months ago at this blog. But yesterday morning told a fascinating tale nonetheless.

On April 19th, upon hearing Theresa May’s decision to hold a snap General Election, I wrote the following:

“This decision was fundamentally, and shrewdly, party political. But it could turn into a whole lot more than that. Since Brexit is now the hallmark of British politics, I expect the upcoming campaign to be a proxy; a second referendum of sorts.”

I think have been proved more or less correct by this statement, though not in the way that I expected. Before Thursday, and like most in the country, I predicted the securing of a comfortable Tory majority. I felt that Mrs May, hopeless as she is, had done just enough to remind Leave voters of what they voted for on June 23rd last year.

I thought that in appealing to the sensibilities of Brexit voters, especially with phrases like ‘respect the will of the British people’, the Conservative Party would enhance its electoral stronghold in Westminster and would win yet another General Election. How wrong and naive I was to the consequences of a poorly-organised political campaign.

It is true that the Tories managed 43 percent of the vote share, but voters ‘returning home’ made gaining a majority more difficult. After the shock of last summer, when support for parties was vastly more dispersed, voters thought it was safe to return to their traditional red and blue corners.

I thought that UKIP voters would rally behind Theresa May as she led the campaign for a so-called ‘hard Brexit’. This proved not to be the case, as I should have anticipated. I remember when I was a member of UKIP how many former Labour voters sat in local and regional party meetings. I knew that for UKIP, a Leave vote in the EU referendum was their self-destruct button, but I underestimated the ensuing flow of voters who returned to Labour. Perhaps many of them now have an understandable and instinctive mistrust of the Tory Party.

But this election did espouse many undertones of the referendum, which I now feel was a mistake (more on this soon). As results emerged, it became clear that many of the Remain-supporting pockets of the country had used the Labour Party as a means of diluting Brexit. In this sense, I would exercise caution over the notion that Corbynism has entirely hollowed Blairism out of Labour or its voter base.

Jeremy Corbyn’s surprise scooping of 262 seats, an increase of 30 on the total that his predecessor managed, reflected a number of different factors, but his desire to prioritise, for instance, membership of the single market over immigration and a Brexit focused on protecting consumer and worker rights will have appealed to many of the country’s supporters of EU membership.

These trends were noticeable mostly in England, where politics seems to be more tribal on the issue of the European Union. In Scotland, I was pleased to see, the Nationalists took the heavy hits I predicted and the colours on the electoral map are mixed once again. Ruth Davison deserves enormous credit for helping to turn nationalistic tides and reinvigorate support for the union. She has also shrewdly positioned herself as a potential future leader of the Conservative Party.

Mrs Sturgeon, on the other hand, whose position as leader of the SNP is becoming increasingly untenable, failed in her efforts to retain seats largely because Scottish voters are tired of her drive for independence, which was always a fake given her support for EU membership and which was rightly rejected in 2014. I also suspect that Scots saw her insistence on keeping Scotland out of Brexit as a constitutional danger and a cause of yet more political instability.

As the election campaign got under way, I had convinced myself (I now realise stupidly) that the Liberal Democrats would prove to be a significant force. But their night was surprisingly underwhelming. Even prominent figures like Nick Clegg lost seats, and in many seats the party failed to garner even 1,000 votes. This is perhaps a good example of a lack of translation between membership surges and votes.

Had the Lib Dems ditched plans to offer a second referendum, which would ransack the population of its faith in and enthusiasm for politics, and instead fought loudly and clearly for an exit centred around keeping Britain in the single market, they would indeed have gained more than 12 seats at this election. All we are missing now is a party that advocates holding a referendum on whether we should have a second referendum. Don’t hold your breath.

Remain voters quite clearly had their say at this election. Most shocking was the Tory-Labour switch in Kensington. I think our departure from the European Union has been compromised and cannot bring myself to trust Theresa May to negotiate our exit. And the price we pay at home? A minority government doomed to failure and backed up by the DUP. There is no other way to see it. This is a national embarrassment.

