With Johnson installed in Number 10, news that he’d appointed Dominic Cummings as his advisor, and in the knowledge that he’d been receiving support from both Lynton Crosby and Steve Bannon, the past few weeks have been fairly depressing for those of us who prize and prefer to retain our EU citizenship.
Until recently, I’d been reasonably optimistic that the Remain movement had enough support to bring about some sensible resolution to this crisis. But the appointment of Cummings, chief architect of the Leave win, was a serious concern. As was Johnson’s populist public insistence that the referendum was a clear mandate to leave the EU at the end of October come what may, with a deal or without.
So I was delighted to hear Stephen Dorrell and Andrew Adonis give a very encouraging talk in Bath earlier this month. Dorrell and Adonis are Chair and Vice-Chair respectively of the European Movement (EM), the U.K.’s largest pro-European network campaigning for a People’s Vote.
Now a few weeks on, the key points from that meeting have been summarised on this site, and I’m looking over my own notes, reflecting on the event, and thinking about what’s happened since then.
Democracy Is A Process
Dorrell began with a discussion about democracy. It’s still surprising to me just how often I hear that questioning Brexit in any way is “undemocratic”. Yet as Dorrell explained, democracy is a continuous relationship between the people and the government, in which the people hold the government to account. Thus democracy is an ongoing process – not a one-time event.
It’s this very process of democracy that’s under challenge today and it’s clear the crisis that we find ourselves in now is about more than just Brexit alone.
Though there are, of course, multiple reasons to question the democratic legitimacy of the 2016 referendum, in my experience many of these arguments are depressingly unfamiliar to those members of the public relying on the top-selling tabloids for their daily news. As Lord Adonis pointed out, Jacob Rees-Mogg himself has been heard to argue in favour of two referendums, the second referendum taking place after the renegotiation is complete. Yet the suggestion is now dismissed as not respecting the referendum result.
2016 Referendum: Democratic Legitimacy
A question was put to the speakers about the issues surrounding the referendum during the Q&A session at the end. Stephen Dorrell felt it best to draw a line under it. He agreed there are many valid questions we can raise about the democratic validity of the referendum in 2016, but banging on about this runs the risk of having us labelled as bad losers. So, on balance, it’s best to move on and, instead, to challenge the government on the basis of them having no mandate for what they’re trying to do now, to look at where we are today, and what we want to do going forward.
And though there could be grounds for revoking Article 50, it wouldn’t be the EM’s favourite option. The speakers felt generally that a new referendum would be cleaner in terms of giving a new, clear mandate and, failing that, a General Election.
Dorrell also made the point that the government is elected on trust to do a job for a particular period of time. One cornerstone of the EM’s position, then, is that the Johnson government is in breach of this trust. It’s not discharging its responsibility of delivering on the pledges made during the referendum campaign. Back in 2016, no one spoke about the possibility of leaving without a deal, for example, and we were promised all sorts of things including a deal with the EU being one of the easiest in human history.
Somehow, the referendum result of 2016 has been reinterpreted by Johnson and Cummings to mean that No Deal is a serious possibility. Talk of a confirmatory vote is treated as undemocratic or even a betrayal of the vote.
The Conservative Party that Stephen Dorrell joined would have no time for a government with no mandate. There is no mandate for what they’re doing now, and we must continue to resist by challenging them in every marginal seat, offering a better view of the future.
The Conservative Party at heart is not nationalist, not Farage-lite, not narrow and suspicious, but open and internationalist. Yet having (the unelected) Cummings on board means that the team behind Vote Leave has effectively been reconvened at public expense. It’s clear that the government is preparing not just for No Deal, but also for a General Election.
The New Reality
It’s Cummings’ plan to go hard-line and unyielding in public, to create a new reality, explained Adonis.
Indeed, I recently heard Johnson tell French President Emmanuel Macron “It is vital for trust in politics that if you have a referendum then you should act on the instructions of the voters, and that is why we must come out of the EU on October 31st, deal or no deal.”
So here we are, according to the narrative of Johnson and Cummings, with anyone who seeks to question the government position as effectively betraying the trust of the electorate.
Lord Adonis described Cummings’ strategy as one of shock and awe, pushing their narrative, with the aim of running their election campaign on the basis of Johnson versus Corbyn.
So, the EM plan is to mobilise parliamentary opinion to block No Deal and to offer a referendum, or confirmatory vote. If there is a General Election, we need a Remain alliance, for which plans are underway, to challenge the Conservatives in the marginal seats.
Now, clearly, Johnson and Cummings will seek to run a General Election when prospects are in their favour. At the current time they’ll consider this to be a risk not worth taking, and this is precisely what we want. Johnson wants to stay in office. Our challenge, then, is to ensure there’s enough doubt in his mind to deter him from running a General Election. And for this we need to stay engaged.
Corbyn on the Fence
It’s the view of Lord Adonis that Labour did badly in the European elections precisely because of Labour’s fence-sitting – their policy of constructive ambiguity. Personally, I feel very let down by Corbyn’s lack of clarity on this issue and what looks to me like a highly ineffective Opposition. I personally know former Labour Party members who’ve defected to the LibDems because of this. Nevertheless, Adonis assured us that the majority of Labour MPs are in favour of remaining and felt that Corbyn will eventually come around.
At the present time, it’s not quite clear how this is going to work. There seem to be questions about how to achieve a sufficient majority to bring about a successful vote of no confidence, and who the leader of a temporary caretaker government should be. No doubt we’ll see greater clarity on these issues over the coming weeks.
Keep Marching and Writing
Very clearly, a failure of Conservative Party management is what led to the referendum in 2016. All the problems that have been blamed on the EU are failures of our own government. It is entirely a diversionary strategy to blame the EU.
We should continue to protest and make our wishes known to our MPs. We must not lose hope, Adonis assured us. We must keep marching and writing and do everything we can to engage young people who didn’t have the right to vote in 2016.
We definitely shouldn’t feel that the marches don’t help. In fact, they help MPs a lot in private, in helping to give them confidence to act in accordance with their conscience. Since the majority of Labour MPs are remain, it’s really important that we keep up the momentum, make our voices heard, and make it clear to Cummings & Co that a General Election is a bad idea.
We Have the Brains and Motivation
Lord Adonis paid tribute to Dominic Grieve QC MP, whose work on the amendment to the Northern Ireland Bill was a masterstroke. Its effect would be to prevent the proroguing (suspension) of Parliament to force through a No-Deal Brexit. Grieve is a strategist who deserves our support and respect, and with an intellect equal to Cummings.
No doubt the EM has a plan, they have a number of heavyweights on their team, including Michael Heseltine and Ken Clarke, and the determination to carry it through.
Still, I remain concerned about some of the views held by the general public, and the way the extremists are controlling the narrative, with much of the media seemingly on their side. An example is the number of people who talk about No Deal as a serious possibility and believe it to be a true expression of the wishes expressed by the electorate three years ago. I’m not convinced many of them understand the full implications, despite press reports that Johnson himself was left ‘visibly shaken’ after civil service briefings about what we could expect.
Nevertheless, I’m reassured that there are many people working very hard both in public and behind the scenes to restore democracy. And I’m much more confident now that by keeping up the pressure and working together, we really can help change the political direction.
Debra White Hughes