The best way for Remainers to ruin their chances of ever rejoining the European Union is to try too hard — at least right now.
Launching a campaign now would turn pro-EU voices into the mad old bores in the back of the pub. But if they hang back and adopt a more realistic timetable, they have every chance of leading a successful campaign to rejoin the bloc within the next decade.
How would that work? First, Remainers need to recognize the opportunities offered by total defeat. The debate over whether we should Brexit is over. It is happening. The fight will now be on much easier political ground: How is Brexit going?
After the referendum, people took their Brexit vote to heart in a way that they don’t with, say, a general election vote. It was nearly impossible, no matter how much evidence stacked up in a particular direction, for Remainers to convince Leave voters that their choice was self-defeating and misguided.
The debate on how Brexit is going will be much easier. There are few propositions more convincing to the British public, on any subject, than the idea that the government is making a mess of things.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s overwhelming electoral victory last December will make it hard for him to blame anyone else for what comes next. His majority is substantial. He cannot blame parliament for getting in his way. It is all on him. His total victory creates total responsibility.
He could have used that freedom to be straight with the British public about what followed: that the trade talks with the EU would take time and involve painful trade-offs. He has not done this. Instead, he passed legislation mandating a short negotiation and he has continued to insist, against all the evidence, that there will be no friction in trade between Britain and Northern Ireland.
That comes with certain repercussions. A quick, bare-bones trade deal restricts it to tariff elimination, at most. That means there is unlikely to be much provision for regulatory alignment, customs procedure minimization or rules-of-origin deals. Bureaucracy will slow down trade with the EU, with a potentially devastating impact on Britain’s “just-in-time” manufacturing arrangements.
Until now, the debate over the economic costs of trade obstacles with Europe has been theoretical. In the next few years, it will become all too real.
Car parts made in the U.K. by firms like BMW and GKN, for example, cross the Channel several times as they are constructed. Engines made in Birmingham come from engine blocks made in France, are then drilled and processed, sent to Cologne in Germany for more engineering, and then return again to the U.K. for final assembly.
Cutting out closer economic cooperation between the U.K. and EU puts that network at risk — not just when it comes to cars, but in aerospace, food and several other sectors.
The impact will be severe, and will not be felt equally across the country. Remain-voting areas are the most insulated. London, which is a truly global city, can take a hit on European trade. But car and aerospace manufacturing is heavily based in the Midlands and the North and much more reliant on smooth connections with the Continent.
Basically, the places most likely to feel the hurt from the deal Johnson wants are precisely those Labour-supporting areas that lent him their vote in the December election. The places Labour needs to win back are those most exposed to the failure of the upcoming trade negotiations.
Even now, it’s not too late to avert the damage to those regions. All that is required is a sensible negotiating timetable with the EU and a commitment to alignment in areas where diverging would harm the U.K. But that, for now at least, does not appear to be government policy. Chancellor Sajid Javid has made clear that there will be no alignment at all, seemingly on anything.
The “Rejoin” strategy is therefore very simple. Make sure Johnson fully owns the negotiation. Ensure the link between the negotiation and its effects on regular Brits dominates the media narrative.
That requires a Labour Party that, while not actively in favor of rejoining the EU at the moment, remains fundamentally pro-European and is capable of holding Johnson to account for his dealings with the EU.
Some people think this is impossible. Johnson is too slippery. Voters are no longer going to pay attention to Brexit. The Conservatives will blame the EU for the result of the talks, aided by a supportive press and a nervous BBC. They accept that we operate in a post-truth climate, in which it is impossible to make the link between political actions and their consequences.
That is a testimony of despair — not just for Brexit, but for the manner in which politics is conducted in general. The reality is that it can be done. And any intelligent political campaign can do it.
It is perfectly believable that Labour can head into the election after next with a policy for EU membership, in which Europeanism is no longer the status quo, but the challenger viewpoint.
It will take a decade. But it need not take longer.