 


Brexit: where the hell are we?

So much Brexit-related news has been whirring around in recent weeks that I’ve barely had the chance to take it all in, let alone write thoughtfully about it. Maybe this is a deliberate policy: confuse and mystify the population into lethargy so as to calm down the waves of anger which bubbled to the surface after last year’s referendum result. First we had the government’s initial and expected defeat at the Supreme Court concerning the extent to which parliament should be consulted before the Brexit process was fully underway. Then we had Theresa May’s outline in broad terms of what the government’s negotiating plan was upon the invoking of Article 50. I still think we shall miss the proposed deadline of March 31st.

Amongst all this we have a Labour Party trying to figure out what its policy will be on Britain’s access to the single market and a campaign of attrition being fought by senior Remain figures in an attempt to delay and frustrate the Brexit process. Earlier today, the government’s unsuccessful appeal in the Supreme Court was lauded by those who for 40 years simply ignored the diminished role of Westminster’s parliament as a victory for parliamentary sovereignty.

Their newfound insistence that parliament must be at the front and centre of decision making is a mere smokescreen; a fake designed to give off the impression that they are providing our EU withdrawal with ‘scrutiny’, while they conveniently ignore the fact that in 2015, parliament itself voted to sanction a national referendum, thus circumventing the decision and passing responsibility onto the electorate. Despite the constitutional problems we are currently weathering, the decision to hold a referendum was, I think, the best possible way to address the issue, given its magnitude and relevance to an increasing proportion of British public policy.

So here we are. Somewhere between a rock and a hard place, trying to figure out when and how best to orchestrate our way out of four decades of intricate political and economic integration. The distractions certainly aren’t helping anybody, but at least both the House of Commons and Peers look set to approve invoking Article 50, even if they can’t stand its implications. As for the public? Confusion and anger so effortlessly stirred up by the mass media have taken their toll on a country sitting in a uniquely perplexing situation. Nobody knows or understands anything; the perfect setting for a government about to embark upon a mission it doesn’t look remotely prepared for.

I am no exception. I have more holes in my knowledge than I would care to admit, and like almost everybody I am susceptible to falling into the traps of fake news and misleading information. Where and when I can I try to consult experts – who, I notice, are always politically independent and left depressingly adrift from the mainstream narrative – like Pete North, whose blog (which can be read here) has proved a useful tool for strengthening my understanding of the current political climate. Likewise, the ‘Independent Britain’ and ‘EUReferendum’ blogs are invaluable if facts, and not tribal spin, are your cup of tea.

For the last year I tried to be an independent and reliable source of information, but there were a few obstacles that prevented me from being so. I was, of course, closely attached to Vote Leave, and so owing to the PR industry’s stronghold on political discourse, I too frequently confused what made for effective campaigning with what represented either a credible plan for a British EU withdrawal or with what was undisputable fact. On top of this, I need time to delve more extensively into the subject matter at hand. I do not have any real expertise in areas like European law or trade, so remain committed to following only those who do. If only more ‘professional Brexiteers’ owned up to the glaring craters in their knowledge, the public might more aptly be able to distinguish between those who know their content and those who do not.

If playing a privileged part in an historic referendum taught me one thing, it is that researchers are indeed the experts, and not those who pose as authoritative figures whilst away from the cameras lacking any real grasp of their subject matter – and yes, I’m looking at you, Dan Hannan. I have deliberately avoided writing about the kind of Brexit I’d want for Britain so as not to flood the information swamp with yet more swampland. I cite the aforementioned websites as a gesture of gratitude more so than an inauguration into the infamous Flexcit club; a group of people unfairly demonised by fellow Leavers, including myself in the past, for not adequately prioritising issues like sovereignty and immigration. If only I and others had known that it wasn’t as simple as this.

