The People’s Vote shows you should fight for what you believe, not what seems possible

As a Europhile movement grows in strength and resolve, the Remainers' cause no longer seems hopeless.

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I pity the A-level politics student who, years from now, will be required to explain under exam conditions how Brexit came off the rails. Still, I reckon they could squeeze a few marks out of the dementia tax fiasco. If the Tories hadn’t botched their manifesto launch in 2017, we probably would have left the European Union by now. I was told by both Chuka Umunna and Best for Britain’s CEO Eloise Todd that a Conservative landslide in that election would have flattened the anti-Brexit forces. “We would have shut up shop and gone home,” said Todd.

The election came just two weeks into the life of Remainiacs, the podcast which I co-host alongside a rotating cast of journalists and campaigners. Our producer Andrew Harrison’s idea was to offer the kind of unashamedly partisan analysis that large media organisations couldn’t provide, combining wonkish detail with gallows humour. Listening again to the first episode, I notice that we set out to chart Brexit, not yet to fight it, because there was nothing concrete to oppose: just a vague, untested idea. It was Brexit’s phoney war.

Remember how demoralised Remainers felt during the months following the referendum? How taboo it was for David Lammy to challenge “the will of the people” by immediately calling for a second referendum? Remainers had plenty of wounded passion but no plan. Fewer than half opposed Brexit outright. In February 2017, 498 MPs voted to trigger Article 50, including Umunna and four more future members of Change UK. Umunna later told me that he felt democratically obliged to respect the referendum result at that early stage; he wanted to stop Brexit but it just didn’t seem possible. Then, suddenly, it was.

It wasn’t just the general election upset that made Brexit vulnerable. There was the down-to-the-wire victory of Dominic Grieve’s amendment in December 2017, which secured parliamentary scrutiny of the withdrawal deal. There was the extraordinary incompetence and incoherence of the Brexiteers once the negotiations began; any cause would be grateful to have such inept enemies. There was the small but significant shift in public opinion that nibbled away at the 2016 mandate. And there was the determination of disparate Remainer factions to pull together, leading to the formation of the People’s Vote campaign in April 2018. In short order, a bruised and fragmented cohort of voters has become a formidable mass movement.

Following this growth week by week has been exhilarating. The modestly sized March for Europe demonstration that I attended in London in September 2017 felt good but changed nothing. Barely a year later, an estimated half a million rallied for a People’s Vote. After an equally large march on 23 March this year, the snarky jokes about Waitrose queues rang a little desperate, but then most Brexiteer rhetoric does these days. They have gone from promising the moon on a tariff-free stick to insisting that crashing out with no deal wouldn’t be that catastrophic. “Put that on the side of a bus” is the meme that keeps on giving.

A “people’s vote” was the most popular option during the second round of indicative votes, with 268 MPs behind it. The option of revoking Article 50 to avoid no deal – still a pipe dream until very recently – notched up 184 MPs, while over six million people signed a petition in its favour. Deliciously, it’s the fanatics of the ERG who, by rejecting Theresa May’s deal, have inadvertently popularised calling the whole thing off. One extreme solution legitimises the other; many Remainer MPs now see no incentive to compromise.

Neither a referendum nor revocation yet has the numbers in parliament, but then what does? Both ideas have travelled from the impotent fringe to the centre of the debate, with widespread support that includes some who voted Leave. The Brexiteer columnist Peter Oborne recently admitted that the economic case for Brexit had collapsed and its champions were shrill, Trumpian frauds. Treasury PPS Huw Merriman, who still backs Brexit, has said that only a referendum can resolve the paralysis. Fatigue favours Remainers. Even pugnacious Brexit-booster Nick Ferrari snapped on LBC last week: “I give up! Enough!… Just bloody stay and we’ll move on to other things.” Now, there’s a slogan people can get behind.

Politics may be the art of the possible but the possible is mutable. In hindsight, Lammy’s call for a second referendum just two days after Leave’s victory seems both righteous and prophetic, while Umunna’s Article 50 vote (for which he has been making amends ever since) looks needlessly defeatist. Of course, if Theresa May had secured a meaty majority, then Umunna would now appear rational and Lammy deluded, but in a time of ceaseless upheaval, it seems unwise to assume that you can’t get what you want. The Remain coalition, which extends from socialists to moderate Tories, refutes the notion that all of politics’ transformative energy is flowing to the extremes.

Remainers who suffered from complacency prior to the referendum are now rebuking the complacency of politicians who assumed that they wouldn’t fight back. Support for the European Union and the values it represents, spongy for too long, has found its steel. For the first time, there is a Europhile movement with the same resolve as the Eurosceptics.

I still don’t know if we will ultimately “just bloody stay” but at least it feels possible. The hosts of Pod Save America, one of the inspirations for Remainiacs, often tell Democrats to stop self-censoring in pursuit of “electability”. The same message applies to Brexit. Politics is in a William Goldman phase – nobody knows anything – so why not ask for what you really want?

Dorian Lynskey is a journalist, host of the Remainiacs podcast and author of 33 Revolutions Per Minute: A History of Protest Songs. He tweets at @Dorianlynskey.

This article appears in the 18 April 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Spring special