Some thoughts on Brexit Unfolded, by Chris Grey

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).

About wonkypolicywonk

Wonkypolicywonk is a policy minion, assigned wonky at birth, who has been lucky enough to work for two of the very best MPs in the House of Commons, and before that at Maternity Action, Working Families, Citizens Advice, the National Audit Office, the Law Society, and Amnesty International UK.
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6 Responses to Some thoughts on Brexit Unfolded, by Chris Grey

  1. Chris Grey says:

    Thanks for the many kind words about my book (and blog), which are much appreciated. It is certainly a fair criticism that I do not say very much about the remainer attempts to resist/ reverse Brexit. I suppose to an extent that is because I think the main issue, and certainly the main responsibility for what happened, about 2016-2020 was what the advocates and architects of Brexit did. Even so, there’s definitely more that I could, and someone should, write about the remain side, and in particular about the PV campaign and its failure to be successful. The inner dynamics of the campaign is an especially important and, as I understand it, dismal story.

    That said, I disagree with several of your comments. First and foremost, I think it is wrong by definition to say that the two-stage process meant that a PV (I will call it that, though I never liked the term) was ‘dead from birth’ or ‘intellectually dishonest’ or ‘futile’. I say “by definition” because, manifestly, there _was_ a new and substantive decision to be made as to whether to sign the WA, whether that decision was taken by the government or – as in fact was the case – by MPs in the meaningful vote. Therefore there was no reason in principle why _that_ decision should not be made by the electorate as a whole. It was also a crucial decision in that it was the last point at which Article 50 revocation would have been possible and, therefore, that Brexit could have been abandoned. (As you say, from a remainer point of view, a referendum after that would have been pointless.)

    Of course it is also true by definition that, as you say, this would not have been a vote on the future terms deal (TCA from now on), and it may well be true that some remainers and PV campaigners didn’t understand that. But, again, it’s wrong by definition to say that that means it would have been a re-run of the 2016 vote. I say “by definition” because neither the WA nor the PD existed in 2016, so it would necessarily have been a different vote. And even though the WA/PD were not a TCA they did, far more than in 2016, point to the shape that Brexit would take as regards being, broadly, ‘hard’ not ‘soft’ re SM/CU. Moreover, all the intervening debates since 2016, as well as the WA backstop provisions meant that the core issue of Northern Ireland would have featured in a way that it barely did in 2016, and in that sense some of the real choices to be made would have featured. Even things like the reality and extent of the ‘divorce settlement’, which in 2016 (and later) Brexiters denied would be needed, would be known.

    None of that is to deny the points you make about the problems of timescale and of what the ballot question would have been, and, as I say in the book, many of the arguments for a PV were muddled. No doubt a PV would also have produced a horribly vicious and dishonest campaign, probably worse even than 2016. Equally, there’s no way of knowing what the outcome would have been and, had there been a vote to remain, what backlash there might then have been. So I’m not saying that any of this was straightforward, or a magic solution – my view then, and now, is that it was the worst option apart from all the others – I’m just saying that the 2-stage process didn’t make a PV meaningless or impossible in principle.

    This in turn means that I think it is wrong to criticise remainer MPs for voting against May’s deal. At that point a PV remained a real and growing possibility and, as May herself put it, the only alternatives to her deal were no-deal Brexit or no Brexit. As I say in the book, that gave both sides (ERG no-dealers and remainers) a good reason to oppose it and, personally, that period (early 2019) was the only time I thought there was a real chance of Brexit not happening. As regards remainer MPs voting down Norway+ (and similar) – and the infighting between PVers and CM 2.0/ Norway + ers – I am critical of this in the book, but also make the, I think crucial, point that had any of these Indicative Votes been won it would have been a very long way from that to implementing them as government (what government?) policy. Apart from what is in the book, I discuss the issues raised in this paragraph at more length in a blog post (https://chrisgreybrexitblog.blogspot.com/2020/12/the-problems-with-if-only-debate.html) so won’t say more here.

    Many thanks again for your comments.

