People’s Vote: Establishment fights back
Saturday's demonstration carried more than a whiff of a post-Brexit national government about it, writes Eddie Ford
It is widely reported that almost 700,000 attended the People’s Vote (PV) march in central London on Saturday October 20. Not quite the million that the organisers had been hoping for, but nevertheless it still represented the largest demonstration since the anti-Iraq war protest in 2003 - making it a huge success by any criteria.
Addressing the crowds were dozens of MPs and former politicians from all the major political parties and a host of ageing celebrities - many of whom, it has to be said, definitely belong in the B-list, such as Steve Coogan, Bob Geldof, Tracy Ullman and Delia Smith, the latter saying Brexit was causing “unmitigated chaos”. Therefore, she declared to loud cheers, “the only way we can avoid this total madness and win back our future has to be a people’s vote”. Vince Cable, currently the Liberal Democrat leader, declared that “people have woken up to the potential disaster”, while Sir Alan Duncan - foreign office minister and de facto deputy to foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt - called upon Tory MPs to drop their “ideological obsessions” over Europe, which was now threatening to drive Britain “off a cliff”.
Other speakers included Tony Blair, Michael Heseltine, Nick Clegg, Ken Clarke, Anna Soubry, Nicola Sturgeon, Caroline Lucas, Sadiq Khan, Chuka Umunna and, almost inevitably, Polly Toynbee of TheGuardian.In other words, all impeccably mainstream and respectable.
Now, it appears, PV is focusing its attention on 50 Conservative MPs - including five cabinet ministers - who it believes could be persuaded to vote for a second referendum, should Theresa May’s final Brexit deal be rejected by parliament, which seems more than possible. However, some within PV are not entirely happy with this approach - wondering whether it would be possible to win over more than two dozen Tories. Instead, they argue, it would be better to concentrate on winning the support of Labour MPs in ‘leave’-voting areas.
Supporters of a second referendum have been encouraged to lobby what are seen as key MPs and hold events at their constituency surgeries. PV is going topay for social media advertising targeted at those MPs and their constituents, while a “six-figure sum” has been allocated to conduct polling in individual constituencies to try to demonstrate where an MP may be ‘out of step’ with local opinion. Best for Britain, which is an ‘official’ supporter of PV, said it would work with campaigners to lobby Tory MPs in order to make sure that they “hear from people in their communities who are worried about Brexit”.
It was hardly surprising that so many took part in the march. If a million had turned up, that would have been far from astonishing. Regarding the Brexit issue, with every week that goes by - if not every day - you can see why people are getting more and more concerned about the way things are going.
Just look at the government’s recent contingency planning - like closing down the M26 at night to make the necessary arrangements to transform it into a vast lorry park. When previous plans or ‘technical notices’ began to roll out, they generated so much panic that they had to be suspended. These included putting emergency generators into Northern Ireland, because the electricity from the south would be cut off. Or stockpiling medicines (and food) due to EU restrictions. And what about airports or customs? You can just keep going through the list. With every government notice, people felt less and less reassured and started to get worried about the prospect of a hard Brexit, which could deeply affect everyday life.
However, what we saw on the PV march was essentially a gathering of liberals - a demonstration in defence of the status quo. It was a case of the establishment fighting back. True, there were also left remainers, such as Another Europe is Possible, with its orange flares to show how revolutionary they are. But this was welcomed by the organisers, of course, who want to bring on board pro-Corbyn leftwingers - we are not just a bunch of boring mainstream politicians - and want to attract the widest possible political spectrum. To this end, official instructions from PV’s organisers - not obeyed by everyone on the march - were not to attack Jeremy Corbyn, as they also want him on side (eventually).
In terms of intra-Labour Party politics, Umunna can stab Corbyn in the back - no problem. But, when it comes to his PV leadership role, the reverse is the case: recruit as many people as possible to the cause of a second referendum. We also know that the campaign is extremely well financed, in receipt of funds from George Soros, the billionaire hedge-fund manager - other multi-millionaires are funding it as well. PV’s offices are located in Millbank Tower, just minutes away from the TV studios and parliament. Officially, PV is a collaboration between a number of groups, including Britain for Europe, European Movement UK, Open Britain, Scientists for EU, Labour for a People’s Vote, Best for Britain and Renew Britain.
All of this means that PV is at the heart of British establishment politics, operating in a very slick and professional way. It was initially founded in April 2018 at a meeting attended by many of the prominent individuals named above - Umunna, Soubry, Lucas, etc - with the left acting as the tail or useful adjunct. PV’s political origins lie in the all-party parliamentary group (APPG) on EU relations, which was formed in February 2017 and co-chaired by - who else? - Umunna and Soubry. Then, the following February, a ‘grassroots’ coordinating group (GCG) representing more than 500,000 people opposed to a hard Brexit was formed, with - you guessed it - Umunna as leader. Later that month it was reported that Soros’s Open Society Foundations had donated £182,000 to European Movement UK and £35,000 to Scientists for EU - two of the groups that are now part of PV.
