Tuesday, 5 April 2016

Ten days that put Britain near the Brexit

Whatever your view of Britain's relationship with the European Union, there now seems no doubt that Britons might vote to leave in June. It's a possibility. Last year, when 'Remain' was racking up massive double-digit leads in telephone polls, and while Prime Minister David Cameron and Chancellor George Osborne rode high in confidence and political capital, that looked a remote prospect. But now? Now they might, just might, decide to tear up half a century of economic rewiring and geopolitical strategy - walking out of the door and into a very, very uncertain future. How can this be, when what we know about their underlying attitudes to the EU tells us that they quite like the whole idea, in the abstract? How did we come to stand near the Brexit?

We've been reflecting a lot on the role of structure and agency in history recently, and this most convulsive change will need structural explanations in time (these will probably focus in part, on a generalised revolt against political and expert 'elites', and the poisonous misinformation pumped out by the British press). But chance has played a role too, and the most important choice and change in the past two British generations - one of the most important days in the country's whole history - is down to a conglomeration of accidents and emergencies as well. Here are ten days that we think brought us to the point where UK citizens may decide on an act of self-harm on the grand scale.

The election that never was, 6 October 2007. For a while, Labour ex-Chancellor Gordon Brown could do no wrong as Prime Minister. He seemed gruff, grave, serious and competent - a contrast many voters found refreshing after the actorly Tony Blair had left the scene. But he blew that all away when he let his lieutenants speculate about an early election that he then ran away from when his private polling told him he'd only be able to gain a smaller majority than Mr Blair had enjoyed. From that moment on, his authority shot, Mr Brown could only ward off the inevitable Conservative (or Conservative-led) government, rather than fight for a majority in his own right. Under New Labour, the only question was how European the UK would be. Would it join the free movement Schengen Area? Might it, one day, even join the Euro? The possibilities were there. Instead, Labour would give way to a party, and a Prime Minister, who were much more sceptical about the whole project.

Nick Clegg decides to go into coalition with the Conservatives, 12 May 2010. Mr Cameron didn't win in May 2010. He captured only a rather unimpressive 36% of the vote, and 306 seats. He needed a partner if he was to get back into power. He found one in Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, figurehead of the most pro-European party in British politics, and was able to form a remarkably stable and orderly two-party government that lasted for the full five years of a Parliament. The Liberal Democrats were able to block any talk of a Euro-referendum in that term, though not to hold back the populist surge that brought the United Kingdom Independence Party to such prominence. But they did allow Mr Cameron to form a 'proper' government, from which position of power he later announced that he would allow an in/ out European referendum.

UKIP's record local election results, 3 May 2012. Labour did well in the 2012 local elections, held in the wake of George Osborne's first (and notorious) 'Omnishambles' Budget, a financial package as chaotic as it was misguided - cutting the highest rate of income tax and racking up charges on pasties and caravans. But arguably even more ominous for the Conservatives was the rise of its apparent rival on the Right: UKIP gained 13% of the vote and, although its diffuse support was not very well targeted, went on to do even better and gain a quarter of the votes in the county council elections held a year later. Conservative MPs took fright; the right-wing coalition of wealthy free marketeers and patriotic blue collar workers that Mrs Thatcher had assembled in the 1980s (and Mr Cameron was attempting to tack back together) appeared to be at risk. They upped their anti-European rhetoric, and their pressure on the Prime Minister to 'do something' on Europe.

Boris Johnson re-elected as Mayor of London, 3 May 2012. That same day, Conservative maverick, eccentric and egotist Boris Johnson got back into City Hall by the Thames - just (above). He only won by three per cent, having led most of the polls by a much larger margin, on a night when Labour advanced rapidly across the country and did pretty well in the London Assembly elections. He should have been beaten. He could have been beaten - shattering for ever the myth of invincibility that has helped to cover up his many blunders and evasions. Instead, Labour ran ex-Mayor Ken Livingstone against him, 'Mr London' in his heyday, but surely not the best of candidates when he had already served two terms as Mayor himself and actually been beaten in 2008 by Mr Johnson. Boris was left to prosper - and to seem influential when he really, really should not be. So when he came out for Brexit in February, it seemed like an important moment. Had he lost in 2012, it would just have amounted to the musings of a long-beaten backbencher.

David Cameron's Bloomberg speech, 23 January 2013. All of this piled pressure onto David Cameroon - from his restive backbenchers, looking over their shoulders at the threat from UKIP, from dissatisfied small-c 'conservative' voters in the party's blue heartlands, and from his unprincipled rival and frenemy at City Hall. So he buckled and announced an 'in or out' referendum in January 2013. It was entirely and only designed to hold his party together, and to get through a General Election that he had only a very, very small chance of winning outright. Then he could just junk the whole idea as part of a renewed coalition deal with the Liberal Democrats, and blame Nick Clegg when his subalterns took to the airwaves to attack him for his lack of scruple. Who needs scruples anyway, when you have power? Unfortunately for Mr Cameron, he was being too clever by half: he had comprehensively outsmarted himself.

