Let’s start with a bit of self-awareness. I am fully conscious, as I recorded last week following a gentle chiding from the velvet mouth of Mariella Frostrup, that I can be aggressive in debate, and sometimes perhaps overly dismissive of a contrary point of view. It explains why Tony Blair occasionally called me ‘Keano,’ whenever he felt I was in danger of going over the top, in the manner of Roy Keane’s memorable assault on Alf Inge Haaland (non football fans, look it up, though if you don’t know by now …)
I have enough capacity for self-reflection, too, to be aware, for example, that in a recent verbal brawl with Piers Morgan on Good Morning Britain, most viewers were probably in agreement with his co-presenter Susanna Reid, head in her hands urging us both to calm down, and complaining that our Alpha Male slanging was not exactly helping the Brexit debate. She was right. On the other hand, the doubts I had following another recent TV exchange, when I suggested to Nigel Farage that he ‘own your shit, Nigel,’ instead of blaming everyone else for Brexit going wrong, evaporated by the time I was home. It was a fair point, and it took a bit of over the top rhetoric to make it.
So over the top is not always bad. Indeed, in any campaign, particularly one that is being fought as an insurgency, when it can feel like you’re pushing giant boulders up a steep mountainside – the People’s Vote campaign started as one such – I’m not sure you can do without it.
Think back just a few months. Government, Opposition, most of the media, were dismissive. ‘You’re wasting your time,’ those rare voices up for the fight for a referendum on the outcome of the Brexit negotiations were told, again and again. Public awareness of the campaign, not least because the media took its lead from the two main parties, was low.
Now fast forward to today. Few are unaware of the campaign, here and, in political circles at least, across Europe. Almost three quarters of a million marched in support of it three weeks ago, and a few days later the Independent’s‘Final Say’ petition reached its millionth signature. Rare, today, are the interviews or Parliamentary exchanges with Theresa May or Brexit ministers, when they are not asked about the People’s Vote campaign, their irritation appearing to mount each time. It formed an important part of the backdrop to Channel 4’s Brexit special on Monday, whose polling revealed significant support for another vote, and a majority for Remain should it happen. The eye-rolling of the young woman behind Nigel Farage may have caught the attention of social media, but it was the fear in the eyes of Farage, Cabinet minister David Gauke and Labour’s Barry Gardiner that was the real insight of the night.
We still have a long way to go. Mrs May continues, ludicrously given just how many people and how few politicians are involved, to dismiss the People’s Vote campaign all as a ‘Politicians’ Vote,’ an establishment plot (since when did the Cabinet, Whitehall and Parliament cease to be the establishment?) to thwart the will of the people. No, Prime Minister – it is precisely because so many people feel let down and unrepresented by politicians that the People’s Vote campaign has grown so quickly.
On one side of the Despatch Box is Mrs May, like her predecessor all too often putting Party interest ahead of the national interest. On the other side is Jeremy Corbyn, for whom Brexit appears to be a gigantic elephant in the corner of a room otherwise filled with well-meaning plans to end austerity, without reference to the fact the elephant will trample all over them should he become Prime Minister of post-Brexit Britain. And most of the media have relentlessly banged out the message that Brexit is happening come what may, and anyone who suggests otherwise, or fails to get excited about blue passports or Brexit-celebrating 50-pence pieces, is a traitor, a saboteur, and worse.
So over the top we must continue to go at times, to get heard, and to be understood, in the face of indifferent politicians and their echoing broadcasters and papers. Over-the-top-ness means keeping going with the same messages when you the messenger are sick to death of hearing yourself say them. So when a critic tired of me banging on about the People’s Vote asked me on twitter ‘when you fart, does it come out as “People’s Vote?”’, this was a wonderful moment, an encouragement that the message was getting through, an unintended exhortation to keep going. ‘Ppppppplsssss Vvvvvvotttttttte,’ I replied … when farting becomes campaigning, this is joy.
But now, back to self-awareness, and the ability to understand – thanks Mariella – that one’s critics may sometimes have a point. This time the critic is Iain Martin, pro-Brexit commentator, who said I had gone ‘bananas,’ for making a Brexit link to the recent four-nation hand-holding summit on Syria, with Turkey’s Erdogan, Russia’s Putin, Germany’s Merkel, and France’s Macron.
‘UK irrelevant,’ I tweeted. ‘We have chosen our own decline. Brexit.’
Martin replied: ‘This is anti-Brexit bananas on several levels. US not at the podium either. And the implication is that Germany is a leading security, intel and defence power, which it isn’t. Not everything is about Brexit.’
