If you’re looking for a forensic yet highly readable account of the batshit-crazy craziness of Brexit and its various leading advocates since they unexpectedly stormed to victory over common sense in June 2016, then Chris Grey’s Brexit Unfolded is the book for you.
The book’s central theme is encapsulated in its subtitle: How no one got what they wanted (and why they were never going to). In short, 17.4 million people were induced to vote for a really dumb and incoherent idea without anyone having a clue how to put the idea and its conflicting, ‘cakeist’ demands into practice. Then, when the intellectually-challenged Tory politicians presented with the task found their deluded ‘cakeism’ coming up against – and being frustrated by – reality, they simply railed, plotted and fought against each other, thus steering the entire process down a vicious spiral of idiocy, puerility and irresponsibility.
In December 2019, this ever more absurd process finally climaxed in the farce of Tory MPs breathlessly voting for a ‘renegotiated’ Withdrawal Agreement little different to the one they had hated so much they had brought down their own Prime Minister, the hapless Theresa May. As a result, the UK left the EU on 31 January 2020. Then, after eleven months of post-orgasm torture, both Tory and Labour MPs spaffed the country’s future up the wall by voting for a ‘future relationship’ deal they had barely had time to read, let alone understand. And now, after just a few months in the glorious sunlit uplands of Brexit, the Brexiters wail that it’s a terrible, ‘punishment’ deal that must be re-negotiated.
With Chris having documented every slap and tickle of these four years of political sadomasochism in real time, via his (rightly) acclaimed Brexit Blog, Brexit Unfolded does not miss a trick in exposing, and eviscerating, the self-defeating lunacy of Brexit and the Brexiters. And the ‘no one’ in the book’s subtitle clearly encompasses Remain voters like me (and Chris himself), who obviously didn’t get what we wanted. But what is oddly missing from the book is any analysis of why hard-core Remainer MPs failed to get what they wanted, namely a People’s Vote and/or the cancellation of Brexit.
Maybe this doesn’t matter very much, given the outcome. But you could say the same about the antics of government ministers and the Tory nut-jobs in the European Research Group (ERG), many of whom are already little more than footnotes in Brexit Unfolded. And, if it is right to note that the Brexiters could and should have done things differently, as Chris does throughout the book, it is surely fair to do the same in respect of Remainer MPs, many of whom seemed to understand the Brexit process no better than the Brexiters.
A recurrent theme throughout Brexit Unfolded is the “persistent, repeated failure [on the part of Brexiters] to understand, or to accept, the two-stage nature of the Brexit process”. This was the ‘row of the summer’ that the People’s Idiot, David Davis, spectacularly lost to the EU in 2017, with the result that the UK could not negotiate the terms of its ‘future relationship’ with the EU until after leaving the EU (at the end of the two-year Article 50 period that Theresa May had stupidly kicked off in March 2017). And I know – because I was there, slogging my guts out in a dingy office in Westminster – that many Remainer MPs did not fully understand this two-stage nature of the process either.
More to the point, in April 2018, the MPs and professional activists behind the launch of the People’s Vote campaign fatally failed to recognise the existential implications of the two-stage process for any such second or confirmatory referendum, with the rather crucial result that their campaign was essentially dead from birth. For, as Chris notes, pretty much the only credible argument for having a People’s Vote later in 2018 or in 2019 was that, in June 2016, the ‘people’ had voted for Brexit without knowing what Brexit would actually look like. Yet, thanks to the EU’s insistence on the two-stage process, the same would be true of any People’s Vote held before the end of the Article 50 period.
I was in the room when uber-pollster Peter Kellner emphasised this point to a meeting of pro-PV MPs in early February 2019, just weeks before Chuka Umunna and Anna Soubry threw in the towel. And, of course, holding a People’s Vote after the expiry of the Article 50 period would be pointless, from a Remainer point of view, as the option of cancelling Brexit and remaining in the EU would no longer be available.
