Friday, 28 October 2016

Just how weird can the post-Brexit world get?

British politics has surely never been such an extraordinary mess in the course of modern history. And Brexit is right at the heart of it all.

The referendum on 23rd June was of course a symbol of the chaos we were already in, but also a harbinger of calamities yet to come.

And if you want to see in microcosm how shockingly weird the landscape is now, pay a visit to Richmond Park constituency in south-west London. This highly affluent seat elected the even more affluent Zac Goldsmith to represent it in 2015, with a phenomenal majority over the shattered Lib Dems.

I actually had to double check the figures, because although I knew he’d won well, I’d forgotten that Goldsmith clocked up a staggering majority of 25,000 in an area previously held by Jenny Tonge and Susan Kramer.

Zac is forcing a by-election and standing as an independent in protest at the expansion of Heathrow Airport – a position no doubt supported by the majority of Richmond residents, who live right under the flightpath and suffer endless noise pollution.

But will they be able treat the poll as a vote on the third runway?

Not if the Lib Dems have anything to do with it. They want the by-election to be about Brexit, as they know 70% of the local inhabitants were pro Remain in June, while Zac backed the call for the UK to leave the EU.

Many Liberal Democrats would like to see the result of the referendum overturned – a position supported very recently by former Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair. The argument is that we’re entitled to change of minds, now that we’re seeing the full horror of Brexit. (Unfortunately, these proclamations coincide with the horrific announcement of healthy economic growth and a horrific decision by multinational car giant Nissan to invest more in their Sunderland manufacturing facility.)

So what does the Tory Party have to say about it all? They might surely want to defend their decision to plough ahead with the third runway. And if they decided the election wasn’t really about the runway, they would want to defend their ‘Brexit is Brexit’ stance, wouldn’t they?

Actually, they’re not going to stand a candidate at all. 

Some think this is because they want Zac to win and to thwart the Lib Dems, given their very small majority in the House of Commons. Others suggest it’s because they want the by-election to be some kind of oddity which means pretty much nothing.

And what about UKIP, the party which arguably drove us towards the edge of the Brexit cliff?

They’re not going to stand either, as they’re in the middle of a period of internecine conflict, which involves newly-elected leaders resigning and putative leaders ending up unconscious  in French hospitals.

But Labour must be standing, right?

Well, yes, probably. Although high-profile members of their frontbench think they shouldn’t.
They believe that Labour and the Lib Dems and the Greens could get together on some kind of ‘Reverse the Brexit vote’ ticket.

There’s only one problem. The Labour leadership of Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell believe that, err, Brexit is Brexit, even though they make fun of Theresa May for claiming precisely the same thing. The veteran left-wingers at the top of the party have always been anti the EU and no one really believed their Damascene conversion.

Looking at this by-election as someone who has observed British politics closely since the beginning of the 1980s – and who’s participated in election campaigns as a candidate – I freely admit I haven’t got a clue how all this will resolve itself. It’s anyone’s guess. But at the moment, it’s an absolute dog’s dinner.

My challenge to those Remainers who want to keep fighting the referendum result is this: what exactly is the end game? I fear that no one actually has the faintest idea, because this is a coalition of the highly confused.

There are some people who would like the June 23rd result overturned, perhaps in a second referendum. We made a mistake. Let’s reverse it.

It’s an intellectually defensible argument, but political poison. It would tell all the alienated and disengaged voters who defied the establishment that their vote counted for nothing. 

This would breed further discontent and the growth of the far right.

There are others who realise the political naivety of the second referendum, but believe that Brexit can be blocked and obstructed in Parliament, where there is large pro-Remain majority. The reality is that this is politically unacceptable too, however justifiable it is at a legal or constitutional level.

There’s a third group which hopes to achieve a ‘soft’ Brexit rather than the ‘hard’ leap in the dark proposed by some fevered souls on right of British politics. I have respect for this position, which is broadly my own view. I don’t, however, believe that it can be achieved in a coalition with others who fall into categories one or two. In other words, the soft Brexiters’ case will be quickly undermined if their fellow campaigners are seen to be working to obstruct Brexit entirely.

Reading the tea leaves – and that’s really all that’s left right now – I feel that all of this pain and confusion may be ended early in 2017. I suspect that Theresa May will seek a mandate from the electorate to resolve these questions. She is so far ahead of Labour in the polls that it is easy to imagine her achieving a majority of 80 or 100 in a general election.

Under the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, she needs a two-thirds majority to call a poll. But McDonnell and Corbyn, in a whirl of collective delusion not seen since General Custer took his stand at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, have signalled that they are keen to contest an election. It is hard to imagine what pretext they could find to vote against it in Parliament.

My bet for the date? Frosty February. A month before May plans to invoke Article 50. My hunch is that she may push the button with a mandate much stronger than anyone anticipates.

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