I’d been out campaigning till 10pm in the pouring rain. Knocking on doors, leafleting commuters and ferrying people to polling stations. Soaked, chilled to the bone and tired, but like most remainers, convinced we’d win the referendum.
At 5am the next morning, I was preparing to host a conference call with my clients around the world to brief them that, despite all our carefully crafted narratives explaining why remain would win, Leave had secured a shocking victory. In a state of exhaustion, disappointment and fear about what the future might hold, I burst into tears.
As Theresa May triggers Article 50 this week, that seems like a very long time ago. Now, I think we have bigger – and more worrying – problems than Brexit.
Geo-political instability, fake news, terrorism and the fragility of trust in the institutions which are core to our democracy are creating a dangerous mix of fear and isolationism. The centre ground of politics has been hollowed out. Labour has been dragged to the left and is dying before our eyes. The Conservatives are pulling to the right. The Lib Dems have been reduced to nine MPs.
The Brexit vote was not the start of this, but the culmination of trends which many of us disregarded or disbelieved. The 4.3 million people who voted for UKIP in the 2015 European elections should have brought us up sharp.
Think about that number. 4.3 million people voted for representatives committed to leaving the institution to which they were being elected. Given the chance to have a substantive say on our membership of the EU, those voters and many more who had never voted before, seized the opportunity to express their dissatisfaction with the status quo in the referendum.
Whatever side you were on, people voted and now our democracy needs to be seen to work. Brexit really does mean Brexit.
Remainers argue that people didn’t vote to be poorer. People were taken in by misleading posters on buses. People didn’t vote for a hard Brexit or to leave the single market or the customs union. The reality is that people did vote for that by voting for Brexit despite all the warnings from experts and the arguments made by those of us campaigning to remain.
So what should we do now? Carry on fighting Brexit? Carry on marching for Europe? For me, the answer is no. You cannot offer people a vote and then seek to undermine or disregard it. To do so is to further undermine – perhaps fatally – the damaged trust that people have in democracy and our political elites.
Brexit is the wrong battle. That doesn’t mean that we should accept crashing out of Europe without a deal. But if we care about the values that were at the heart of the arguments for our place in Europe, if we care about creating a future for people which is inclusive rather than divisive then the new battle is to remake the centre ground of politics. And for that battle to succeed, we all, remainer and leaver alike, have a stake in making sure that Brexit works.
If Brexit fails, surely voters will see the error of their ways? Surely they will realise that all along we were stronger and more prosperous in Europe? Surely they will turn in their droves to the Labour Party? Or to the Lib Dems? Or to a contrite Conservative Party? What does history tell us about the behavior of people who are vulnerable and fearful?
The sight of President Trump marauding across Twitter should chill us to the bone. When Nigel Farage, or someone just like him, says they could be Prime Minister one day it doesn’t feel so laughable or so impossible now.
When, Theresa May, in thrall to the Brexiteers in her own Party, is the bulwark against something much darker we should be honest about the real battle we need to fight and it is not the one which makes us feel self-righteous.
The failure of centre ground politicians of all Parties – real and armchair – in not taking enough people with us to the sunny uplands of our liberal, metropolitan idylls has brought us here. If we are going to win the battle of today we have to stop fighting yesterday’s battle.
So, despite having been a remainer, I now believe that across the political spectrum we have to support the Prime Minister in delivering a successful Brexit. In that process those of us in the centre ground of politics have to find a new voice and a new way of persuading people to renew their faith in politics, in those who represent them.
The price of failure is so much dearer than the cost of leaving the EU.
Michelle Di Leo, Head of Public Affairs
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October 15, 2020