Stunned as a drug mule

My eyelid spasm seems to have cleared up, my noddy head tick is abating and I now have only the dear

Okay, if a B&B shower has a switch and two dials, would you also expect a toggle? – a secret, unfindable toggle? - to be involved in producing hot water and therefore preventing hypothermia and/or trench foot? I’m just asking – nothing to with my life, or the fact that I can have no sensation below the knee.

Dear reader, what can I say ? It’s been a busy fortnight. Two telly things, three radio things, two tent-based readings and an amount of travel that would stun a drug mule. Although, for those of you who are interested, my eyelid spasm seems to have cleared up, my noddy head tick is abating and I now have only the dearlordspareme head shaking manoeuvre – which sadly often intervenes just when someone is asking, “Would you enjoy more pudding?” or “Can you take these spare crates of Pringles?” or “Should I put my hand here and insert tab 3b into slot 6?”

As intelligent and comely folk you’ll realise that being a writer doesn’t just involve sitting alone in a tower crafted out of endangered species and scribbling. We now have to be physically manifest. This reminds our publishers we exist and assists our little books in going out and prospering. It is, of course, very pleasant for a turnip like myself to end up having media conversations with grand people like Chris Smith and Naomi Klein and Shashi Tharoor and Mariella Frostrup – all of whom were entirely pleasant - unless I suddenly recall that I’m a turnip and have to stab myself with a fork to prevent laughter and/or fainting from compromising my performance. If I think of myself as representative of sensible people I know, then I can feel I’m on steady ground and not either suffer from an absurdity-induced migraine or disappear up my own importance. Although that last sentence may indicate I already have. And occasionally I get to bang on about allowing people to enjoy the arts, get near the arts, or just be able to read a book if they want.

The festival scene feels much more familiar – if no less unreal. Charlestone was lovely: insightful and charming audience – some with fetching hats - sunshine in the garden, the welcoming big house to peer at while wondering how the Bloomsbury Set ever got any writing or painting done, given their apparently insatiable need to jump whatever they fancied. My admiration for J. Maynard Keynes is only increased by the knowledge that he undoubtedly developed some of his ideas while any number of people were humping his leg like ill-disciplined beagles.

And then on to Hay-on-Wye, the mystery shower toggle and the usual joy of sipping tea while adrift in a quagmire. I can see my breath – it’s May and I can see my breath. I’m still breathing? Oh look, there’s Jimmy Carter – shorter than I’d imagined. I imagined Jimmy Carter ? When ?

Well done to all three of the Hay audiences I encountered from 8.30 am to 8.30 pm – and all of the others who made it through - huddled there, listening and giggling and sneezing. The ability of British people to support literature, in spite of a virtual media blackout on matters bookish and in the face of long-distance travel, floods, tempests and shuddering tents never fails to inspire me. Hay and its many subsections is, of course, famous for paying most participants with things, rather than money. The effect is much the same as finding a number of quite affluent strangers have guessed what you’d like for your birthday – vaguely charming and yet…

You can see AL Kennedy in action at the Edinburgh Festival

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Hopes of an anti-Brexit party are illusory, but Remainers have a new plan to stay in the EU

Stopping Brexit may prove an impossible task. Remainers are looking to the "Article 49 strategy": reapplying for EU membership. 

The Remain campaign lost in the country, but it won by a landslide in parliament. On 23 June 2016, more than two-thirds of MPs voted for EU membership. Ever since the referendum, the possibility that parliament could thwart withdrawal, or at least soften it, has loomed.

Theresa May called an early general election in the hope of securing a majority large enough to neutralise revanchist Remainers. When she was denied a mandate, many proclaimed that “hard Brexit” had been defeated. Yet two months after the Conservatives’ electoral humbling, it appears, as May once remarked, that “nothing has changed”. The government remains committed not merely to leaving the EU but to leaving the single market and the customs union. Even a promise to mimic the arrangements of the customs union during a transition period is consistent with May’s pre-election Lancaster House speech.

