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Brexit: Time for a National Government

29/06/2016 16:29 | Updated 29 June 2016

The United Kingdom (or at least 52% of it) has voted to leave the European Union. So what happens now? We have the Norway Option, the Switzerland Option, the Canada Option. What about the Rhodesia Option? Unilaterally declare independence, repeal everything related to Europe overnight, and dare them not to trade with us. That might shock some sense back into the political process. Whatever course Brexit takes over the next couple of years, in the short-term our politicians will have to resolve the deep divisions that have emerged during the referendum campaign (or, rather, that have finally been noticed during the referendum campaign). The leading figures from Vote Leave have gone to great lengths in the aftermath of victory to reassure remain voters that they would not grind on and ignore their concerns, just as prominent remain campaigners have expressed a willingness to make the best of it; but is this possible if the Conservative Party comes to own the entire process? Probably not. If the Conservative Party appears to be tearing itself apart whilst doing so then surely not. With this in mind, a National Government seems like the best bet for all concerned.

Firstly, the formation of a National Government would reflect the seriousness of the result, which would, in turn, make politicians reluctant to capitalise on the Brexit process for short-term political gain. Making Second World War comparisons is always over-doing it, but the National Government of 1931-40, originally formed to confront the profound economic problems of the time, provides us with an example of what might prove beneficial. If it all goes wrong, and if the self-important put their own interests above the exit process, then it could run the risk of making the political process seem like [more of a] cartel. That is obviously a risk. However, by binding both sides of the debate into the Brexit negotiations, both the winners and the losers of the referendum campaign could begin to demonstrate their willingness to interpret the result as something other than a mandate for Unconditional Surrender, and to secure the best possible terms for Britain.

Secondly, having said all of that about coming together and putting party politics to one side, a National Government would suit the immediate party political concerns of almost everybody. The Conservatives are widely seen as being the most divided at the moment (at least over Europe), so negotiating our exit from the European Union as part of a cross-party coalition would allow them to heal their internal divisions by not allowing the remain members to cultivate lasting grievances by seeing themselves as being steamrolled by a Boris Johnson victory parade that, without the support of the entire party, might soon end up [even more] out of its depth.

It would also benefit the Labour Party. Because nearly all of it backed the remain campaign, the parliamentary Labour Party is rather less divided on Europe than the Conservatives; but this only makes them more distant from the working class leave voters that they, rightly or wrongly, regard as 'their' voters. If senior Labour figures can show that they accept the result, and are willing to get involved to 'make Brexit fair for communities of hard-working families' (or however they would put it), this would begin to repair the connections between them and the traditional Labour strongholds that opted to leave the European Union.

In addition to this, it would provide the so-called 'moderates' on the Labour benches with a way to rid themselves of Jeremy Corbyn. This would be rather cynical, but his failure to properly engage with the remain campaign, and his refusal to share a platform with anyone not on his Christmas card list, suggests that he would not be willing to join them in government. There is currently a coup of sorts underway at the time of writing this article, but he is refusing to be taken alive. Mass resignations are all well and good, but he knows that he will more than likely win another leadership election, so what can his opponents actually do without alienating most of the membership? Becoming part of a National Government would allow 'moderate' Labour to formally distance themselves from the party leadership without having to start a new party and sacrifice the Labour branding and funding that makes them relevant. Meanwhile, whilst serving as part of a National Government, they could begin to re-build their credentials through their apparent willingness to place the national interest above their own. If this was to take place, it would be hard for the trade unions to continue backing what would inevitably be a self-indulgent official opposition, consisting of Corbyn, his bitter-enders, and Andy Burnham claiming that the Shadow Cabinet needs a Northern voice, whilst the rest of the party is getting on with it and serving the electorate.

The Liberal Democrats would presumably refuse to join a National Government, having decided over the weekend to become the official party of #The48; but their phone box full of MPs would hardly be missed, and a cross-party Brexit would undermine their appeal at the next election with everybody other than seething Europhiles. The SNP would obviously exclude themselves too, but all bets are off in Scotland at the moment, so it would at least allow Labour and the Conservatives to reinforce their votes up there in preparation for the next independence referendum, during which Nicola Sturgeon will attempt to convince ten per cent of pound-loving, unionist No voters to now choose Europe over Britain at a time when their oil industry is barely functioning.

But it is UKIP that stand to gain the most. From a leave perspective, Nigel Farage deserves immense credit for forcing David Cameron to promise the voters a referendum. That said, some of his behaviour during the campaign can only have further convinced the other high-profile UKIPers that they need to remove him if they want to become a more mainstream political party now that their unique selling point has become the overwhelming priority for any British government. Just as Labour could use the National Government as a pretext to remove Corbyn, it would be hard for Farage (even harder for Lord Farage) to dig his heels in and renew his war against Douglas Carswell and Suzanne Evans if they look to be representing their voters, and actually doing what they wanted, rather than launching attacks from the sidelines.

Finally, Boris Johnson could prove everybody wrong and emerge in 2018 as a genuine statesman. If the Conservatives could recruit 'moderate' Labour and 'sober' UKIP to negotiate an amicable split from the European Union, it would make sense for the quite excellent Gisela Stuart to become Prime Minister. Not only would it prevent Labour from feeling like hostages to a 'Tory Brexit', it would show that the negotiations were a truly cross-party affair, using the relationships she has established with senior Conservatives to smooth things along. Johnson could still sweep the Conservative leadership contest (something which could become easier if remain Conservatives do not have to worry about needing to 'Stop Boris' with more bitter personality politics); but by standing back, and acting as a modern day Stanley Baldwin, keeping the show on the road through force of personality and low political cunning, he could silence those who claim that he has only ever seen the issue in terms of his personal rivalry with David Cameron and his ambition to become Prime Minister. Once Britain has officially left the European Union, he could then lead the Conservative Party in the first post-Brexit general election without having to deal with charges of opportunism and attacks against his character.

The last point might be pushing it, and all of this is irrelevant if Labour refused to co-operate. After all, keeping their distance from the 1931-40 National Government ended up working out well enough for them, and the state would still be run on existing policies, many of which they have opposed (in public at least), during the exit process. On the other hand, if, as has been suggested elsewhere, the preparations for Brexit dominate almost every minute of government time, then they will not have anything new to oppose, and would just have to suck it up and prioritise. But if events could unfold in line with what has been proposed here, it would provide politicians with an excellent opportunity to be seen as making the effort to reconcile both sides of the debate, as well as working towards giving Britain the best possible chance of realising its potential as an independent nation once again.

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