    Chris Grey

    • Many thanks for those comments, Chris. I’m not sure there is much that I can say in response without repeating large chunks of this blog post, from January 2019: https://labourpainsblog.com/2019/01/03/scream/

      Yes, there was a principled argument for having a PV (I hated the term too – who did they think voted in June 2016?). But, as you document, during the period in question, principled arguments had a very short life expectancy in Westminster. The challenge for the PV campaign was never logic, or principle – it was parliamentary arithmetic. The campaign simply failed to win over a sufficient number of MPs – I was in the room when Chuka told the rest of them that the game was up.

      We could do a thought experiment: Assume that, in February or March 2019, the high-stakes gamble of Alistair Campbell & Lord Mandelson paid off, and a desperate Theresa May agreed to hold a PV if MPs vote through her WA. Would Corbyn have suddenly agreed to whip his MPs to vote the WA through, as would have been necessary? Would the House of Commons have then agreed on the question for the ballot paper? Really? Which ‘leave’ option would have been on the ballot paper? No-deal Brexit? Or the WA that MPs had repeatedly voted down, before suddenly changing their minds in order to get a PV? Or both? Or something else? To my knowledge, no one in favour of a PV has ever attempted to answer these questions.

      The fatal flaw in the PV campaign was that it was devised and run by people who just wanted to stop Brexit, but who also felt they needed to look as if they didn’t just want to stop Brexit. And, whatever the principles involved, in reality there was simply no way to force that charade through Parliament – because most MPs didn’t want to stop Brexit. So, it was never a “real and growing possibility”. It was a mirage.

      Would another strategy have been more successful? We’ll never know, because it wasn’t tried. But, as it says on the cover of your book, no one got what they wanted (and they were never going to). Who knows what might have happened if our political leaders had spelled that out to The People in 2018 and 2019, instead of chasing a mirage?

      Anyway, no doubt we’ll still be arguing these points in 20 years’ time!

      RD

      • Chris Grey says:

        Thanks, Richard. I don’t necessarily disagree with what you say here (to the extent that I do, it would only be about some nuances/ details, not the fundamentals) and, certainly, it is a demonstrable fact that no parliamentary majority for a PV ever eventuated (for which Corbyn is more to blame than anyone, IMO. I think the Kyle-Wilson amendment could have achieved a majority with front bench support). For what it’s worth, the book is necessarily a condensed version but I think that my blogs from that period do provide a detailed blow-by-blow account of how/ why a 2nd Ref didn’t get supported.

        All I would say is that the points you’re making here aren’t the same as those in your original post where (unless I misunderstood you) you seemed to be saying that the two-stage process made a PV impossible in principle. That’s what I was disagreeing with.

  2. Smid says:

    You speak of Norway Plus as if it was ever going to happen or be an option, and even the description of it includes the note that they intended to break a Single Market fundamental four rule: Freedom of Movement.

    This wouldn’t be with Norway/EEA, BTW, they had no interest in joining with a cantankerous and anti-EU state, it would be a Single Market member, who then would break Single market rules (as well as form a Customs union).. This would involve the EU accepting a SM member with clear and open bad faith intentions, which seems pretty unlikely, and just another kicking the can down the road.

    It’s as much of a fairy story as Brexit being in any way beneficial to the country.

    • Er … I’m not sure I do speak of it as if it was ever going to happen, I just note the fact that the PV campaign put a lot of effort into shooting Norway Plus (and the other proposals put forward by MPs) down. As you say, Norway Plus wasn’t a credible alternative, and I said so at the time in this blog:https://labourpainsblog.com/2019/01/03/scream/

      However, I take the point, and will add inverted commas to ‘alternative’.

  3. I do not think the Conservative Party after 2016 would ever have allowed its leader to accept anything other than a very “hard” Brexit. Whatever the rational attractions of the Customs Union or the EEA, neither of these would have been saleable to the Conservative Party. It is revealing that Johnson only persuaded the ERG to accept the Withdrawal Agreement by wrongly claiming it would soon be superseded by a more attractive eventual trade agreement with the EU.

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