Brexit’s lacklustre political champions are the biggest threat to the project
Gordon Brown’s memoirs illustrate the stamina and seriousness needed to reshape UK
Former British prime ministers Gordon Brown and Tony Blair. Brown’s memoirs 'remind us that no living prime minister thinks Brexit is a good idea'. File photograph: Tolga Akmen/AFP/Getty
It is the bit where Gordon Brown professes a distaste for spin that makes you close his new memoirs, exhale and pinch the bridge of your nose between thumb and forefinger. The pretence to authenticity from this most media-sensitive of politicians ends up marring the book, as do some lapses into self-exculpation.
And still you come away with no doubts about the former UK prime minister’s intellect, his Stakhanovite work rate, his international standing and, from accounts of Bank of England independence and his resistance to the euro, his sound judgment.
The memoirs remind us that no living prime minister thinks Brexit is a good idea. People as different as Brown and David Cameron, who could avoid each other in a wardrobe, agree on the unwisdom of Britain’s secession from a continental bloc that sets the terms of almost half of its external trade. The majority of serving MPs believe exit is foolish, as does the permanent civil service and the largest private employers. None of this proves they are right. The appeal to authority is not an argument. It does, however, provoke a question about the other side.
Why are Brexit’s political champions so unimpressive? Seventeen months after the referendum, a proposition that swept 52 per cent of voters in a country of over 65 million people should be able to muster its own Brown-standard statesmen and women. So far, it has none.
Brexit voters include some of the most intelligent and civic-minded citizens in the land. It is harrowing to disagree with them. But Brexit politicians have proved to be a fiasco, a volatile troupe of what another retired prime minister, Sir John Major, once described as “the dispossessed and the never-possessed”.
There is Priti Patel, who lost her post as international development secretary last week after merging a personal holiday with Middle Eastern diplomacy. There is Boris Johnson, whose wayward tenure as foreign secretary would have ended long ago under a stronger prime minister than Theresa May. There is David Davis, the Brexit secretary, well-meaning, conciliatory, but now having to cave to much more invidious exit terms than the ones he used to assure us were Britain’s for the asking.
After that, you are into the Michael Goves and the Andrea Leadsoms: to remind you, the Conservatives chose May in the summer of 2016 because these were the principal alternatives.
Enthusiasts for exit are vigilant to external sabotage. They smell enemies of the popular will in parliament (the House of Lords especially), the diplomatic corps, the media, business, the UK treasury and 10 Downing Street itself. A recent leaked letter from Gove and Johnson, that balanced ticket of scriptural ideologue and worldly opportunist, advised May on ways of “underlining your resolve”.
You are left to wonder why an allegedly good idea has such flaky advocates
It is the self-absolution, not the presumption, that stands out here. The Leavers’ own lack of seaworthy leaders is a greater menace to their cause than anything anyone else can do. If they had just one, he or she would have replaced May months ago. Leavers would then be able to craft the exit of their choice and be held accountable for it, which was always the right arrangement after a free and fair referendum that they won. Instead, they are somehow both livid and passive, wondering what this hollowed-out Remain-voting prime minister is still doing in office as though it were someone else’s job to put forward a viable successor from their own wing of the party.
No, the burden is theirs and, a year and a half after the referendum, they have not met it. They do not just lack a Brown. They lack, even, a Philip Hammond. A statue of the chancellor of the exchequer will never trouble the fourth plinth at Trafalgar Square, but you could picture him in charge of Britain for a period without embarrassing the country through technical limitations or ideological fancies. Who is the pro-exit equivalent: the vanilla option for national leadership? Davis, at a stretch, and he will be 70 before Britain’s scheduled exit date of March 2019.
Leavers will say their campaign sprang from the soil: to talk of outstanding individuals is to miss the point of a mass movement. Even if you buy this gloss on a campaign that cheered lustily enough whenever a prominent politician signed up (such as Johnson) it does not help them achieve their end.
To bring about exit, and then shape Britain afterwards, is a feat of high politics. It requires, if not miracle workers, then politicians of Brownite stamina and seriousness, not people who get positively discriminated into cabinet to maintain their quota. You are left to wonder why an allegedly good idea has such flaky advocates.
– Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017