Unsurprisingly, the egregiously misnamed Alliance for Workers’ Liberty heavily promoted the PV march, together with a national speaking tour entitled, ‘The left for Europe’. But, apart from Michael Chessum, an AWL fellow traveller and a national organiser for Another Europe is Possible, the rest of the speakers were run-of-the-mill Keynesian economists, liberal do-gooders, charity-workers - plus a couple of trade union officials bunged in for good measure. But, of course, there is nothing leftwing about Another Europe is Possible. Not only is it in receipt of Soros money to the tune of £70,000, it promotes politics which are thoroughly liberal and entirely in line with PV’s overarching strategy.
Anyway, the main significance of PV is not that it will deliver a second referendum - which at the moment is not a serious proposal. Theresa May, Jeremy Corbyn and both front benches are not going for it, and you can see why. But PV and its march was not centrally designed for that, whatever they might say. Rather, it acts as a rallying call for something we have been warning about for quite a while - a national government made up of these types, coming together to save Britain from the calamity of Brexit. An election following on the heels of a hard Brexit might be an entirely different matter. With a growing demand from below and above to stop the bickering and put nation above party, then you can imagine a second referendum happening - and getting their two-thirds majority like Harold Wilson did in 1975.
Meanwhile, in the run-up to the October 20 march - just as with the previous PV march in June - companies issued dire warnings about the consequences of a ‘no deal’ or hard Brexit. Toyota, BMW, Jaguar Land Rover, etc lined up to say their future investments were in jeopardy - they might even pull out of the UK altogether. Not pulling his punches, Ralf Speth, the boss of Jaguar Land Rover, said that Brexit could “kill off” entire industries - whilst a Confederation of British Industry survey shows that four out of five businesses have cut investment ahead of Brexit. Adding to the gloom, the national audit office has calculated that a ‘no deal’ would result in tariffs and new controls “to around £423 billion of trade at the UK border”.
Some of the companies mentioned have already enforced short-term working and closures due to overproduction. If there is a hard Brexit, then they would be presented with further immense difficulties, as many rely on ‘just-in-time’ production, mostly for export - and mainly to Europe, needless to say. Since they often already have to cope with pretty fine margins, delays at Dover and trading under World Trade Organisation rules - which means paying a tariff - could be potentially catastrophic. Much better to relocate your business elsewhere, which is entirely feasible, as we are fundamentally talking about assembly plants.
In the aftermath of last week’s fairly disastrous EU summit in Brussels, Theresa May is now talking about playing for extra time - that is, extending the transition/implementation period. Despite her reassurance that it would only last a few months, leaked cabinet papers seen by The Times concede that the plan “could, in theory, lead to a long-running implementation period” that might last for many years (October 24). Whilst you would expect Brexiteers to scream ‘Betrayal!’, the prime minister’s tentative plans got a surprisingly hostile reception from pro-‘remain’ Tory MPs as well: nobody liked it.
If the transition period is extended, that would result, for all intents and purposes, in a Norway situation: ie, the UK would still be part of the single market and some sort of customs union or partnership. It would be ‘a rule-taker, not a rule-maker’: no MEPs, commissioners or ministers. For people like Jacob Rees-Mogg and Boris Johnson, this is vassalage - an unacceptable national humiliation. ‘Great’ Britain would be under the tutelage of the EU, with no say.
Having said that, the Brexiteers do have a programme of savage cut-backs to the welfare state. Andrea Leadsom, for instance, wants to do away with all ‘red tape’ and as much regulation as possible - no minimum wage, health and safety, etc. A low-regulation and low-wage British economy that is based on banking and insurance; a tax-haven that exports to Europe on WTO terms. This might seem crazy now, but post-Brexit - assuming for now that it ever happens - it becomes a feasible project.
Making life even harder for the British government, the rancour over the Ireland border question is intensifying - will there be any time limit to the EU’s ‘backstop’, will it apply to Northern Ireland only or to the entire UK, and how legally enforceable will it be? At a “stormy” and “impassioned” cabinet meeting on October 23, a day before the prime minister was due to plead for support from Tory MPs at a meeting of the party’s 1922 Committee, a group of ministers seems to have argued that Theresa May should concede over the backstop, because the EU would not accept a time limit. David Lidington, the cabinet office minister, said that he was “terrified” at the idea of a no-deal Brexit, which would be as serious as Black Wednesday - when the pound crashed out of the Exchange Rate Mechanism, leaving the Tories’ reputation for economic competence shredded for 15 years. Therefore, Lidington told colleagues, he was concerned that the EU would not agree to a divorce deal without an indefinite backstop, and that the prime minister needed to negotiate on that basis in order to avoid a no-deal scenario.
In the end, all of this illustrates how precarious and unpredictable the situation truly is - we just do not know whether the EU will agree to May’s final plan, whether it be ‘Chequers minus, minus, minus’, ‘super-Canada’ or ‘Norway’. Nor do we know if she will be able to get it through her own party or cabinet, let alone parliament. Yes, there are a handful of Labour MPs saying they might back the prime minister, depending on this or that. But you also have the DUP and the 40-odd members of the European Research Group, vowing ‘no surrender’. Almost anything can happen. A likely outcome will be ‘Brino’ (Brexit in name only), where formally the UK is outside the EU, but in practical reality still inside it - the worst of all worlds, arguably.