Fighting the Last War

This week was the Liberal Democrat’s annual conference, when Members, MPs, Lords and Lobbyists all got together to talk policy. Or in the case of the Lib Dems, to talk Brexit; specifically, how to stop it and how to do so through a ‘People’s Vote’.

The notion of a second referendum is one I have spent a great deal of time thinking about, on the surface of it there is a case for one. The people took the decision, and the power, from Parliament to leave the European Union. In order that the constitutional norm be returned to, the people need to sign off on the decision and give the go-ahead for what sort of future relationship we are looking at and positively transfer power back to Westminster.

There is, however, a bit of a problem (that’s English for a bloody great big problem) with this idea. In fact there are a few, but I’ll cover just three, or four, if I may.

Problem one, what will be the purpose of the referendum; to simply endorse the government’s position, or give an option to overturn the vote?

If it’s the former, the continuity Remain campaign will cry foul and allege misdeeds and a ‘rigging of the system’ so that we might, according to them, have Brexit at all costs. That doesn’t seem to me a very helpful way of bringing society together on the issue. Further, what if the Government’s position wins on a two-way choice but a vast number of spoilt ballots cast a doubt over the result and a win ends up coming in with less than 50% of votes cast?

What then? Do we re-run again, perhaps making it the best of three, or does the Government risk trying to push such a result through Parliament? Such an outcome makes me want to retreat to the corner of the room, curl up on the floor and suck on my thumb whilst slowly rocking myself from side to side, humming a nursery rhyme.

If the proposition is the latter, to accept the deal or overturn Brexit, it might again be on a two-way ballot in which case instead of the New European exploding in a fit of rage (again), it’ll be The Telegraph and its resident Brexit columnist, the former Foreign Secretary along with a substantial number of MPs.

If we were talking about including a third option on the ballot then we would likely see a form of Alternative Vote being employed to try and give the winning option over 50% of the vote. This would undoubtedly help the Government’s deal get through, being the logical middle way and thus 2nd preference. This would lead to a chorus of voices from the backbenches and certain areas of the press threatening to do blood curdling (political) things to Downing Street.

Problem number two, what is the Remain message in the event of a campaign? Tell me! I don’t actually know what their message could be. We had the chance to get it right in 2016 and that effort was only surpassed in gross incompetence terms by the Tory campaign I worked on a year later.

The message can’t be ‘if we leave, Britain will fall off a cliff’, they tried that once and it backfired on Remain. If people didn’t like or believe it the first time round, why would they believe it the second time? Despite the rather grim current economic outlook, people didn’t immediately lose their jobs, their homes were not repossessed en masse as a result, and the economy didn’t go off a cliff. Yes, it got more expensive to go to Spain, but that was hardly armageddon. Which is why the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg seem so willing to trash Treasury and Bank of England forecasts.

On the other hand, if Remainers seriously think that telling people that they were lied to the first time round is going to do the trick then, quite simply, they’re high. Voting is a deeply personal and, in this case, emotional act. Telling a voter that he or she has been misled can translate into, ‘You’re stupid’. You have to come in with a better offer, you have to win them over, not attack their original choice which will entrench the voter further and make them harder to win later.

Third problem, timing. Sir Vince Cable kicked off the Lib Dem conference on the Sunday in the TV newsrooms earnestly telling the BBC that Article 50 could be extended, he was ‘pretty sure’ that the EU27 would agree to it. Aside from the rather loose language around whether the EU would or wouldn’t extend, this speaks to the central problem for Remain. Time. They don’t have enough of it to fight and win the argument. Six months wasn’t enough the first time round and it sure as hell won’t be enough the second time, and it’d be less than six months at this point.

A quick number four, the cheerleaders for Remain. Oh, what a sales team that is! Tony Blair, Nick Clegg and Alistair Campbell. And I thought it was lunacy when they put French IMF Chief Christine Lagarde on leaflets last time round, just try sticking those three mugs through a door and just see what happens.

However nice it might be to think about fighting and winning yesterday’s war, the general consensus is, it’s a bad idea.

Remainers badly need to look ahead to the next realist fight, our future relationship and how that impacts on business. They need to continue talking to our friends and neighbours across the channel to maintain those vital links that will be important come what may in the years ahead and they need to challenge the government on a line by line basis to ensure that Britain and the British people are, in fact, getting the best deal possible. But fighting for another referendum will only alienate them from the majority and leave them in the political wilderness. Like it or not, they have to move on.