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Brexit is the most important decision our country has made for half a century. However, our post-referendum politics have yet to rise to the scale of the occasion. We have seen little grace in either victory or defeat. We now move from the phoney war phase – a vacuum often filled by efforts to refight the referendum – to the real politics of the deal that Britain wants with Europe.
Most of the public will now want to see the politicians do more to get out of the referendum trenches and work together on a Brexit deal that can bring the country together. That was the aim of the Brexit Together manifesto – which involved voices from Remain and Leave, left and right, a broad coalition involving voices from the Adam Smith Institute and Bright Blue to the Fabian Society, to set out the type of future Brexit vision which could make sense to most Leave and most Remain voters.
The EU referendum split the country in many different ways – through place, social class, age and education. Despite these splits, the result remained unpredictable until polling day. For most, this was a difficult decision, not one of absolutes, but of contrasting doubts and scepticism of both sides of the argument.
The fear, loathing and mutual incomprehension between the most ardent Remainers and Leavers on social media was very much a minority sport, especially popular with those who rarely talk to anybody who voted the other way. The mood at the school-gate in the final weeks of the campaign was very different: “I am definitely going to look into it more before I make up my mind” was a fairly constant refrain. That helps to explain why Lord Ashcroft’s referendum day poll found that four out of ten voters on each side say they made up their minds in the last four weeks.
Rumours of a “Brexit realignment” of British politics look rather exaggerated. The political projects that appeal to only one referendum tribe may hit a ceiling around 15% of the vote each. That’s the fate for UKIP if it were to be merely a voice of complaint for those who cannot see why we should bother negotiating at all over the Brexit terms, or for the Liberal Democrats if they become a mirror image for those in university towns who seek to “take our country back” for the metropolitan liberal tribe.
But no party that aspires to govern can take that approach. Power will go to those who can bridge the divide, not simply shout loudly from one side of it. Brexit does present political difficulties for the Labour party, given that two-thirds of their voters wanted to Remain, while two-thirds of the constituencies that their MPs represent had majorities for Leave. But the challenges faced by Her Majesty’s Opposition in terms of leadership, economic credibility and party unity existed before Brexit. To argue there is some existential impossibility in combining an appeal to voters on both sides of the referendum is to miss the purpose of what politics is for.
The Conservatives are riding high in the polls, but they are not doing so on Leave votes alone. Indeed, the recent ICM poll that shows the party hitting heady heights of 44% had the Conservatives combining 50% of Leave votes with 41% of Remainers – about four times the share of the Liberal Democrats. If Theresa May did not have any Conservative Remain voters, she would be in a three-way tie in the polls with Jeremy Corbyn and Tim Farron on 25%, rather than dominating the political landscape. The Conservative 2015 vote split 60:40 for Leave. The prime minister will want a deal that can keep most of those eight million Leave and five million Remain voters content, while reaching out to new voters too.
This is what the national interest demands – and it is a smart party strategy too. A “One Nation” appeal has a particular resonance in a society that is more fragmented and divided than it wants to be. Having established that Brexit means Brexit, the task now is to demonstrate that the next phase can unite rather than divide the country.