EU supporters once drew consolation from the disunity of their opponents. While Leavers have united around several defining aims, however, the Remainers are split. Those who campaigned reluctantly for EU membership, such as May and Jeremy Corbyn, have become de facto Brexiteers. Others are demanding a “soft Brexit” – defined as continued single market membership – or at least a soft transition.

Still more propose a second referendum, perhaps championed by a new centrist party (“the Democrats” is the name suggested by James Chapman, an energetic former aide to George Osborne and the Brexit Secretary, David Davis). Others predict that an economic cataclysm will force the government to rethink.

Faced with this increasingly bewildering menu of options, the average voter still chooses Brexit as their main course. Though Leave’s referendum victory was narrow (52-48), its support base has since widened. Polling has consistently shown that around two-thirds of voters believe that the UK has a duty to leave the EU, regardless of their original preference.

A majority of Remain supporters, as a recent London School of Economics study confirmed, favour greater controls over EU immigration. The opposition of a significant number of Labour and Tory MPs to “soft Brexit” largely rests on this.

Remainers usually retort – as the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, put it – “No one voted to become poorer.” Polls show that, as well as immigration control, voters want to retain the economic benefits of EU membership. The problem is not merely that some politicians wish to have their cake and eat it, but that most of the public does, too.

For Remainers, the imperative now is to avoid an economic catastrophe. This begins by preventing a “cliff-edge” Brexit, under which the UK crashes out on 29 March 2019 without a deal. Though the Leave vote did not trigger a swift recession, a reversion to World Trade Organisation trading terms almost certainly would. Although David Davis publicly maintains that a new EU trade deal could swiftly be agreed, he is said to have privately forecast a time span of five years (the 2016 EU-Canada agreement took seven). A transition period of three years – concluded in time for the 2022 general election – would leave the UK with two further years in the wilderness without a deal.

A coalition of Labour MPs who dislike free movement and those who dislike free markets has prevented the party endorsing “soft Brexit”. Yet the Remainers in the party, backed by 80 per cent of grass-roots members, are encouraged by a recent shift in the leadership’s position. Although Corbyn, a Bennite Eurosceptic, vowed that the UK would leave the single market, the shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer, and the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, have refused to rule out continued membership.

A group of Remainers from all parties met in the Labour MP Chuka Umunna’s office before recess, and they are hopeful that parliament will force the government to commit to a meaningful transition period, including single market membership. But they have no intention of dissolving tribal loyalties and uniting under one banner. A year after George Osborne first pitched the idea of a new party to Labour MPs, it has gained little traction. “All it would do is weaken Labour,” the former cabinet minister Andrew Adonis, a past Social Democratic Party member, told me. “The only way we can defeat hard Brexit is to have a strong Labour Party.”

In this febrile era, few Remainers dismiss the possibility of a second referendum. Yet most are wary of running ahead of public opinion. “It would simply be too risky,” a senior Labour MP told me, citing one definition of insanity: doing the same thing and expecting a different result.

Thoughtful Remainers, however, are discussing an alternative strategy. Rather than staging a premature referendum in 2018-19, they advocate waiting until the UK has concluded a trade deal with the EU. At this point, voters would be offered a choice between the new agreement and re-entry under Article 49 of the Lisbon Treaty. By the mid-2020s, Remainers calculate, the risks of Brexit will be clearer and the original referendum will be history. The proviso is that the EU would have to allow the UK re-entry on its existing membership terms, rather than the standard ones (ending its opt-outs from the euro and the border-free Schengen Area). Some MPs suggest agreeing a ten-year “grace period” in which Britain can achieve this deal – a formidable challenge, but not an impossible one.

First, though, the Remainers must secure a soft transition. If the UK rips itself from the EU’s institutions in 2019, there will be no life raft back to safe territory. The initial aim is one of damage limitation. But like the Leavers before them, the wise Remainers are playing a long game.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear