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The Brexit plague

With the sacking of Michael Gove, the leaders of the Leave campaign are being destroyed.

Brexit: the career killer. Boris Johnson: humiliated and felled, even if he ended up with foreign secretary as a consolation prize. Michael Gove: tainted by his ruthlessness against Johnson and also by his late acceptance of conventional wisdom (that Johnson is talented but unreliable) and finally sacked. Nigel Farage: resigned. Andrea Leadsom: brutally and almost instantly exposed as out of her depth and sent to the ministerial wasteland that is Defra.

With Theresa May in No 10, ­experience and competence have been restored. For that reason, there is room in May’s ­cabinet for some of Brexit’s fallen leaders. For the time being, however, the Remain ­campaign’s repeated warnings that Brexit would be bad for jobs have already proved prescient in one respect. The referendum has destroyed the prospects of Leave’s top brass. The Brexit crown won’t stay on anyone’s head for more than a few days.

We once imagined, ironically, that the Brexit movement would be vulnerable to cynical exploitation by careerist politicians who were keen to make a name for themselves. They would climb aboard the Brexit bus, take an easy ride, and get off higher up the mountain. Quite the reverse. Politicians have not ridden to power on the back of Brexit; Brexit has ridden to power on the back of them, breaking them in the process.

Like a superbug, Brexit inhabits its host spokesmen and women before choking the life out of them. The illness takes a horrible course, first imbuing the victim with great energy and enthusiasm, as though the ailment was in fact a cheering tonic. Then, at the peak of Brexit bounce, when the victim’s mood seems most adulatory, despair and withdrawal set in.

To adapt the celebrated lines spoken by Anthony Blanche in Brideshead Revisited, does Brexit, politically speaking, spot and kill everyone it touches?

At the outset, I must make an important distinction between the perfectly legitimate and finely balanced argument about whether Britain should be outside the European Union – the Brexit debate that might have been – and the one that actually happened, with its £350m a week for new hospitals and the exploitation (or wilful blindness) of the emotive power of anti-immigration. The first debate, the proper one, might well have allowed the finest Brexit minds to shine. The second (that is: real events) has left them vulnerable, floundering amid tectonic shifts in the political landscape that they helped to initiate.

What about Andrea Leadsom, the darling of Brexit’s hard core? Here the career-killing superbug showed the speed with which it operates. Have no truck with the fantasy that Leadsom was brought down by an establishment plot, the “black ops” imagined by Iain Duncan Smith. Leadsom, despite being a very inexperienced politician, applied for immediate promotion to the office of prime minister. She initially made great use of two cards – her “business experience” and her maternal instincts – but it turned out that both were liabilities once the serious campaign for high office began.

There is no need to revisit how several aspects of Leadsom’s CV unravelled. Her supporters put out the word that she was a high-flying banker who had “managed billions”. In effect, Leadsom’s team suggested she was Cristiano Ronaldo, while the evidence suggests she worked for Real Madrid’s PR team. Important work and all that, but not quite the same thing.

Her interview with Rachel Sylvester in the Times on 9 July exposed some of the problems not just with the candidate, but also with Brexit catchphrases. The interview showed the difference between believing that “the old way of doing politics” is too cynical and polished, and assuming that being incompetent in handling the ­media is a virtue.

Without saying anything interesting as a trade-off, Leadsom made several huge blunders. She offended people without children, perhaps entirely unintentionally, by implying that being a mother made her the superior candidate, with “a tangible stake” in the future. Then she offended feminists – and many non-feminists as well – by stating that she isn’t a feminist because she isn’t “anti-men”. Third, she blithely assumed that the EU would not impose any tariffs on a post-Brexit Britain. Finally, in furiously demanding that the Times retract the article and release the tape of the interview, she unwittingly exposed one last blunder: that she herself (or an aide) had not recorded the interview, though speaking on the record to a journalist from a leading newspaper.

