Memo to PM May: not a second referendum, but a first referendum on a proper choice of options after real debate
Posted on 14 July 2016 | 9:07am
There have not been that many rays of light emerging from that dark day of national self-harm, June 23, but one has been the emergence of a new ‘pop-up newspaper’ aimed especially at the 48percent who voted Remain in our deeply divided country.
The New European has been launched by Archant Media, and they have committed to four issues to test out the market. The first one, the cover of which you can see in this Huffington Post story about the launch, had a print run of 200,000, good online reaction, and it must have had some success because the second, out tomorrow in mainly urban areas, has the same run, and I am pleased to say I am writing the cover story.
The headline ‘This fight’s not over,’ gives you some idea of where I am coming from. As I say in the intro: ‘Can someone point me to that part of our great unwritten Constitution that says if you lose a vote you must imnmediately agree with those who won it?’ The history of politics is that you keep fighting for what you believe in.
The editor, Matt Kelly, told me to take as long as I liked to say whatever I wanted (the kind of brief I like) so 2,000 words later I had got a lot off my chest. I hope you can find a spare two quid tomorrow and get yourself a copy.
But within it, I do have this message for our incoming Prime Minister, who will currently be getting briefed on all the big issues now atop her in tray, few bigger and more atop than Europe. So herewith (my word of the day, as you will see) an extract from my very long cri de coeur.
Meanwhile, a little note to our new Prime Minister, Theresa May. I wish you well. It is a very tough job. I have seen that up close. I note you have said ‘Brexit means Brexit.’ I note too that you think the Fixed Term Parliament Act means you can govern without a specific mandate from the people until 2020. On verra, as we multilingual Europeans say. You may find it less easy- and even less helpful – than Gordon Brown did (and at least people knew he was likely to replace Tony Blair when TB was elected in 2005), to resist the pressures for a national poll. I do not see how the politics of the situation will allow you to cruise to 2020 while negotiating the most important decisions in modern UK history with a mandate as PM that came not from the people but from Tory MPs many of whom had lied their way to a result the consequences of which they then left to you.
Your job now is to lead the country through very difficult times and make decisions in the national interest. You must put those decisions before Parliament. The job of MPs is to assess them in the national interest and in the interests of their constituents too. Whatever you decide will not be as simple as the ‘Brexit means Brexit’ formula. I suspect you will quickly see that Brexit as it was sold by the Johnsons and Farages will be impossible without enormous economic damage to the country you lead. If you conclude that Brexit means there is no realistic way of staying inside the single market, which you decide is a fundamental part of our economic future, then you should say so and fight for us to stay in that single market. If you don’t, but a majority of MPs feel they cannot support an outcome that sees us outside the single market, then they should fight for what they believe. You may well end up being attacked from right and left alike, but if you have the real economic national interest as your guide, I doubt very much you will be in a rush for the exit door. You will rarely be more powerful than in these early days. You should use that power to buy time and show calm, measured leadership.
From me, herewith an idea that you and your team might want to consider. Do not trigger Article 50 quickly. There is no need to do so immediately and sensibly you have not said that you would. Instead go into discussions with fellow EU leaders (without your foreign secretary, whose appointment has gone down like a global dose of the Zika virus) and explain as follows: the British people have voted to leave the EU. You want to negotiate the terms of exit, and David Davis is around to help. However as you must lead the whole country, not just half of it, you want in this process to represent those who voted Remain too (and the many Regrexiters who voted Leave and wished they hadn’t.) So in addition to discussing terms of exit, you would like to explore the possible terms on which we might stay, including another look at immigration, which is of concern not just in the UK, and some of the other issues which emerged as problems for Remain during the campaign. Might freedom of movement become freedom of labour, for example? Fight for CAP reform, and completion of the single market, in areas like energy and digital services.
Then come back to the country and put those options to the British public. The terms on which we leave. And the terms on which we could remain. A real choice of real options, rather than the fake choice between a Johnson nirvana of more money for the NHS, Independence Day, cuddly toys for all; or a hell of Brussels bureaucracy, mass immigration and straight bananas.
This would not be a second referendum on a question that has been settled on June 23. It is a new referendum on a new question which flows obviously from the first one, and from your appointment as a new PM. And once that decision is settled, that might be the time for a general election. We are, after all, a Parliamentary democracy. I accept that your fellow EU leaders have said there will be no informal talks until Article 50 has been triggered. But they will be fascinated to get to know you, you have a bit of time to play with, and if they sense you are serious about exploring options both in and out they would get over that insistence fairly quickly. I know there will be serious Tory Party management issues. But hey, plus ca change. That is how we got into this mess. Leadership is needed to get us out of it.
Good luck. These are not easy times for leaders in any country in the world, but especially those, like the US and the U.K., which really are living in the post-fact, post-reason world. I don’t know you well. But I do at least get the sense you won’t be driven by the mania of the modern media but by cold headed analysis of the options. Options are what the country needs right now. A leader who sets them out, and leads a debate that rises above the awful level of the one we have just had, would be doing the country and the world a massive service, showing leadership and winning respect, mine included.