Richard North, 22/11/2018  

Mrs May, we are told, has failed to make a breakthrough in Brussels on the political declaration and is now scheduled to return on Saturday for further talks.

Whether this is all part of the theatre remains to be seen, but it wouldn't be surprising. It would not be the first time that public sentiment has been manipulated. The grand summit between George Pompidou and Edward Heath on 20-21 May 1971 was one such example.

Hailed as the crucial meeting during which the French president relented on British entry to the EEC, documents released under the 30-year rule revealed that it was all a stitch up. The decision on the UK's entry had already been made: the meeting and the attendant media hullabaloo was pure stage management.

Certainly, as far as the withdrawal agreement goes, the EU has decided that the negotiations are over. On the UK front, all that remains is the parliamentary ratification and, even there, there is an unhealthy whiff of a done deal in the air.

With the incompetence of the ERG in failing to mount an effective leadership challenge, there is a distinct possibility that the parliamentary opposition to the agreement will collapse as well. In that event, it will get the grudging assent of the House, even if it has to go through several steps to get there.

There are three reasons for believing this might be the case. Firstly, parliamentary opposition to a measure such as this does not happen spontaneously. It must be carefully orchestrated and organised – as was the case with the Maastricht votes. There, the "bastards" had the use of a house within walking distance of the Commons, which they turned into a command centre to mastermind the resistance. And they very nearly succeeded.

The second reason for predicting failure is that the rebels must have with them a moral certainty that will take them to the wire and beyond. They must see their cause as far more important than any other consideration. As with Maastricht, though, we are dealing with self-serving Tories. When push comes to shove, experience suggests that they will put self before cause. Faced with the prospect of a general election and electoral annihilation, they will roll over and retreat from the confrontation.

But the third is just as powerful as the other two reasons combined. In the ERG which has been at the epicentre of opposition to Mrs May's negotiation strategy, there is a yawning chasm at its heart, a deep intellectual vacuum which reflects the inability of supporters to devise a coherent alternative to the official policy.

For all its manifest faults, even our inadequate media is beginning to realise this, hence the cartoon in the Sunday Times last week, which encapsulates the emptiness which has brought the ERG to its current nadir, with only one place to go (illustrated).

Once things are settled, thoughts will turn to the writing of the history of this turbulent period. And from underneath the froth of current events, the underlying failure of the Eurosceptic movement to develop a coherent post-EU vision should feature prominently in any account.

Most likely though, this will not happen. The "prestige" scribes who will take upon themselves the task of writing the history will stem from the same Westminster-centric chatterati who have written the wholly inadequate accounts of the 2016 referendum campaign, treating it as if the high profile campaigning bodies were the be all and end all of the process.

The broader national campaign never got a look in and there was no recognition whatsoever that the official campaign was merely the last, shortest part of a thirty-year struggle that had engaged thousands of dedicated people.

The lack of understanding here tends to obscure the nature of the official campaign and the fact that Vote Leave represented a right wing Tory hijack of the Eurosceptic cause, with the latter-day campaign specifically tailored to the needs of the Conservative Party.

In the process of designing the campaign, which started long before there was anything visible, there were two important criteria to the fore. The first was that the campaign itself had to avoid serious damage to the Conservative Party. There were to be no "blue on blue" attacks that might win the campaign but which would leave Party terminally weakened.

The second vital issue was the recognition that the Eurosceptic movement was a bubbling cauldron of dissent, with more factions than the People's Front of Judea and little chance of pulling together a united message.

Campaign managers for Vote Leave, therefore, chose to ignore the divisions and ride rough-shod over the sensibilities of the different factions, devising a focus-group led campaign that pressed enough buttons to secure victory, even if they had no strict (or any) relevance to the reasons why long-term campaigners wanted to leave the EU.

Essentially, work was conducted to identify the messages which would have the effect of motivating voters to opt for leaving. These were then cleaned up and refined, and played back during the campaign to achieve the desired result.

In the final analysis, this strategy worked – to the limited extent that it secured a narrow victory in the referendum (or did not prevent victory). But it was also dishonest and unnecessarily so, as the referendum could have been won on much more secure grounds that would have avoided the turmoil which we are seeing today.

