Lord Andrew Adonis has been cited as one of the heroes of the Remain campaign. His call for a People’s Vote has resounded in all the towns and cities he’s visited on his nationwide campaign across broken Britain to persuade people Brexit is not a done deal. He’s written books, led debates and last year was filmed at a street stall in Bath city centre with members of Bath for Europe where his unequivocal message was, ‘Stop Brexit. Stay in Europe.’ This was music to the ears of Remainers everywhere so imagine the outrage when a post appeared on his Facebook wall last Wednesday seeming to say the opposite. The most incendiary line was where he appeared to endorse a soft Brexit involving a ‘close economic relationship with the EU’.
Lord Adonis supporting a People’s Vote on the final Brexit deal, Bath, May 2018
What was going on? Among the thousands of responses (most of them furious) there was concern his account had been hacked (for it wasn’t just the content but the tone that sounded suspicious) to a suggestion he’d been locked in the boot of Seumas Milne’s car until he recanted. Conversely, pro-Brexit commentators could barely contain their glee with The Sun leading the pack in denouncing him as an ’odious shapeshifter’ and an ‘unprincipled character.’
On Friday, now a Labour MEP candidate for the South West, he was due in Bath to campaign with his party for the local elections and give a talk at BRLSI that evening. It had been booked at the last minute – before his Facebook announcement, though possibly not before he knew he’d be making it. Local and national social media were buzzing. #unfollowadonis was trending on Twitter and he dropped a few thousand followers in a day, despite a further Twitter post confirming his support for ‘a public vote on any Brexit deal’ and his reiteration that it ‘was what Jeremy and the Labour Party voted for on April 1.’ The tone was very much that of an official party communication -just an exclamation mark at the end of ‘The people must be given the final say!‘, revealing a brief glimmer of his old campaigning self. An additional problem was a draft of the Labour manifesto for the European elections had just appeared online looking distinctly pro-Brexit, with no mention of a second referendum.
So clearly, he might not have expected the warmest of welcomes in the small room he’d booked and assuming most of the fifty sitting in front of him wanted an answer to the latest accusation of a ‘volte-face’, he launched straight into an explanation of the post. Apparently, when he’d been out campaigning that morning, it was the first question he’d been asked by a Bath resident. He said he still maintained the only credible way to resolve Brexit would be through a referendum, People’s Vote or, as it is currently called, a confirmatory vote with a remain option. He also believes this should be on the Labour manifesto for the European elections on May 23rd. But the huge problem that has spooked Labour is the Farage factor and it’s clear this is driving current policy – and probably, though he refused to confirm it, is why he was reined in. Citing figures from the 2014 election, he said Farage’s UKIP party and the Conservatives combined had won 61% of the vote, with Labour, Lib Dems and Greens trailing at 35%. This had led to the referendum. Continuing on a Farage theme, he said the Brexit Party threatened to have a similar effect in the 2019 European elections with 40% of Tory councillors planning to vote for it. Adonis believes it’s vital to mobilise the anti-Farage forces to prevent him winning; if this is successful, then the pressure to hold a referendum would become unstoppable. So far, so good.
Then Adonis posited the idea of a soft Brexit – initially in the context of the Brexit option on the 2nd referendum ballot, but it kept popping up again and again. ‘Of course, if there were to be some sort of Brexit, I would prefer it to be soft rather than hard.’ Or ‘I’d prefer to be in a realistic place rather than an unrealistic place.’ Before 1973, he said ‘we were in EFTA, which is a customs union and some parts of which would now constitute the Single Market but we were emphatically not in the European Union.’ Yet that now would be unacceptable to Farage and his ilk who had driven the narrative of the Conservative Party; in fact, Adonis envisioned that if Brexit were to go ahead, Farage would probably rejoin the Tories and become party leader. Cue raucous laughter as Adonis invited the audience to imagine Farage’s cabinet: Boris as Foreign Secretary ‘because he did such a brilliant job last time’, Jacob as Chancellor and Mark Francois as culture secretary.
The questions when they came did not pull the punches: Could the Facebook post cost current Labour MEP Clare Moody her job? (He didn’t think so) Who applied the thumbscrews to make Adonis change his tune? (He wouldn’t say) And would he resign if the final version of the Labour manifesto failed to include the promise of a confirmatory vote with the option to remain? To which he looked to Queen Victoria for inspiration. ‘We are not interested in the possibilities of defeat. They do not exist.’
With his final comment, ‘We have everything to play for,’ it’s clear that though still a committed Remainer at heart, he’s now somewhat constrained by his party. It’s not so much that he has done a U Turn, according to Dr Mike Galsworthy of Scientists for the EU (see article in the Guardian), but the Labour Party needs to do one. Everything rests on the NEC’s decision regarding the party manifesto for the European elections which is to be discussed on Tuesday. A failure to include the promise of a confirmatory vote or a dollop of fudge instead of a push for a referendum could have far-reaching effects for the Labour Party, and not just at the European elections.