The fiasco contributed to Leadsom withdrawing from the two-woman leadership contest, before her current career suffered a calamitous fate – never mind the reading of jobs she held previously. Brexit, having first apparently been the making of Leadsom, quickly struck her down, too.

She deserves some sympathy. Her leadership campaign can be seen as the logical culmination of the political pressures on Brexiteers as they seek to turn serious. The political challenges are doubly difficult. First, there is the negotiation with Brussels, with rather a lot promised to the British public and nothing less than the survival of the EU at stake. Second, in office, any Brexiteer would have to level with the movement’s supporters.

***

The Leave campaign, evidently, rested on a delicate set of alliances, including as it did sovereignty-focused intellectuals, rural Conservative voters and the disenfranchised “left-behinds”. To say these groups voted for different things does not do justice to the problem.

It is worth recalling that Boris Johnson’s Telegraph column in the aftermath of Leave’s referendum victory, which caused him so many difficulties with hardcore Brexiteers, had also been read, adapted and signed off by Michael Gove. In other words, two experienced columnist-politicians, both of them media-savvy and intellectually gifted, found the challenge of converting Brexit the movement into Brexit the reality beyond their combined and considerable rhetorical gifts. During the campaign, Johnson’s popularity and Gove’s intellectual confidence powered the Brexit movement. Then Gove abruptly ended Johnson’s leadership hopes, thereby ending his own.

At a stroke, the argument – popular among Brexiteers – that the new prime minister had to be a Leaver pointed no longer to a leading politician, but instead to the inexperienced Leadsom. Within days of its electoral triumph, the Brexit movement found itself in a leadership vacuum of remarkable proportions.

Having finished off the politicians possessed of a track record, Brexit anointed someone without a recognisable political past. The flight to neophilia says a great deal: which experienced politician would fancy squaring that circle? In retrospect, Leadsom’s Mary Poppins approach – it’s fine, absolutely fine, let’s be positive – was the logical conclusion of an unplayable hand. Sometimes rational logic has nowhere to go. Airy aspirations are all that remain.

As the author of a book called Luck, I am the first to admit that events take on a momentum of their own. Things could have been different. It was not inevitable that Gove would consult his conscience and conclude that he could not, in good faith, be Johnson’s kingmaker. Alternatively, if Gove’s conscience had hurried along a little quicker on its journey of discovery – whether this led to backing Johnson, or aban­doning him – then there could have been a recognised heavyweight Brexit candidate for prime minister.

But laughing off Brexit’s leadership deficit with a shrug in the direction of rogue circumstance leaves out too much. Its post-referendum leadership tumults are the rational consequence of fault lines running through the Leave campaign.

It is one thing for a Tory gentleman Brexiteer, taking a psychological canter over to the wrong side of the tracks, to conclude that Britain is two countries and that the poor are having a tough time, thanks to globalisation and the “establishment”. But what is his prescription for the social problems of Boston? Extra evensong? An added dollop of deference, spread evenly across the parish? Free community copies of Edmund Burke?

That the Brexit movement benefited from anti-immigrant sentiment and then conceded that immigration is unlikely to be reduced any time soon – if at all – was only one example of a recurrent theme of Brexit: capitalising from something that lots of people don’t like without having a solution on hand. An anti-establishment movement can gloss over policy; a government cannot.

Leadsom’s campaign raised the question of whether the Brexit movement is in fact governable. Or, as any potential Leave leader gets close to the real corridors of power, does the movement’s anti-establishment rhetoric undermine its own latest figurehead? After all, it is a lot easier to rail against the Westminster elite when you’re not imminently approaching the top of it.

The case needs to be addressed that the Brexit career carnage has been caused by an intransigent Remain establishment. Having won, some of my Leave friends say, we are ready to compromise; it’s you lot who are the problem.