I would much rather go away and find out about the ins and outs of leaving the single market before I begin bellowing into the winds about trade, controlling immigration, leaving the ECJ and what a Customs Union exit would mean for imports. I say this not to belittle myself (I pride myself on my ability to learn quickly), but to ensure that I don’t become part of the circus of ill-informed puppeteers dominating the Brexit agenda and spreading unhelpful fantasies. If I am not well informed on an issue or have nothing fresh to contribute, I will avoid it.

We need clarity. Clarity that wasn’t provided by the Prime Minister’s vague, recycled speech last week. By far the most worrying part of her speech came, rather ironically, in the section concerning certainty. It said:

“And when it comes to Parliament, there is one other way in which I would like to provide certainty. I can confirm today that the Government will put the final deal that is agreed between the UK and the EU to a vote in both Houses of Parliament, before it comes into force.”[1]

It was at this point that the pound regained some of its lost value against major currencies. This is hardly surprising when one considers what it means for the process of leaving. Since common sense and the UK’s budgetary contributions to the European Union both suggest that EU leaders will try as hard as they can to make an example out of Britain so as to dissuade other member states (particularly France, as an election looms) from leaving, a deal reached by the UK and European Council is likely to be arched in favour of the latter, increasing the probability that parliament will vote to reject an agreement that the UK’s negotiating team come back with. Remember, May wants to take Britain out of the single market. This means that pursuing what is known as the EEA option (the blogs I provided links to above have great material on this theme) and thus arranging a simpler, more orderly exit is out of the question.

So when you read the following excerpt from the EU’s briefing on state withdrawal:

The Treaties shall cease to apply to the State in question from the date of entry into force of the withdrawal agreement or, failing that, two years after the notification referred to in paragraph 2, unless the European Council, in agreement with the Member State concerned, unanimously decides to extend this period.”[2]

…you begin to see why that particular paragraph in the government’s plan creates exactly the kind of complication and uncertainty that we do not need. In trying to provide clarity, the Prime Minister played right into the hands of the European Union’s negotiating team. As a time limit of two years sits firmly in place (an agreed extension seems unlikely with other pressing issues on the EU’s plate), Britain’s chances of making a success of withdrawal get ever slimmer. And only an idiot would believe that leaving with no deal would be better than our current relationship.

So where the hell are we with Brexit? Will we ever get what more than 17 million of us voted for? I’m starting to think that Peter Hitchens was right about this whole thing: we may be able to check out, but we may never leave.

 

Footnotes

[1] https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/the-governments-negotiating-objectives-for-exiting-the-eu-pm-speech

[2] http://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/BRIE/2016/577971/EPRS_BRI(2016)577971_EN.pdf

 


What rival Leavers need to understand about Vote Leave’s use of the ‘£350m’ figure

I have in recent days found myself dealing with perpetual criticism of the Vote Leave campaign’s use of the ‘£350m’ figure during last year’s EU referendum campaign. Scores of Twitter followers and individuals I know in person have, it seems, converged on me, telling me that our figure was either a flat out lie, or that it was harmful to Leave’s campaign more generally. I wanted to address the issue at this blog and explain why I wholeheartedly reject the tiring residue of condemnation that our campaign, and my former employer, continues to receive for its use.

The first interesting aspect to the disapproval that meets Vote Leave’s use of the ‘£350m’ figure (this figure being our gross weekly contribution to the European Union) is that a surprising proportion of it comes from members of our own camp. Much of the abuse thrown my way, and indeed the campaign’s way, has been from fellow Leavers. Criticism is easy to take from your opponents. Often it is useful as it can make you think and allows you to improve upon your own arguments, but when it is from those who you consider to be on your side of the argument, it can be more challenging to take.

I have been told numerous times by voters associated with the UKIP, Leave.EU or Grassroots Out campaigns that our constant referral to the £350m figure nearly cost Leave the referendum. They say that, due to how contentious it was, damaged our credibility and ability to tackle the economic arguments posed by Remain. In the midst of an intriguing 19,000-word recount of how the referendum was won, Vote Leave campaign director Dominic Cummings acknowledged this at his blog, saying:

“Pundits and MPs kept saying ‘why isn’t Leave arguing about the economy and living standards’. They did not realise that for millions of people, £350m/NHS was about the economy and living standards – that’s why it was so effective. Unlike most of those on our side the IN campaign realised the effectiveness of this, as Cooper, Coetze and others said after 23 June. E.g. ‘The power of their £350 million a week can’t be overstated.’ Andrew Cooper, director of strategy for the IN campaign.”

