There’s a well-known tactic in political campaigns, commonly known as the straw man. You want to win something that people are going to be resistant to, let’s call it option A.
Rather than setting it up against the genuine alternative, you create an unthinkable, never-going-to-happen, way-out alternative, option B, then set out to ensure that huge campaigning effort is directed towards showing just how disastrous it is.
The aim is to see that everyone says, “phew, we didn’t get option B, option A isn’t nearly as bad”. The possibility of the other, better, option, C, gets lost.
There’s more than a hint now of that happening in the Brexit debate.
We’re being fed a continual drip feed of just how bad “crash-out” Brexit could be.
The planes could stop flying.
We could have to rely on Government stocks of instant noodles to avoid starvation.
EU citizens living here, and UK citizens in the rest of Europe, would be trapped in limbo.
Now this isn’t a perfect case of a straw man. All of those things could happen with the innocuously labelled “no deal”. And that has to be explained.
Given the state of our government and politics, there can be no guarantee that it won’t happen. It’s not impossible, given the level of incompetence, self-indulgence and rampant ambition dominating Westminster.
While noting that, however, we mustn’t lose the range of options available to Britain from this point. We have to fight for the best alternative.
“Option A” as currently on the table, Theresa May’s Chequers deal, isn’t going to happen. It’s cherrypicking, which the EU has always made clear it won’t accept. But let’s imagine we manage to stumble into an agreement to something like it. We’re losing a huge amount.
We’re losing free movement, the opportunity for Britons to freely live and work on the Continent, to do an Erasmus scholarship in Rome then fall in love with a totally unsuitable local and simply stay for as long as the wonder lasts. The opportunity for older people to decide they want sun and a relaxed lifestyle or for a young tradeswoman to work in Poland to learn about its big flatpack homes industry.
We’re losing the guarantees of the many environmental protections, workers’ rights and human rights protections the Union umbrella provides. And the opportunity to work with our fellow 440 million EU citizens to make those even stronger – as happened with the fishing discards and neonicotinoid campaigns. And the protection of the growing EU efforts to fight tax-dodging – leaving us at the mercy of rapacious multinationals and their far too many friends at the centre of our government.
Or even let’s imagine (although it would appear there is no parliamentary majority for it), acceptance of the Norway model, which keeps those protections, but takes away our main means to democratically influence decisions, our elected members of the European Parliament, our Commissioner and our place on the European Council. But if we stumble to the end of the year having not managed to sort out our own internal negotiations, let alone talk to the EU, they might just offer it and we might accept from exhaustion. Call it option N.
So the real possibilities now are the lose-lose May model, the not-totally-disastrous Norway model, and choosing to remain in the EU, an option we’re continually being assured by Brussels remains available.
Remaining in is clearly the best option, tested against the Norway model, and even more so against the May model. Negotiations will decide between May and Norway, but what about between that result and remaining?
There’s a clear, and increasingly widely-supported, way forward. It is in fact the only democratic way forward: the People’s Vote.
“No deal” can’t be an option in that vote. Straw men don’t appear on ballot papers. But the option to remain – the best option – must be.
After all, politicians change direction all of the time. There’s a reason why the U in U-turn is a much-used headline phrase.
If politicians have that right, then the people must have it too.