That sentiment has not been shared by the Brexit movement’s most recognised faces. Indeed, Leadsom’s candidacy presented a new test of character to Brexiteers. Would they rally around the steely experience of Theresa May – a credible prime minister – or cling to whichever Leaver was left standing? It is one thing to divide a party and destroy your prime minister, on the grounds that leaving the EU is more important than loyalty or party politics. But would Brexiteers endorse Leadsom over May, hence cementing the perception – often present, though previously unverifiable – that the question of Europe, among some sections of the Tory party, takes precedence over every aspect of political logic? Boris Johnson and Iain Duncan Smith had no hesitation in giving an early answer: Leadsom.

***

As I write this, I can hear in my head the counterarguments to my case, so indulge me a brief autobiographical aside as I address them one by one. Am I writing through the prism of bitterness? Are these the laments of a Remainer who can’t accept we lost? Far from it. There was always a legitimate case that the EU is a failing institution and that Britain would be better served by making arrangements outside the EU earlier rather than later. I wouldn’t make the case myself, but I can see the logic.

The idea that Brexit would inexorably lead to long-term economic catastrophe ­always felt far-fetched; I recoiled at the ­convenient precision of George Osborne’s prediction that households would be £4,300 worse off after Brexit. I am fortunate, though I, for  one, voted Remain, that some of the most intelligent people I know argued for Leave – and none of them is remotely interested in immigration.

A tribal liberal? Again, not so. My temperament is sceptical, pragmatic and anti-utopian: conservative, you might say.

Stuck inside a metropolitan bubble? The Leave movement made much of Remain’s elitism, its failure to understand – or even acknowledge – the rest of Britain, especially the rest of England. By chance, I spent 13 years working in an antique travelling circus. We toured the nation, plying our trade in unflashy cities and county towns, rustling up whatever small crowds we could, chatting to punters after the final curtain, trying to keep a faltering show on the road. That is to say, I was a county cricketer.

Aigburth, Southend, Maidstone, Colwyn Bay, Chesterfield, Colchester, Haslingden, Malvern, Swansea, Portsmouth, Scarborough, Cheltenham, Blackpool – these places were my life for more than a decade. I am no stranger to England’s northern cities, still less to the Tory shires. They made me.

So it is with some perspective that I have watched the Brexit career plague sweep through its leadership ranks. After initial shock and disbelief, I began to discern a kind of inevitability. Single-issue movements, which circumnavigate the compromise and consensus-building that is hard-wired into conventional politics, are structurally ill-equipped to adapt to serious government. It is housebuilding without the foundations.

The Brexit career carnage should prove a salutary warning. “We need a whole new political class,” Brexiteers have often said lightly. The crucial words are missed out – a new “and better” political class. Indeed, last week the possibility loomed of a Leadsom-Farron-Corbyn triple whammy.

I’ve always believed that politics should be porous to the “civilian” world rather than a closed guild of insiders. I’m all for opening political conversation to fresh voices; not everyone has to study PPE at Oxford. Yet we can now see that change does not automatically bring renewal; outsiders do not always know best, and a base level of competence is a prerequisite. As proof, look again at Leadsom’s outraged reaction to the Times printing what she had said. There is, you might say, a place for expertise. Promising a new politics is easy; high office is difficult.

Hence the last word belongs to an unlikely hero of political analysis. Andy Murray, having won Wimbledon, demonstrated an emotional intelligence equal to his deft touch on the court. Moments after sobbing into his towel, the release point after two weeks’ pressure and control, the Scot thanked David Cameron for watching the match. Some applauded, others jeered. Murray, in an instant, sensed he had to diffuse the awkwardness. “I think playing a Wimbledon final’s tough – I certainly wouldn’t like being prime minister: it’s an impossible job.”

People who think Britain has much to be proud about – that we live in one of the most civilised and well-governed countries in the world – might consider that logic: it might be an impossible job but it’s a successful country. The people doing those ­impossible jobs have contributed to that success. Unless moderates celebrate the track record achieved by compromise, expertise and sound judgement, unless competence finds a more confident voice, then movements such as Brexit will be just the beginning.

Ed Smith is a contributing writer for the New Statesman

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 14 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit PM

Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
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Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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