Cummings also makes clear that his pre-referendum research revealed to him that primarily, voters cared about two main issues: immigration and the money in their pocket. By pushing this figure, itself a close approximation of official Treasury figures, and by making it clear that it was gross and not net, we were taking the economic arguments by the scruff of the neck. I often get the feeling from active Leavers that they themselves gave Remain more credit for their economic arguments than they perhaps deserved. I remember vividly, a few days before polling day, sitting in the office late in the evening reading the results of a major IPSOS  Mori poll that had swung 10 point in our favour. I have tried to find the exact article but have had no luck so far. Towards the bottom of the report, we were informed that 10% more people believed our Turkey claims than they did Remain’s economic forecasts.

The economic arguments that we were told constantly we failed to address were simply not credible and most did not believe them. So herein lies the first beauty of ‘£350m every week’: it was a simple, believable statistic that when paired with: “let’s spend that on our priorities instead” disarmed Remain’s economic doom-mongering. It reminded voters that, thanks to our ongoing membership of the EU, we had a black hole in the coffers that would be filled upon leaving, and that even if there was damage to the economy, it could be eased by a substantial saving elsewhere.

Another point raised by those who hated our use of the infamous figure was why we decided to make it such a central and prominent theme (painted on our bus, raised in television debates and printed all over campaign materials). ‘If one of your arguments has been so consistently rubbished, why draw so much attention to it?’ they would ask. It’s a good question, but those asking it ought to, just for a moment, step out of the shoes of somebody with a passion for politics and jump into the shoes of the ordinary, mildly engaged man in the street. For Joe public, dipping in and out of referendum content throughout the closing weeks of the campaign or watching our bus drive past, the figure had a significant purpose.

As polling day drew nearer, Number 10 and Stronger In would send out their campaign representatives to do whatever they could to bash our £350m figure and make sure the public was aware of how useless it was. This was counterproductive and soon backfired. In any referendum, two sides are expected to counter eachother’s arguments. But in this particular case, counter-argument worked perfectly in our favour. When IN attacked ‘£350m’, they thought they were squashing our most potent weapon. Actually, they were sharpening it. When they said things like: “it doesn’t take into account the rebate, the net figure is roughly half that!” all it did was remind people that, regardless of the actual numbers, the cost of EU membership was extortionate, and most people were onboard with us when we suggested that British taxpayers’ money would be better off spent here in Britain.

It was also especially useful that quite often, the very people attacking our figure (and economic standpoint) were people and institutions with woeful track records. The Bank of England, the IMF and the British Chambers of Commerce, in particular, were net negative contributors to the campaign they were desperate to strengthen. It also suited the kind of image that we wanted to portray: that of anti-establishmentarianism, even if we were a little Tory-heavy. IN’s economic arguments were confusing (many couldn’t understand how an EU vote possibly linked to a fall in house prices or a rise in food prices), offered by tainted individuals lacking credibility and were rebutted in a way that was simple and relatable. It certainly helps to explain why so many poorer, working class members of society opted for Leave.

Vote Leave’s reliance on ‘We send the EU £350 million a week – let’s fund the NHS instead’ was simple and devilishly effective. It reminded the public of the sheer expense of EU membership whilst presenting a credible alternative to outlandish economic forecasts. It played a hugely important role in winning Leave the referendum, even if Nigel Farage doesn’t seem to think so. Leavers of all allegiances should respect our efforts and our message, even if they did not like our campaign. The fight, we should remember, is far from over.

It does, therefore, trouble me somewhat when I see or hear people asking where our £350m is. I don’t need to insult the intelligence of readers at my blog by describing why this amazes me so.