Sitting in rural France, the endless Brexit rumblings seem a very long way away. However important the issues involved, it is easy to feel fed up with the whole process and to wish it would go away. Yet, alongside this feeling, I have another one – growing impatience with the hardcore Remainers of both parties. They are coming close to turning me from a mildly reluctant Remainer into a Leaver.
I still agree with their starting point: that it would have been better if Britain had voted to stay in the EU. I agree that probably (although no one can say for certain) the country will be worse off – in a number of respects, but especially economically – once we leave. Thereafter, I part company from them. Radically.
Most of all, I disagree with the implicit assumption – never mentioned; never justified – that, if the best option was to have stayed in the EU, the next best option must be to mimic membership as closely as possible once we are out of it. That is a non sequitur.
Almost the sole point of leaving the EU is to have the freedom to make our own arrangements with the world, in trade and in everything else. One may think, and I do think, that the outcome of this new freedom will be less beneficial to the country than Leavers claim, and less beneficial than remaining in the EU would be. But I am sure that, if we are to leave, we need the unrestricted latitude to make the alternative work.
It seems certain that staying in or close to the single market and the customs union will not give us this latitude. It is in danger of offering the worst of both worlds: demonstrably less good than remaining in the EU, while making it difficult or impossible for the global alternative to succeed. It is, in effect, a compromise between staying in the EU and leaving it. No such compromise is sensibly available.
Nor, of course, is it what the hardcore Remainers really want. They want to stay in the EU, but they’re not prepared to say so. They fall back on the mantra of ‘respecting the result of the referendum’, while doing everything possible to stop that result being implemented in a way that gives it a chance of working. They are salving their consciences without doing anything that might seriously harm their careers.
Most people would agree that there are some national issues that are so important that they should over-ride questions of career or party. I do not have sufficient certainty to feel that way about Brexit myself, but many Remainers do have that certainty. In which case, what are they doing about it?
There are grounds for arguing that, in the light of all that has emerged in the past two years, the British people should be asked if they still wish to proceed with Brexit. There is a clear majority of MPs who voted to remain. There are established mechanisms in Parliament either to introduce a provision for a second referendum or, in extremis, to pass a motion of no confidence in the Government and force a General Election.
I would not support either of these actions. Nor do I think that a second referendum would reverse the result of the first. But it is possible, and therefore for hardcore Remainers it is surely the only principled way forward. There are many convinced Remainers in the country, some of my friends amongst them, and they are being woefully let down by those who should be leading them.
Labour moderates whisper in corners about starting a new centre party, but in public fall back upon forms of words on Brexit that mean nothing and deceive no one. To listen to Conservative rebels, one would think that Brexit was largely a matter of procedural wrangling. Why (apart from the LibDems, who have become curiously irrelevant to this debate), does no one say what they really think?
In particular, I am baffled by the response of Kenneth Clarke, whom I have admired for so long. Here is someone who gave up the chance of becoming Prime Minister for the sake of his principled support for the EU. Now, when it really matters to the country and when he has no career to protect, what stops him from making the only logical stand that his convictions would appear to demand?
My crude request to hardcore Remainers, therefore, is this: piss or get off the pot. This is not the time to pussyfoot around. If you really think that Brexit will be disastrous for the country, say so and at least have a go at reversing it, even at the risk of failure. But, if you’re not prepared to do that, stop trying to make it impossible for the Government to negotiate a form of Brexit that makes intellectual sense and might have some chance of working.