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28 February 2017

The Brexiteers’ response to John Major shows their dangerous complacency

Leave's leaders are determined to pretend that there are no risks to their approach.

By Stephen Bush

Christmas is some way off, but Theresa May could be forgiven for feeling like Ebenezer Scrooge. Another Ghost of Prime Ministers Past in the shape of John Major is back in the headlines with a major speech on Brexit.

He struck most of the same notes that Tony Blair did in his speech a fortnight ago. Brexit is a blunder, a “historic mistake” in Major’s view. The union between England and Scotland is under threat as is the peace in Northern Ireland. It’s not unpatriotic for the defeated side in an electoral contest to continue to hold to those beliefs after a loss. And our present trajectory is a hard Brexit that will leave many of us poorer and wreck the British social model.

But, as with Blair, he rules out any question that the referendum outcome should not be honoured, though, unlike Blair, he has yet to firmly state that pro-Europeans should continue to advocate for a return to the EU if we change our minds. He had a note of warning for the PM: that the Brexit talks need “a little more charm and a lot less cheap rhetoric” and that the expectations she is setting are “unreal and over-optimistic”.

On that last point in particular, he makes a point that many politicians make privately but few have aired in public. It may be that we will, as Theresa May says, have the best Brexit. France may in fact pay for it. But what if they don’t? What if we get a good deal but immigration doesn’t fall? Who’ll be blamed for that? Certainly we are less likely to get a good deal while the government passes up pain-free opportunities to secure goodwill from our European partners.

As with Blair, the reaction says more about British politics after Brexit than the speech itself. Jacob Rees-Mogg described it as “a craven and defeated speech of a bitter man”. Iain Duncan Smith, too, thinks that it was “strangely bitter”.

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There is much to worry about as Britain leaves the European Union but the most corrosive and dangerous trend of all is that section of the Leave elite which requires not only that we implement Brexit but that we all pretend that there are no risks, no doubts and that none of us voted to Remain on 23 June. That Blair and Major’s speeches – “You voted for it, so we’ll do it, but it’s a mistake” – are seen as brave and controversial rather than banal and commonplace statements of political practice in a democracy are more worrying than anything that might happen to the value of the pound.