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15 December 2017

The Brexiteers’ foolish culture war could lead to us rejoining the EU

Will Brexit really be a majority-backed project in a decade’s time?

By Stephen Bush

What are the actual “threats to Brexit”, such as they are?

Now that Article 50 has been triggered, and with no easy way to see how parliament can force the British government to seek its revocation and no obvious majority to do so anyway, the various rows over “stopping Brexit” are overblown. The gun has been fired – so any questions about a meaningful vote or “setting the date into law” might be good theatre but they aren’t particularly significant.  

Sensible Brexiteers know this to be true – one of them, Fraser Nelson, writes in detail on what is (and more importantly isn’t) at stake in parliament’s debates on the issue this morning in the Telegraph. However, their big problem is one they can’t control but might end up taking the blame for: insensible Brexiteers. In the Daily Mail, Richard Littlejohn attacks the Conservative rebels as “so-called Tories” who would be “happy to live in Corbyn’s Britain” if it meant they could stop Brexit. In the Times, Nadine Dorries is playing a similar tune.

There are a couple of big risks to the Tories here. The first, as I write in my i column this week is that it could, ultimately, lead to a situation where Conservative pro-Europeans do what their Labour analogues did in the 1980s and decide they might be happier launching their own boat. That’s not likely but it is possible and it becomes more so every time someone like Tim Montgomerie gleefully calls for a pro-European to be ousted.

The bigger ones are to the whole Brexit project. As I said there are now only two threats: the first is that the whole thing will be a disaster and the United Kingdom will end up rejoining, Schengen and all, in the late 2020s or early 2030s. Brexiteers can only avoid that by taking the process seriously rather than retreating to the comfort zone of talking about “threats to Brexit”, dissidents, traitors, and so on.

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The second threat is that Brexit becomes a culture war rather than an economic issue. If leaving becomes indelibly associated with calling people “traitors” or “citizens of nowhere” or “saboteurs”, or telling students they are snowflakes and academics they are Marxists in the pay of Brussels or whatever, then frankly no Brexit, however successful, is going to be a majority-backed project in a decade’s time.

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Barring some kind of significant event, Brexit will happen on 29 March 2019, albeit with some form of transition afterwards. But that so many Leavers prefer to fight a culture war rather than actually do the nitty-gritty of Brexit means that Remainer hopes of returning to the EU are not yet dead.