David Cameron’s return reveals that both sides of the Brexit debate are in crisis

Neither Remainers nor Leavers seem to expect anything better than avoiding disaster.


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I want you to imagine something for me: it’s 2022, and the new Conservative leader opens the televised debates that the last five years have “turned out less badly than we first thought”, but had been “a mistake” and that the coming half-decade is “still going to be difficult”.

We might think that this leader was somewhat unhinged and we certainly wouldn’t lay good odds on them still being Prime Minister after the election. It’s a measure of the extent to which the United Kingdom’s Brexit debate is in a strange place that David Cameron’s statement – accidentally picked up on a microphone at Davos – that Brexit has “turned out less badly than we first thought”, but is a mistake that is “still going to be difficult" has been greeted as a success for or even an endorsemen of Brexit.

The first part of all this is the failure of the Remain campaign, both during the referendum and after. The story of the British economy since the Brexit vote is of economic growth that has gone from being among the fastest in the developed world to a global laggard at a time when the world economy is picking up pace, of a depreciation in sterling that has been great news for manufacturers and domestic tourism, but has put the pinch on households and the public realm.

But the dire predictions made pre-vote and the tone taken by many pro-European afterwards means that sub-optimal picture and any arrangement on the Irish border that doesn’t end in barbed wire can be framed as a “success”, at least at Westminster.

That failure is even more striking when you consider that a non-trivial number of pro-European politicians are actively seeking a referendum re-run. Now, it’s true to say that the biggest barrier is that simply, the Labour leadership, a goodish chunk of Labour backbenchers and the overwhelming majority of the Conservative party doesn’t want to play, but it is also true that second referendumers are not remotely fit for a second contest anytime soon.

On the Brexit side, particularly among the Conservatives, however, they have the reverse problem. “Turned out less badly than we first thought” is good enough to secure favourable headlines from a largely pro-Brexit press. Is it good enough to win over angry Remainers who voted Conservative in 2015 but Labour in 2017, or to see out a downturn that may hand the electoral advantage to Jeremy Corbyn? That’s far from clear.

Then you consider that, all things being equal, the most likely outcome of the next election is another hung parliament in which Labour are dependent on one or more pro-European parties. Yes, there are wild cards in the state of the economy, the new Conservative leader, the shape of Brexit, which could decisively shift the result one way or another but on both sides of the referendum question, both teams have good reasons to prepare for a referendum re-run at some point in the next parliament.

Yet on the Remain side, they appear incapable of raising the bar for Brexit beyond avoiding the apocalypse while the ambitions of the Brexit elite seem increasingly unable to stretch to that either.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.