Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Politics
23 October 2018

No, Remainers couldn’t have averted a no deal Brexit by being more reasonable

Theresa May is not in listening mode.

By Jonn Elledge

Oh, well, this is fun. We’ve already lost a referendum, been called “traitors” and “saboteurs”, and told that our votes and opinions don’t count as we’re just the whiny north London metropolitan elite (all 48 per cent of us). Now, it turns out, the fact Britain is sliding helplessly towards the cliff edge of a no deal Brexit is our fault too. Us Remainers just can’t catch a break, can we? 

The latest bad take to be found spreading across the internet like the contents of a burst sewer is most often to be found in the form of a hypothetical question: What if Remainers had been more reasonable? What if, instead of demanding Britain’s continued membership of the EU, pro-European forces had, in the summer of 2016, come out for the sensible compromise the Norway option – that is, economic alignment outside the EU’s political structures?

Surely then, by showing that there was a sensible, moderate majority for a sensible, moderate Brexit, the government would have felt compelled to pursue one. Wouldn’t Britain now be in a better place, if only we hadn’t been so damned inflexible?

This line seems to be coming, mostly, from moderate Tories, rather than the sort of zealots who seem to think the European Commission is a branch of the Wehrmacht. I found this baffling at first, as I generally see these guys as just people I disagree with, rather than those who exist on a different plane of reality altogether. But on further thought, this actually makes sense – just so long as you assume that the purpose of this argument is to shift the blame for this mess onto a large and nebulous group we shall refer to as “not the Conservative party”.  

There are, of course, two problems with this line. The lesser of them is that it assumes that “Remainers” are a coherent movement, in precisely the way in which no group containing 48 per cent of the electorate has ever managed. In the immediate aftermath of the referendum, pro-Remain forces were cowed and shell-shocked and showed little inclination to oppose anything.

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. A handy, three-minute glance at the week ahead in companies, markets, regulation and investment, landing in your inbox every Monday morning. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.

That has gradually changed – but despite the rise of assorted campaigns like Best for Britain and Our Future, Our Choice, there’s still not a single leadership with a single view on anything. So what would it even mean for pro-European forces to have taken a particular stance two years ago now? Who do you call if you want to speak to Remain?

Content from our partners
How do we secure the hybrid office?
How materials innovation can help achieve net zero and level-up the UK
Fantastic mental well-being strategies and where to find them

The other problem is so clunkingly obvious that I can’t believe it’s necessary to even spell it out, but we are where we are. What on earth has made these people think that Theresa May is listening to Remainers even slightly? 

It is, admittedly, plausible that a Prime Minister might have cared what Remainers thought, enough to take their views, and the narrowness of the referendum result into account. But it’s been clear at every stage of this process that Theresa May, for whatever reason, doesn’t.

She didn’t care what Remainers thought when she dismissed a large chunk of the population as “citizens of nowhere”. She didn’t care when, at Lancaster House in January last year, she ruled out continuing single market or customs union membership. She obviously had no interest in the views of Remainers during last year’s election campaign, when she said that the country was coming together to back Brexit, as if the only lingering Remain feeling was on the Labour front bench, which was, let’s say, an interesting interpretation of the situation. Nor did she seem interested in Remainers’ views when the results came in and her majority went out, yet she refused, still, to consider the possibility that she had misread the national mood.

At no point in the last two years has Theresa May shown the slightest interest in garnering the views of the pro-European wing of her own parliamentary party, let alone those in the country. At every juncture, it is the support of the hardliners in Parliament and in the press she has sought.

So to those posing that hypothetical question about the paths not taken by Remain, I respond with my own: how would it have made a difference? What’s the mechanism through which those who don’t, instinctively, support Brexit could have induced Theresa May to show even the slightest interest in what they thought?

I’ve asked this several times, now. Nobody has yet seen fit to answer.