A year ago an ecstatic Theresa May was queen of all she surveyed, an unassailable leader confronted by an opposition of staggering weakness (and that was only the opposition within her own party). Perhaps she might well have reflected, from her suite in the Birmingham Hyatt, that one year before that, David Cameron was looking out at the view from his hotel room, triumphant at being the first Tory leader in 23 years to deliver a parliamentary majority. Next year they’re back in Birmingham, and it’s quite likely that the next occupant of that suite will be a different person – and, quite possibly, not even PM?
So what changed in June 2016? Everything, and nothing.
The Tories who gather in Manchester today are the same old same old they have been since John Major described his own Cabinet colleagues as “bastards”. It ceased to be a conservative party under Margaret Thatcher, but somehow the membership didn’t notice. They ‘conserve’ nothing, cherish no tradition but their own iron grip on the levers of power, and regard electoral politics as a cynical game. That they lost office between 1997 and 2010 is unimportant – because the politics of that era was dominated, and constrained, by the small state, free market, globalist assumptions of the Tories. Margaret Thatcher looked upon Tony Blair and said as much.
And yet the Tories are, as Norman Lamont once said of his colleagues, “In office, but not in power.” Authority, confidence, certainty have drained from the Tory Party. The election result in June isn’t what brought about their catastrophe, though. It was the 2016 referendum.
Forget fevered speculation about the loutish and embarrassing Foreign Secretary and his ambitions, or the supposed plots of the desiccated calculating machine that is Philip Hammond. The Adams Family retainers, IDS and Chris Grayling, may whine on, forever spouting their grubby Brexity fantasies. None of that matters. Brexit still only means Brexit.
For Brexit still has the same leaders. BoJo the Clown. Kermit Farage. The absurd Daniel Hannan. The ageing groupies, Kate Hoey and Gisela Stuart. Think about it.
In the wake of a great victory, people leap upon the bandwagon. They see the direction of travel, and, opportunists, or chancers, or dedicated followers of fashion, they want to be where its at. And 2016 was a great victory for the Brexit leadership. So why haven’t their ranks swelled? Why aren’t seekers of power and influence after a piece of the action? Why aren’t the politically ambitious young swamping social media with their witty Brexitry?
So ask the other relevant question. Who now leads Remain?
Not David Cameron, that’s for sure. Alan Johnson’s an author now. Those who fronted the Remain campaign – and badly – have fled the scene of the accident. But no matter, for Remain in the EU has new leaders now. And just look at them!
The key (effective) leaders of Remain are largely extra-parliamentary, often youthful, highly expert, and inventive and committed. They are grassroots activists, most effective when they are cross-party. I know all this, because I watched it happen, from the first day after the referendum result. Strangers discovering one another through social media, crowd-funding initiatives, like the EU flags at the BBC Proms, or disseminating one anothers’ memes. Brainstorming ideas for novel protests, creating Twitterstorms, coalescing into local groups, and becoming a genuine insurgency.
This is the biggest problem for the Brexiter leadership, for the voters they mobilised in 2016 saw in the referendum whatever they wanted to see, rather than a single, concrete cause. Moreover, those voters were older and less educated than their opponents. For all the wild imaginings of those fantasists, Farage, and Arron Banks, there will be no ‘riots in the streets’ if Brexit (whatever that is) doesn’t happen. However much the Brexit campaign may have fired up small movements of the far right, and radicalised lone extremists and political assassins, there is no Brexit ‘movement’. From Liam Fox’s ludicrous vision of an Anglosphere, to Dan Hannan’s world fit for hedge funds, these are not visions that command any popular resonance – as the election result showed.
And yet the pantomime of Brexit talks continues, the hapless Michel Barnier locked up with the Brexit Bulldog and ‘master negotiator’, David Davis, talking over one another to no effective purpose. Because my side is very good at exposing the absurdity of Brexit to the satisfaction of ourselves, but we are not good enough at playing the political game.
Today’s march in Manchester is a case in point. The strategy so far has focused on legal challenges, technicalities, and pressure on political parties. We did well to mobilise a sufficient degree of tactical voting (and young voter registration) to deprive May of a Brexit Mandate in June, but while that is necessary, it is not sufficient.
To stop Brexit, we need to change the polling numbers. It’s the only thing to which politicians will respond. (Look at the Tory panic, throwing out previously unthinkable policy ideas, and seeking magic money trees, as they fear the iron logic of polls showing that younger voters find them toxic.) But so far, the 48/52 polling numbers on Brexit seem largely stuck. They may have reversed, but that’s not good enough. Until we hit at least 60/40 in favour of Remain, the parliamentary political dynamic will not change. Tory Remainers will cling to party loyalty, and Labour will strive to maintain its opacity and ambiguity.
So how do we change the poll numbers – and fast?
By first, understanding the Leave voters. Those who persist in labelling them all ‘thick’, ‘stupid’, and ‘racist’ help to keep the polls static. No one holds their hands up and says, “yes, I was a thick racist, but now you’ve pointed it out, I’ll change my mind.” So an end to abuse in any serious debate (what the Daily Mash does is another matter).
The Leave vote is not monolithic. Scottish fishermen voted Leave for different reasons from unemployed people in the South Wales valleys. The comfortable, elderly middle class in the Tory shires had different motivations from angry WASPI women protesting against pension unfairness in the North East of England. South Asians who were misled about Brexit making it easier for their families to get visas to attend family weddings are surely open to other arguments? We need to map out where the Brexit vote is softest, and strategically target those groups with our honest, friendly, constructive messages.
That is what we haven’t done, because it is not a message we have yet learned.
The Remain campaign now needs to step up its popular appeal, and to speak honestly to people outside our circles. We can do this. And we must.