As we approach the climax of our apparently unending Brexit drama, a new narrative has crystallised.
For months it murmured in the background, gradually gathered momentum, and now threatens to become established history.
It goes like this: we are now facing a destructive EU withdrawal because remainers refused to compromise.
The only problem is that it is completely untrue.
The truth of Brexit is that remainers fought hard to compromise from the very beginning. The referendum had been won by a narrow margin and the fairest outcome was to try to reconcile the two sides.
Brexit never led to just one outcome and could have been interpreted in a variety of ways. And yet, the compromise was always expected to come from remainers, as though losers’ consent meant agreeing with whatever the other team decided it had won.
Still, remainers tried. From July 2016 onwards, there was almost no attention given to a second referendum. All the remain organisations focused on staying in the single market, customs union or both – fulfilling the mandate of the referendum with the least economic damage.
After all, the single market had been what Brexit originally meant. Nigel Farage had been talking about Norway for years, and Daniel Hannan had famously declared that “nobody was threatening our place in the single market”. If we were going to have a Brexit that had never been spelled out in detail, that was the Brexit we would fight for.
And so in December 2016 the Scottish government published a paper suggesting membership of the single market, a magnanimous proposition given the Scottish people’s overwhelming vote to remain. The government rejected it outright.
At the same time, my organisation, British Influence, launched a court case to keep us in the single market. The High Court judged the case premature. For our trouble the Daily Express called us “enemies of democracy” and I was accused of treason on national radio.
Apparently the people had voted to end free movement and that was that. It didn’t seem to matter that they had also voted to increase prosperity and clout, to retain the “exact same benefits”, and to join the “free trade area from Iceland to the Russian border”, as repeatedly promised by Vote Leave. The government had decided, without any electoral evidence, that ending free movement was the priority, and that was what would happen.
Over the course of 2017 and 2018, remainers got nowhere. Jeremy Corbyn eventually conceded membership of the customs union in February 2018, but still rejected the single market, and ordered his MPs to abstain in a vote on it that June. By this point, remainers felt they had exhausted options and goodwill. In April 2018, most of the pro-Remain organisations formed the People’s Vote campaign, which campaigned for a referendum on the final Brexit deal.
Of course, after that point, remainers focused on a referendum over the single market, because one option seemed as implausible as any other. Theresa May’s deal, when agreed in November 2018, was unacceptable to both leavers and remainers.
“The disaster now facing us is the fault of the people who won the referendum and then the general election: that is, the hardliners of the Conservative Party.”
As for the single market, Brexiters hated it because of freedom of movement, while remainers now opposed it because it would reduce us to the status of lobbyists with no concrete say over our economic rules.
And yet, the majority of remainers always chose to compromise. In the indicative votes of March and April 2019, the vast proportion of Remain MPs backed the single market option. Most of the Labour MPs who opposed it were in fact not remainers at all, but members representing leave constituencies who did not think the single market option achieved the referendum’s mandate.
Of course, in retrospect, all Remain MPs should have backed the single market in 2019. And yet there was no guarantee the government would have implemented it even if it had secured a majority.
Let’s be clear: the people who made compromise impossible were the Conservatives.
From the start, Theresa May established a winner-takes-all government in which she alone would decide what Brexit meant. Remainers, for their part, were expected to suck it up and acquiesce to something they knew would cause untold harm. But remainers knew the referendum had been based on lies and contradictory promises, and the government’s own figures suggested the economy would be badly hurt.
Polls suggested that a majority would now vote to stay in the EU. It was entirely legitimate to call for a rethink in light of the new circumstances. Nobody, until the Lib Dems in late 2019, were calling for Brexit’s outright cancellation. We wanted to compromise, and, at the same time, believed the public had the right to confirm Brexit was what they wanted.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing. Of course we would rather have had the single market than this. Of course we would rather have had May’s deal. But in the end remainers had to campaign for what they thought was best. Nobody voted for the Brexit we have now, because this Brexit was never promised or threatened. Even in December 2019, a majority of voters backed parties promising a new referendum or outright Remain. We will never know if the British people actually wanted to leave on today’s terms, because nobody ever asked them.
Brexit was not the remainers’ choice in 2016 and hard Brexit is not their choice now. We are not responsible for fighting something which is now happening, and we would not have ended up with something better if only we’d asked. The disaster now facing us is the fault of the people who won the referendum and then the general election: that is, the hardliners of the Conservative Party. They alone will pay for it.
Jonathan Lis is deputy director of pro-EU think tank British Influence, and a political writer and commentator.