He has a point. But so do I. True, Germany is not as significant a military power as the UK. Also true, President Trump was not there. But the US President will have figured in their discussions, and he will have been in their heads. Does anyone seriously imagine that ‘what will Theresa think?’ was a major part of their meeting. That it even happened in that forum says something about how quickly the shared diplomatic anger over a Russian hit team’s murder attempts in Salisbury evaporated.
Brexit has reduced our relevance in part because of what it says about us turning our backs on internationalism, and on our allies. But it has further reduced it because other leaders know how virtually the entirety of UK government bandwidth is taken up with Brexit. And, whether we like it or not, most governments around the world – Trump and Putin included – do believe that in choosing Brexit, we are choosing our own decline.
This ‘what will so-and-so think?’ point is not to be underestimated. It is an important part of diplomacy. I was in Paris last week speaking at a seminar on negotiation (Ireland, Balkans, TBGB kind of thing), and found myself telling the story of François de Callières, a French diplomat in the court of King Louis XIV, who wrote a practical guide to diplomacy, De la manière de négocier avec les souverains, translated as ‘The Art of Diplomacy,’ and much of it still resonant today. His belief that negotiators should negotiate continually, and his emphasis on harmonizing interests, are in part what led to the Ambassadorial system adopted worldwide. Patience, the ability to listen, and to show respect to those on the other side of the negotiation table, are likewise as relevant now as three centuries ago.
But he made one other observation worth recalling in the context of Mrs May’s current travails, and Iain’s Martin’s fears for my political sanity. Great negotiators, said de Callières, ‘saturate your mind.’ The same goes for campaigners. Mrs May is not inside the minds of her fellow leaders in the way she needs to be to set the agenda in negotiations (Brexit), and to be making the most of UK strength in the world (Global Britain– remember that one?)
We campaigners for a People’s Vote likewise need to learn from de Callières, and get inside Mrs May’s mind and inside the minds of other MPs tempted to support whatever deal she brings back to Parliament, when they know it will damage the country in general, and, Labour MPs, poorer areas in particular. ‘Saturate their minds.’ The grimace that crosses Mrs May’s face whenever the People’s Vote is raised suggests we are making progress. The anger I confronted in a Labour MP who had been called out for threatening to back a deal she knows will not address the issues that led many of her constituents to vote leave, but make them worse, similarly shows MPs understand they are facing a genuine and difficult choice, with no pain-free option.
So we have to keep going. And it may mean going a bit OTT from time to time. With so few politicians prepared to tell the truth about what Brexit actually means, it is for the People to keep speaking that truth unto power. Saturate their minds – that means writing, emailing, calling, using any encounter to make sure they understand – if they help this Brexit happen, and if (more likely when) it all goes wrong, the villains will not be forgotten.
Momentum – no pun intended, but that too – is definitely with us. Last night, speaking at a British Medical Association awards dinner in London, I tested the mood among the medical fraternity – around half a dozen among the few hundred raised their hands in support of Brexit and the way Mrs May was handling it. Several echoed the fear that the NHS faces an existential threat as a result of Brexit.
Meanwhile, two and a half years on from the vote that was meant to signal clarity about our route to the sunny uplands of post-Brexit Britain, the Cabinet still cannot agree a strategy, the EU negotiators have barely budged from the position that was set out from the off, and the so-called ‘deal’ Mrs May thinks she can get bears little relation to the Brexit promised by the Brexiteers, leaves significant questions about our trading future unanswered, leaves half of the country asking ‘what is the price of this?’ and the other half, especially if we are to stay in some kind of EU Customs Union indefinitely, asking ‘what’s the point?’ Many of us are asking both those questions.
Mrs May, when asked if people will be better off as a result of Brexit, cannot bring herself to say Yes, because she knows the answer is No. Barry Gardiner, in Monday’s Channel 4 programme, confirmed it is Labour’s view that Brexit will make us worse off. This really is a unique moment in our history, when both main parties are prepared to countenance a course of action that they know will make the country poorer. In the days and weeks between now and when the so-called meaningful vote takes place, the People must saturate the minds of the Politicians – so they are in no doubt that if they pursue a course of action they know will damage the lives and livelihoods of the people they serve, when that damage comes, the reckoning will be swift, and fierce.
The fear in the eyes of the Brexiting politicians was justified. They know there are risks the other way too, and I understand that. But this is one of those moments where the job of MPs is to step back and just ask the very basic question – what is the right course of action for the long-term interests of the country? I believe that will take them to a People’s Vote, with the option to Remain.