Accordingly, the People’s Vote would have been little more than a re-run of the 2016 referendum, with voters having much the same choice between voting to remain in the EU, or voting to leave for an undefined and therefore unknown future. Throw in the near-insurmountable practical challenges of holding a five-month referendum campaign before the expiry of the Article 50 period, and the never-answered question of which credible ‘leave’ option(s) would be on the ballot paper, and the People’s Vote – the principal vehicle for parliamentary opposition to Brexit from April 2018 onwards – was simply never going to fly. Which means its dogged pursuit was not only intellectually dishonest, but a waste of time and effort that could have been better spent pursuing an alternative strategy.
All of which makes it somewhat ironic, for this reader of Brexit Unfolded, that the only MP to have provided an endorsement for the book’s cover is Caroline Lucas of the Green Party. For it was in Caroline’s dingy outer office that I toiled away on Brexit from late 2016 to April 2019 (when I could stand it no more).
Because, when Caroline says (on its cover) that Brexit Unfolded is “a searing account of the deep failure of political leadership in our country at a moment when it was so desperately needed”, I am reminded that it was Caroline who, in September 2015, enthusiastically voted with David Cameron and the Tories to hold a referendum on a really dumb and incoherent idea, without insisting on sensible, democratic safeguards such as a super-majority and/or votes for 16- and 17-year olds. So, not much political leadership from Caroline when David Cameron was making that “colossal political blunder”, as Chris Grey rightly calls it.
It was also Caroline who (against my advice) unnecessarily voted with Theresa May and the Tories to call the June 2017 general election, a call that Chris Grey rightly lambasts as “the most extraordinary and most ill-judged decision in modern British political history (unless that was Cameron’s calling of the referendum)”, and one which “backfired horribly, leaving [May] leading a minority government dependent upon the DUP”.
It was Caroline who helped launch and then (against my advice) stuck with the near monomaniacal People’s Vote campaign, masterminded behind the scenes by Peter Mandelson and Alistair Campbell, who seemed to have spoken to Tony Blair between almost every one of the Monday meetings that I regularly attended on Caroline’s behalf. And it was Caroline who went along with the campaign’s brutal ‘scorched earth’ policy of shooting-down all the other supposed alternatives to ‘hard’ or ‘no-deal’ Brexit, such as Stephen Kinnock’s Norway Plus. Yet, just a few weeks prior to the campaign’s launch, the EU had confirmed its insistence on the two-stage Brexit process that made a People’s Vote futile (at least in practice, if not in theory).
Then, in December 2018 and early 2019, it was Caroline who (against my advice) agitated and then repeatedly voted against Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement. Yes, that Withdrawal Agreement was deeply flawed (because Brexit is a really dumb and incoherent idea). But that repeated rejection by MPs, instead of inducing a humiliated Theresa May to agree to a People’s Vote on the Agreement at the eleventh hour, as Mandelson, Campbell and Lucas had recklessly gambled it would, simply precipitated the utter chaos of 2019, the inevitable (and predicted) replacement of Theresa May with the even more disastrous Boris Johnson, the tragicomic farce of the June 2019 Euro election, a second general election during the precious Article 50 period, and the near destruction of the Labour Party – the only credible alternative government to the Tories. Well done, Caroline and the Green Party.
As if that wasn’t enough, during that chaotic summer of 2019, Caroline’s idea of demonstrating political leadership at a moment when it is desperately needed was first to say that she would ignore a win by Leave in any People’s Vote, and then to call for an all-female Cabinet of National Unity to block Brexit. As the Guardian‘s ace satirist, Marina Hyde, noted at the time, “the Greens want the headlines for a day and they’ve got a plan just batshit enough to secure them.”
So yes, Chris Grey is absolutely right to highlight, as he does in Brexit Unfolded, the “spectacular failures of political leadership and political institutions” during the Brexit process. But let’s not kid ourselves, or try to pre-write history, by pretending that those failures were confined to the Brexiters. Those behind the People’s Vote did not get what they wanted (and they were never going to).