Douglas Carwell defects to UKIP, 28 August 2014. Mr Cameron's concessions didn't soothe the Eurosceptic beast that stalks the heart of his party. Nothing ever does: and until Britain looks like a great big Singapore, shorn of its troublesome welfare state, shot of Scotland, and without any borders at all as a freetrading exemplar of a laissez-faire sharpshooter, nothing - absolutely nothing - ever will. So the Prime Minister's MPs even began to defect to UKIP, calling by-elections and winning them (another MP, Mark Reckless, soon followed Mr Carswell, though he lost his seat in the 2015 General Election). Up went UKIP's authority; down went the Prime Minister's stock. And all the time the idea of a Brexit - hitherto a background drumbeat of an isolated cause - began to look more and more credible and popular.

The Conservative Party wins a majority, 6 May 2015. Most of us in the know always knew that the Conservatives were going to be the biggest party back in May. We always suspected that Mr Cameron would be able to go on - somehow winning the confidence of enough MPs to continue as Prime Minister. You read it here first, right? What was genuinely surprising, and what shocked even No. 10 itself, was the workable overall majority that the Conservatives were able to gain. Capitalising on Labour's lack of leadership and economic credibility and the Liberal Democrats' perceived untrustworthiness, and tapping into a deeply-felt and passionately-expressed anti-Scottish Nationalist feeling in England, Mr Cameron could now govern alone. Now he probably wishes that he hadn't won that overall majority, because its very existence might cause his premiership to end in ignominy.

Jeremy Corbyn is elected Labour leader, 12 September 2015. The Labour Party's reaction to its electoral mauling was to turn to an obscure backbencher who had never held any kind of front-bench position at all, and indeed who came bottom of the ballot of MPs when he last ran for the Shadow Cabinet. One problem with this for the EU 'inners' is that Mr Corbyn has a long, long history of Euro-scepticism, opposing for instance  the Maastricht Treaty that brought the modern EU into being in the early 1990s, and voting himself to leave the EU in the UK's previous referendum in 1975. He has had to campaign for a 'Remain' vote this time, or risk all hell breaking lose in his Parliamentary party - as well as an enormous row with the members who back him with such fervour, but also think that Britain should stay in the EU. But he seems to have decided to say almost nothing about it, beyond grumbling about the lack of a 'social Europe' and releasing a couple of videos. Plenty of commentators think that he is the 'Out' campaign's secret weapon. There can be no route to a 'Remain' victory that does not go through Labour voters, and a huge slice of the electorate appear to have no idea at all where the party stands on Europe. That's a massive problem for the pro-EU campaign, and perhaps a decisive one.

Michael Gove backs Brexit, 20 February 2016. Michael Gove's opposition to the EU is a long-standing matter of publicly-stated principle. It is in a different order to Mr Johnson's absurd opportunism. The Justice Secretary is merely stating what he has always thought. But what his essay in favour of Brexit did was open the floodgates to Conservative opposition to the Prime Minister's stance on renegotiation. He made opposition credible and intellectually at least respectable, expanding its base from the far right of his party and outwards from relatively unknown or unpopular figures such as the (now ex-) Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith and Priti Patel, a Minister from the same Department. He gave Boris cover to lope along behind him. He allowed an alternative government, headed by Mr Johnson and with Mr Gove as Chancellor, to spring rather blearily into being. But most of all, he shattered the illusion that the Conservative Party and the Government were mostly united, with perhaps a few exceptions around the edges - thus giving Conservative voters every justification for defecting from their normal loyalty to the Prime Minister. Of all the moments listed here, this was one of the most decisive.

George Osborne's Budget from Hell, 16 March 2016. What was he thinking? How could he have got it all so wrong? When he could and should have announced the most boring Budget in history, tinkering a bit here and there to clear the decks for the referendum campaign, Mr Osborne chose to reduce Personal Independence Payments for disabled welfare recipients while cutting Capital Gains Tax and raising personal income tax thresholds for better-off Britons. It was a bone-headed decision, entirely at odds with the Prime Minister's rhetoric about helping poorer citizens that he had unveiled at the 2015 Conservative Party Conference. Voters' confidence in the Government, already falling as the shine came off their re-election and economic growth seemed to slow, went into free fall. Labour are in such a state that they won't benefit much: but Brexiteers will. The Prime Minister's own credibility is now in deep danger, as the Government loses momentum and struggles over the possible closure of the Tata steel plant in South Wales and the release of a massive batch of offshore tax-avoidance details from Panama: he runs the risk of retreating in public esteem in the same manner as Mr Brown in 2007, just at the moment when he needs to convince the public of his case for staying in the EU. The whole picture allows opportunistic Brexiteers to lay into the government overall, over anything and everything - saying, for instance, that they'll 'stand up' to China, or bring in steel tariffs and subsidies (even though they won't).

There they are: the ten days that have put Britain near the European exit door. Each one avoidable, each one fightable: if the friends of the European ideal, and of Britain's better interests and angels, had been on their guard and mettle. They weren't. They rarely are. So Britain is now spinning dangerously into the unknown, flirting with a strategic transformation that will end up who knows where, and who knows why.

Editorial note: this blogpost was originally published under the title 'Eight days that put Britain near the Brexit'. It has since been edited to include two more that spring to mind - the election of Jeremy Corbyn and the announcement that Michael Gove would back leaving the EU.

1 comment:

  1. "if the friends of the European ideal, and of Britain's better interests and angels, had been on their guard and mettle."

    So what is this pro-EU argument that no one seems to give?

    The only one I've heard is that the EU is so powerful we have to do everything it tells us anyway. Is that it? We must obey our masters in Brussels and Berlin?