The essence of that alternative campaign would have been rooted in findings from multiple opinion polls, most of which indicated that, if David Cameron went to Brussels and then failed to bring back a convincing reform package, he would lose the referendum.

However, to play that card would have confounded the first objective of the Tory hijackers. To attack Mr Cameron's negotiating failure would have damaged the Conservative Party, with senior Tory politicians fighting each other (and the prime minister). That could not be allowed and the campaign was denied its most potent weapon.

But to make the "reform" card work to the greatest advantage would have also required a post-exit vision for an EU-free UK. It was all very well attacking Mr Cameron's failure, but to do so would have triggered exactly the dynamic that we are currently seeing – questions about the preferred alternative.

This, the planners behind Vote Leave refused to countenance. They felt there wasn't time to hold a grand debate and settle the issues, and that the divisions ran so deep that even to hold that debate would have triggered open warfare within the Eurosceptic movement. Hence the campaign had to be fought on a pastiche of superficial "dog whistle" points, avoiding any real debate.

In 2015, when these issues were coming to a head, it is probably true that it was too late to define a coherent Eurosceptic vision, but that need not have been the case. And the reason the cupboard was bare rests upon two egregious failures spanning more than a decade.

The first was attributable to a Farage-led Ukip which in 1999 managed to send three MEPs to Brussels. When the elections of 2004 beckoned greater success, with the prospect of greater resources, that presented the opportunity to set up a research unit in Brussels which could devise an exit plan and post-EU vision to fuel the campaign to withdraw from EU membership.

However, Farage was wedded to a different strategy. Rather than pursue a referendum (which he opposed), his was the Westminster route. The idea was to win enough Ukip seats in the Commons to challenge the Conservatives and cause the party to split. His desired outcome was that the Eurosceptic rump of the Tory Party would combine with Ukip to create a majority which would then take us out of the EU.

Committed to that strategy, Farage wanted all available funds to be directed to contesting Westminster seats, at by-elections and in general elections. Even by 2003, however, it was obvious that this strategy could not work, but Farage would not change his view. There was no money for policy development and he had a simple solution for dealing with those who pursued any line other than his own. He got rid of them, driving them out of Ukip.

The next serious opportunity to craft a post-exit vision came in 2013 when the IEA launched its Brexit Prize, attracting a wide range of entries. At that time, it was anticipated that there might be a referendum in 2017 and the timing was inspired. But the idea came to naught when the IEA broke its own competition rules and, with rigged judging under the chairmanship of Lord Lawson, all those entries which advocated the Norway option were excluded from the shortlist of finalists.

The competition came to a farcical conclusion in April of the following year when the €100,000 prize was given to a junior civil servant in the foreign office, for an incoherent, badly constructed essay, whence the man was not even allowed to speak publicly to his own work and disappeared without trace. The grand debate which Lawson said he wanted to promote melted away.

As it turned out, that second attempt was the last opportunity to go into the referendum with a credible exit plan. When the vote was held in 2016, the IEA, having squandered the opportunity to lead the debate, barely featured in the campaign. It only re-emerged earlier this year with its sponsorship of Shanker Singham and his "disaster capitalism" agenda, something partly adopted by the ERG which nevertheless has lurched between its advocacy of a Canada+ free trade agreement and the WTO option.

Throughout the post-referendum period, there are those of us who have been warning the Tory right wing that if they opposed the compromise solution of the Efta/EEA option, we would end up with something inestimably worse. But, being Tories, they knew better. And so it has come to pass that, under the baleful leadership of Theresa May, we have been mugged by the European Commission with a Hotel California-style arrangement which the ERG themselves brand as a vassal state settlement.

For sure, the original failure of Ukip to develop a credible Eurosceptic vision let the Tory genie out of the bottle, and the IEA (plus the High Tory Lord Lawson) contributed to the failure.

Nevertheless, it was the Tory group that rigged the referendum campaign and the Tories who made the running in the aftermath. And now, for their failure to fill the intellectual vacuum, the ERG Tories have only themselves to blame for the current situation.

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