24th February 2017
–By Keith Nieland-
If Not Blair… then Who?
The earth began to move and slowly part. A bony, emaciated hand grasped at the dank, putrid air. This was followed by a swivel-eyed, scab ridden head. Mothers held their firstborn close, the Daily Mail closed the window blinds in fear, Boris went hunting for stakes while Nigel ran in panic through the streets seeking a sledge hammer. Yes! Tony Blair had risen!
The Hammer House of Brexit
The response in some quarters to Tony Blair’s Bloomberg Brexit speech was more akin to a horror film script than a continuing political dialogue that, despite the wishes of some, will be with us for years to come. The immediate reaction was to play the man with little attempt to respond to the real issues he raised so well, summarised in Steven Duckworth’s post. Blair was irrelevant, speaking out on an issue already settled, he was yesterday’s man forever blighted by the Iraq war.
The usual suspects, many of whom would have agreed with his every word just a few short months ago, ran for the nearest microphone and TV camera to do their bit to stick the knife in (or perhaps the stake!) Jeremy Corbyn went all pious saying the decision of the people should be respected.
The trouble with all the responses were that they were based on what his political foes had wished he’d said rather than what he did say. He was simply saying that while he fully respected the referendum outcome, and that there was little appetite for revisiting it, the great British public might just want to have a rethink once the fine details of the EU divorce become clear.
So, what exactly is wrong with that? It might happen automatically without any prompting if the exit negotiations do not go well and/or speedily. It all rather begged the question “why the excitable reaction?”
“Don’t Panic, Mr Mainwaring!”
Perhaps the real reason for the hysterical response was those at the front of the rush for the EU exit door – May, Corbyn, Farage, BoJo, Davis, Fox, etc do not want an articulate, clever, analytical figure with considerable gravitas – who still enjoys respect amongst sections of the electorate and commands media attention, from looking too closely at what they plan. They want everything neatly under their control, with limited information for Parliament, no public briefings on the exit negotiations and, above all, not to be held accountable for the Leave campaign promises.
The last thing May’s control freakery wants is to find Tony Blair smiling back at her as he dissects her every EU exit move. The Prime Minister wants the status quo – an anti-EU Tory backbench and a lukewarm EU fan leading the opposition.
I would suggest the driver for control of the process is those dodgy Leave promises sitting uneasily on the notion of the settled will of the public.
We All Loved Ratners Once
It’s an unwritten, unarticulated human right – the right to change our minds.
The deal was simple – if you do not want an EU army, the country invaded by Turks coming for our jobs, Europeans turning up when they want but would welcome a cut in VAT and an extra £350m each week for the NHS then vote Leave.
So what happens if and when these promises evaporate and issues never mentioned in the referendum campaign come to the fore? Voters might just feel let down, as if the whole thing was not worth it and, as bad as it was, that perhaps things were better inside the EU.
So how are we doing on the promises just eight months on? Well, there are no plans for an EU army, Turkey will not be joining the EU any time soon (or ever given the current state of the country) and, surprise, surprise David Davis tells us the free movement of labour will have to last until… well nobody knows! The VAT cut has never been mentioned again and the extra NHS funds have been spray painted over and dumped somewhere on the M1.
Davis, Fox and Boris have yet to sit in front of the EU negotiating team but already we know that, far from there being an exit financial bonus, there will be an exit bill, a sizeable one: fifty to sixty million Euros appears to be the opening figure. After all, not unreasonably, the EU will want us to cough up for developments we have already agreed to over the coming planning period.
Nobody mentioned that during the campaign and, if they did, it would have no doubt been branded as part of Project Fear.
Will the EU team want the exit bill issue settled before they are willing to discuss any other matters? Well, what do you do think?
It is still too early to say what the impact on the economy will be but we have to accept that leaving the world’s biggest free trade area cannot be achieved without any negative effect. It’s a bit like leaving the golf club and then demanding all the benefits of membership without paying a subscription. If the UK wants access to all, or selected parts, of the EU free trade zone there will be a cost. It is delusional to think we can abandon up to 45% of our trade and somehow replace it with deals elsewhere in the world.
IoD members are not full of confidence. The impact of Brexit on our vital banking and car manufacturing sectors will be watched with keen interest. It just needs bad news in one of these key areas, particularly car manufacturing, for the public to go sore on the whole Brexit idea.
The public mood could easily change – after all we once loved Ratners and would hear no word of dissent.
What the Opposition Should Be Doing
The Labour Opposition has a big problem – a very big problem.
It has a leader who is indifferent to the EU, who chose to go on holiday during the country’s most important referendum campaign in over 40 years, who gave the EU 7 marks out of 10 in a TV interview, whose support for his own party’s campaign was criticised by the campaign’s leader and who called for Article 50 to be enacted the morning after the result. 60% of Labour voters wanted to Remain as did 48% of total voters, the Party’s official policy is to support membership and to give every opportunity for voters to have a say once the conditions of Brexit are known. The Leader is out of step with many, and perhaps a majority, of Labour voters, members and MPs.
I would suggest that Corbyn’s lacklustre EU campaign and disinterest since runs the real risk of his party getting none of the credit should Brexit go well and some of the blame should it not. While others make the running, Labour has become an invisible player in the EU exit debate. Corbyn three line whipping his MPs through the lobby to support Brexit at any cost could well come back to haunt him and his party. How can Corbyn suggest that is not the case given his party’s failure to at least abstain in the final vote once it became clear the Government were not willing to compromise on any of the assurances being sought?
If Parliament is to have further opportunities to influence the exit deal, when and how will that happen?
I doubt the electorate know what Labour’s Brexit position is and, indeed, care much given the Party’s, and Corbyn’s, dire poll rankings.
Blair has a Blueprint
Is it possible the old class-based dividing lines that defined the core Labour and Conservative votes are fading to be replaced with a nation of Remainers and Leavers? Only time will tell, but I suggest it is a possibility. Labour runs the risk of being discarded into history because it failed to adopt a clear position on Brexit.
As the main opposition party, it has a duty to oppose May’s form of Brexit – what Blair would describe as “Brexit at any cost” – for two reasons. It is what oppositions do, but more importantly, given the Party’s beliefs and values, it is the right thing to do.
Labour should be saying that while Article 50 may well be triggered shortly, the Government has no blank cheque and the Party will resist a Brexit for Brexit’s sake. What the Government proposes will be crawled all over and the public will be advised of the consequences for them. The Party should be painting a picture of the post-Brexit UK which it believes is in the best interests of all its citizens but in particular, those sections that have traditionally looked to it for leadership.
The Party’s position on the Customs Union, the Single Market, EU citizens living, working and studying here and UK citizens doing likewise in Europe should be made clear and articulated. Labour should be highlighting the many, many issues that need a negotiated solution. It should be putting pressure on May to explain regularly where we are on new trade deals, on what they cover, who they are with and how long negotiations are scheduled.
Most importantly, if Labour believes what May and her team are doing is not in the wider national interest, they should be nudging voters to have a change of mind.
Regrettably Labour has put all its lifejackets in the Leave lifeboat, but the situation is not beyond recovery. If we put aside Corbyn’s poor personal poll ratings the Party can get back into the Brexit debate by following Blair’s lead because the Party will be clearly saying May has no blank cheque, we will watch and analyse her every step, she will be held to account and, if we believe the direction of travel not to be in the wider UK interests, then we shall urge voters to think again.
Blair pointed a way forward and Labour should follow it.
By Keith Nieland
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