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1 December 2017

If Brexit is going badly, it’s the fault of the Brexit elite: stop trying to blame the 48 per cent

You won. Get over it. 

By Jonn Elledge

Brexit, its supporters still seem convinced, is going swimmingly. They’ll tell you, if pushed, that none of the dire predictions of economic chaos have come to pass; that the lack of progress in the talks represents EU brinkmanship, rather than genuine failure of negotiation; and that businesses don’t care about silly things like regulatory harmonisation anyway. 

I’m not convinced – the lack of a plan for the Irish border that will simultaneously satisfy the Republic, the Democratic Unionist Party, the Tory Brexit elite and the laws of physics has certainly given me pause for thought – but it’s fair to say I was always primed to be negative about this whole process, so perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps everything is going exactly to plan. Perhaps the moon is made of cheese. 

Just in case I’m not, though, I want to get one thing straight: none of what is happening, now or in the future, is the fault of Remainers. If Brexit does turn into the disaster that it threatens to, then the blame can legitimately be attached to David Cameron, and Ukip, and the current cabinet, and even the EU itself. But none of what is to come will be the fault of those of us who always thought it was a bloody silly idea in the first place, and our enthusiasm or otherwise as the government has failed to get a decent deal is neither here nor there.

This shouldn’t need saying, of course, yet somehow it does. Ever since the vote, the 48 per cent have been exhorted to get behind Brexit, as if 27 other EU states with electorates of their own care even slightly whether Britain can put up a united front.

At times, the blame game has become even more explicit, as those who question the priorities or competence of individual ministers are told that our lack of faith is ruining Britain’s chances. It feels uncomfortably like we’re being lined up as a scapegoat – like this story ends with David Davis howling that he would have gotten away with it if it weren’t for those meddling Remainers.

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It’s bollocks, of course: the difficulty of making this process work for us was one of the best arguments for voting against Brexit in the first place. People voted Remain for all sorts of reasons – identity, a love of travel, a well-founded hatred of Nigel Farage. But one of the most compelling arguments was that Brexit was going to be hard, and that we didn’t believe for a moment that the people who’d end up negotiating it were actually up to the job. There is a reason that every British prime minister still walking the earth, up to and including the current one, entirely opposed this clusterfuck. 

Even after the vote, some kind of sanity still seemed plausible. The obvious arrangement is, to use a line shamelessly stolen from Stephen Bush, “Norway, but with immigration instead of fish”: single market membership, but with a tighter hold on immigration policy. That would seem to satisfy the expectations of most of those who voted for Brexit, and while it would have been worse than actually being a member of the EU – would have meant paying more money for less influence – it would have the advantage of not steering the entire British economy straight off the side of a cliff.

Agreeing such a deal, though, would have required a realistic assessment of both what Britain could offer and what the EU might want. It would have required an honesty about the fact that, since the EU’s priority was to show that there is a cost to leaving the club, Britain would need to be ready and willing to actually cover that cost. And it would have required good will, not just in Brussels, but in 26 other national capitals.

That we find ourselves, as the clock starts to run down, with precisely none of those things is in no way the fault of Remainers. It’s the fault of Conservative party more frightened of its own right flank than of the economic consequences of a Hard Brexit, and a government peopled by ministers more concerned with the succession than with anything as trivial as the national interest. It’s the fault of a Brexit elite who knowingly misled voters about the costs and benefits of Brexit to win themselves the referendum, and who dismiss all attempts to hold them to account as “project fear”. It’s the fault of an entire political and media establishment who mistakenly believe, just because they don’t read the German or the Irish press, that they are somehow incapable of reading ours.

Brexit is the biggest, most difficult foreign policy challenge this country has faced in 70 years – and making it work would require serious effort from serious people. But we don’t have serious people. Instead, we have Theresa May, and Boris Johnson, and – let us not forget a man who was literally fired from a previous cabinet, after the head of the civil service described his actions as a security risk – Liam Fox. At the point when the thinking person’s Brexiteer is David Davis, a man who under 18 months ago seemed somehow unaware that the Republic of Ireland was a separate sovereign state, you know we are in trouble.

It was entirely predictable that Brexit would go wrong. It was arguably avoidable, even after the vote. That we are rushing headlong towards the cliff anyway is entirely the fault of a Conservative Brexit elite that long ago began to believe its own deluded, post-imperial bullshit.

None of this is the fault of Remainers, you know. You won, Brexiteers: get over it. This is your mess, now. Own it.

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