Over Christmas I spoke with an elderly couple who vote Leave. A months ago they were buoyed up: they had bought the stories from the Leave campaign, been worried about the number of immigrants when they saw a television programme from the place where they grew up (and haven’t visited in a long time), and were excited by the optimistic stories in some of the pro-Brexit papers. Now things are different. They had thought we would be out of the EU as soon as the vote happened — like resigning from a club — and are waking up to the sheer complexity of leaving. They are worried, particularly for young people.
That might be the story in miniature.
There are still lots of stories floating around which speak of a reality-defying optimism. In the last few days (28 December 2016) Michael Gove was still repeating the thoroughly-discredited claim that leaving the EU would save £350 million a week that could be applied to the NHS. That’s the claim Nigel Farage was backing away from on 24 June, and sits ill with the reality that any Brexit-induced slowdown reduces the government income from tax and so the money available for the NHS.
We’re still hearing supporters of EU membership dismissed as “remoaners”, and Nick Clegg was dismissed as “europhile” when he pointed out that a fall in the pound will mean food prices rise because we import more than half of our food: it’s as if it’s only possible to engage with insults and not with the real and serious issue of the likely effects of any form of Brexit.
Signs of change
In December the Daily Mail, not noted for its opposition to Brexit, ran an article about a survey from Which showing increased concern over Brexit, with 47% of the population worried about Brexit generally and 58% of households about its effect on food prices — those figures are up from 39% and 50% respectively in September.
There have been a string of polls indicating a change of heart. In November The Independent reported a poll showing the country as a whole had switched to a majority against Brexit.
Among local papers a poll from the Sunderland Echo in December showed that the 60% majority for Brexit in June had evaporated. In the West Midlands the Express and Star recently ran a poll suggesting that support for Remain had leapt from 16% in March to 62% in December 2016. Normally I would be sceptical of polls in local papers, as they tend to be self-selected groups, but when the same paper runs a poll in the same way before June, showing support for Leave, and now, showing support for Remain, it suggests a change. These come together to indicate a marked shift.
More authoritatively, The Independent on 28 December ran an EU-wide poll by the Worldwide Independent Network of Market Research / Gallup International Association (WIN/GIA) giving majority support for EU membership in all EU nations, with the UK on 52%.
Blogger Tom Pride pulls together a raft of evidence, from polling to demographic changes, to suggest that the pendulum has swung.
(Low) confidence in government
Theresa May faces a near-impossible task to reconcile the different strands within her own party, pulling in the directions of “hard Brexit”, “soft Brexit” and “no Brexit”. With a tiny majority that is a major problem, but it is to do with the mechanics of the House of Commons rather than the needs of the nation.
Public borrowing is up because of the effects of Brexit, even though we are only in the very early stages. “Closing the deficit” has already disappeared from the public discourse.
The Institute for Public Policy Research is predicting that it will bring a decade of chaos, with Brexit costing £55 Billion by 2030, and Philip Hammond has been signalling that the two year period for the Article 50 process is unrealistically short.
Senior Civil Servants are warning that Theresa May refuses to admit the complexity of Brexit and lacks the political courage to admit this.
Hope from the Lords
Meanwhile, a recent article by Andrew Duff draws attention to the excellent work the House of Lords Europe Committee has been doing on Brexit. It is a relief to see that, somewhere in parliament, some realistic work is being done. The snag is that the same committee’s very thorough review of the powers that might be brought back from the EU concluded that Cameron’s renegotiation was against the national interest and was ignored for political reasons.
What’s out of sight
Out of sight in the British discourse is the excellent work that Guy Verhofstadt has been doing to bring forward proposals to improve the EU. Surely those arguing for reform should be joining with him, and organisations like Another Europe is Possible, to throw Britain’s weight behind improvement rather than indulging in a squabble on the sidelines.
From the UK perspective, what is particularly worrying is the evidence that support for Brexit was fuelled by people who have lost out, particularly through austerity. It is galling to see austerity so quickly abandoned after doing so much damage, but there is an urgent need to put time into addressing the pain that has been caused. The money Brexit would cost would be far better applied to helping people in this situation.
What the UK clearly needs now is wise leadership. The Lords Europe Committee has been exemplary, but we lack anything more visible.
David Cameron was grossly irresponsible to call a referendum — its purpose was to quell dissent within his own party — putting party interest ahead of the national interest.
Many people were mis-sold payment protection insurance. They took it out, on the basis of advice given. They were not foolish, but they were mis-informed. The banks who mis-informed them have been paying substantial sums in compensation. There is a parallel with the degree of mis-information from the Leave campaign.
What we need now is the wise leadership that can acknowledge Cameron’s mistake, and engage with the real problems around inequality, people’s sense of being ignored, the real damage caused by austerity itself, and the sense that this too was about people being ignored.
Perhaps this is in Theresa May’s plan. Perhaps it is what happens after people recognise that Brexit won’t work and her successor steps into the role of mature leader. The turmoil unleashed by Donald Trump’s election makes the stability of EU membership all the more important for the UK. This needs exceptionally wise leadership from whoever is in No. 10 Downing St.