I remember writing an essay about this in about 1970. At the time we had increasing fissures between Labour and Conservatives bubbling up eventually into the 1973 referendum that took us into Europe. It’s very much easier to join a club when you know the rules, than to leave a club when you don’t know what follows. As a simple principle you need to build up a consensus to win over the voters in the middle – the floating ones. But how quickly you can lose that support by saying one thing and appearing to achieve something entirely different. Look at Macron in France promising to modernise the French labour law and pensions; look at the mess that the Brexit negotiations have got into; look at the way that Trump has railroaded all traditional norms of presidential behaviour. Populism and nationalism shouldn’t be the new consensus, as politicians who pander to their positional extremes fail to retain the loyalty of those in the middle.
Mrs May made some fatal mistakes in the way she negotiated:
· She failed to acknoledge the red lines drawn by those on the other side – at least the EU has been pretty consistent.
· She set her own red lines that pandered to the extreme Brexiteers in her own party – and its those red lines that are now distinctly watered down. Look at the immigration targets.
· She failed to maintain anything like a unified negotiation team – look at the brexit secretaries David Davies, Dominic Raab and whoever took over from them but really allowed Mrs May to stand in his stead.
· She failed to bring into the big tent those in other parties who might have bought into a middle way. If parliament is supreme there is within it surely a majority of members who simply won’t stand for a no deal; but equally say they don’t much like Mrs May’s plan either.
· She set the alternative to her own scheme as only a no deal refusing to acknowledge the alternatives such as the Norway Plus possibility where we join EFTA – there was only one deal in town and that was her’s.
· She sticks to the March 29 2019 deadline as if it were a mantra notwithstanding the parlous state of our preparations for not doing a deal at all by then. Extending the Article 50 deadline would seen inevitable and all parties should acknoledge that such artificial deadlines drwan in the sand don’t work.
· Floowing on from that, her team seem to have thought that the best deals are obtained by taking it to the wire whereas the club members don’t have the same degree of pressure as we do with 48% of our exports being to the EU compared to 11% of theirs.
· She was far from honest with us in calling her deal best for Britain – it was simly the least worst alternative – showing vulnerability has hidden benefits; but politicians are innately vain and far too often insincere. It might seem odd to undermine your own deal; but the more that people don’t like the deal that really she doesn’t really like herself, the greater the chances of a scond referendum.
· She has thus far failed to acknowledge the benefits of putting the possibilities to the test save insofar as she is willing to let parliament decide yea or nay to her plan – but you can only get back that middle ground, that consensus by putting the choices deal, no deal or withdraw the article 50 notice to the people and let them decide.
I believe that most people would more respect a leader who negotiates less abrasively engaging the maximum number of stakeholders, rather than one who uses a hard ball positional approach that we have all witnessed thus far. We run the risk of running out of time and railroading something onto a reluctant parliament that risks missing out on any deal at all – no doubt to the glee of some. That brings me back to the title where is that consnsus in our politics; that consensus of stakeholders and MP’s. Give them the choice and be guided what they decide; if its extending the article 50 or ruling on another referendum at least that consensus has a chance of opening Pandora’s box. Has it clicked amongst those that lead us? I somehow doubt it on the surface. But underneath the radar maybe a third way is developing momentum. Who knows in these uncertain times.
May I wish you all a very happy Christmas and ring on a new year that might indeed surprise us all. Hope springs eternal.