This general election is really interesting. No, wait, don’t go! Come back! I can explain.
Of course, journalists and obsessives are conditioned to find the election fascinating, but we’re right this time. Not only is it “good for trade” (in the old Fleet Street sense of providing profitable material). There are also huge shifts underway to report on, with the Tories having gone from a 35% party to a 45%+ party thanks to UKIP voters going over. Labour is also up eight points (yes, up!) to 34% in the latest Ipsos MORI poll, slashing the Tory lead to, er, a mere 15 points.
The Lib Dems, it suggested, have gone backwards at 6% (down 7 points). That was not supposed to happen with Remainers supposedly ready to flock to Tim Farron’s flag. Oh, and UKIP (on 2%) is dwindling to almost nothing. “Job done” as former UKIP voters tell those running focus groups.
What explains all this, I think, is that the UK electorate has largely moved on, as I argued in my column for The Times this week.
Brexit is widely accepted and the parties are being forced to catch up. It is remaking the electoral map before our eyes. Somewhere between 60% and 70% of voters (25m voters?) either actively want Brexit or want to get on with it (they’re dubbed Re-leavers by the pollsters at YouGov), leaving little room for ultra-Remainers on around 8m. In a first-past-the-post system it is pretty obvious what this does when one leader, Theresa May, is a Remain voter now trusted to get on and deliver “best Brexit.”
It remains possible that all this is temporary. Opinion can change and the numbers might swap in a few years, of course. The ultra-Remainer cry goes up: Just wait until the pain hits! Which all starts to sound a bit, well, sadistic and gleeful. The British are a pretty stubborn bunch. Will they submit to complete humiliation and beg Brussels to get back in? Really? More than half the country?
Think of the optics, as they say, around readmission to the EU in the early years of the next decade.
A post-May Prime Minister (who?) has to go on the television and make a sombre announcement from the Cabinet room in Downing Street:
“I have today spoken to Emmanuel Macron, the President of the United States of Europe. Once he had stopped laughing he said that he would of course look favourably on a British application to join the EU.
I am pleased to report that President Macron also offered generous terms on our bill for re-entry. It will be comprised of only 75% of the annual payments missed while we tried and failed to make a go of life outside the EU. Plus compensation for distress caused to French farmers. We can repay in instalments too.
I hope I can rely on your backing when I fly to Brussels tomorrow to begin the process.”
In what circumstances would such a scenario become plausible?
For the sake of argument let’s say the supposed crisis point that ultra-Remainers hope for comes a bit earlier than in my Macron-related spoof. It is mid-2019. The talks went badly and the UK economy is suffering quite a bit to adjust.
Will the UK government get all the blame from a majority of the voters for this outcome? Don’t bet on it. Look at the effect of the Juncker farce recently, which was designed to threaten the UK. It backfired spectacularly. “The EU is being beastly, let’s ask for readmission,” doesn’t have the ring of a winning slogan that can get a party to 40% or more of the vote.
People tell pollsters and focus groups they want May to try to achieve the best deal. They seem to accept it is complicated. If Brussels and the EU states opt to make it as messy as possible, and behave like Juncker, will the British think it is this country’s fault and ask for forgiveness?
Ah, but what if it’s much, much worse for the economy. The Apocalypse. A Depression. Again, it is possible that the UK will suffer an economic collapse at some point on a par with the 2008 crisis. Conceivably, it might be soon although a milder recession is a bigger possibility. Personal debt is far too high.
But a truly earth-shaking event if it happened would, in the nature of globalised economics, be extremely unlikely to be happening in isolation. It’s simply not how trade works or money flows. If Britain is crashing by then, the US will be too in some form, and probably Asia and the eurozone. It’ll be very hard to blame it on Brexit. There might be room for an argument that Brexit made it a bit worse for us. It is a pretty marginal economist talking point though, and voters rarely admit they were wrong, and they weren’t anyway. Knowing that there could be some economic discomfort for a while, they chose self-government, which is hardly outrageous. Most countries do it. We are reverting to the global norm.
One esteemed critic of Brexit – one of my favourite novelists – got in touch today to say that he disagreed with the underlying assumption of my Times column. Electorates move and in ten or 15 years, he said, there could be pressure for a closer or warmer relationship with the EU from younger voters growing into middle age. He has offered to write for Reaction soon, which will be a treat.
However, if talks are handled sensibly on both sides of the Channel then relations can be cordial and warm between the UK and the EU as soon as the new settlement emerges. Britain is leaving the EU, not Europe, and these are are our neighbours and friends, and partners in Nato. But we are leaving the EU and wishing for re-entry is a waste of time.
After this election the more sensible ultra-Remainers will have to face up to the deep shift, or, rather, I hope they do. British politics without them, without their energy and ideas, and drive on public service reform, or markets and competition, or constitutional reform, will be dull indeed. A Mayite desert even.