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30 July 2018

Was Ken Clarke right – will Brexit be like the Iraq War?

I wouldn’t rule it out.

By Jonn Elledge

Brexit, Ken Clarke said early last year, will be like the Iraq War. Fifteen years ago, he told the Times, “70 per cent of the British public were in favour of the invasion and most of the Conservative party was in a patriotic fury. Within 12 months you couldn’t meet a member of the public who had ever known anybody who was in favour of it.”

In the fundamentals, if not the details, Clarke is right. In 2003, YouGov polling found that 54 per cent of Britons were in favour of the war, compared to just 38 per cent against. Asked a dozen years later how they had felt at the time of the invasion, 43 per cent remembered opposing it, and just 37 per cent supporting it. It wasn’t just that people had changed their minds – they had forgotten they ever held a different view.

Could Brexit go the same way? I’m not convinced people could so easily forget they had ever supported it. For most people, the Iraq War was a fairly passive thing. Brexit, though, has involved casting a vote, and, for many, getting sucked into the sort of culture war that can ruin a family Christmas. The human memory has a hell of a capacity for self-delusion, but there surely must be a limit.

So I’m not buying the idea that the 52 per cent of the population that voted for Brexit will one day think they’ve been Remoaning good Europeans all along. To be fair to Clarke, it’s not clear from the quote that he thinks this either.

Where I think he might have a point is that the mood can and could change. Support for Brexit was not fixed in amber on the day of the referendum, like a mosquito containing the DNA of a monster that would one day destroy us all.

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And some people voted Leave, not because they thought the downsides were worth taking, but because they didn’t believe they existed at all. As evidence for those downsides piles up – like the tin cans, containing our meals for the second quarter of 2019 – some are going to change their mind.

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After all, there are good reasons to think that, when Leavers say it’s better to be poor and free than rich and enslaved, that it’s generally other people they imagine growing poorer. For one, austerity remained hugely popular with Tory voters only as long as it mainly affected welfare claimants and Labour-run councils. Once the cuts began to afflict the services they might actually use, that support began to fade.

Then there was that YouGov polling last year, which found that support for an economically damaging Brexit rises markedly as people get older. To put that another way, those who were most unbothered that Brexit might cost people their jobs were the pensioners who didn’t have jobs to lose. It’s worth noting, too, that the Venn diagram showing parliamentary supporters of the hardest of Brexits and parliamentary supporters of higher taxes has no obvious overlap. It’s always easiest to support a costly abstract principle when it’s someone else who bears that cost.

So my suspicion has always been that support for Brexit was contingent – that it would stand only so long as the supposed benefits, like freedom and sovereignty and control of our own borders, come with no cost. Short of a miracle, that is not the Brexit we are going to get.

It’s possible that the shift in the mood is already happening. Today’s Sky poll, showing that 59 per cent of the population would rather Remain than leave with no deal, is just one data point. But it comes on the back of a week of talk about crisis and shortages in which the most optimistic promise the Brexit secretary could make was that there would be “adequate” food.

At a point when Tescos is running out of vegetables and the army is in charge of insulin supplies, it seems unlikely, to say the least, that half the country will shrug and meekly note that it’s what they voted for. As has been pointed out by half the internet by now, the British are the nation which called the police when KFC ran out of chicken. How prepared do you imagine we will be for real shortages?

It’s too early to say whether Ken Clarke was right about the Iraq War and Brexit. But it should at least make Theresa May pause for thought. From the former once-popular policy, Tony Blair’s reputation will never recover. What does she imagine that presiding over a country descending into food and medicine shortages will do for hers?