October 24, 2017 2.13 pm This story is over 47 months old

George Smid: Is Brexit more than the sum of its parts?

Strong words on the direction of the Brexit talks.

Brexit must be bigger than the sum of its parts. The public would have stopped supporting Brexit a long time ago if this was not the case. The fact that a decision about Brexit is still splitting the government, splitting Parliament and splitting the public indicates there is ‘something else’.

Like the dark matter not seen but holding the universe together, Brexit must contain ‘something’ which self-perpetuates its cause despite the facts showing how foolish it is.

In June this column drew attention to Brexit being treated more and more like religion.

Four months later it is apparent that only faith, fervour and zealotry can now explain the enthusiasm for a ‘no-deal’ Brexit, a solution which 30 MPs from the governing party do not support.

This is not even mentioning the 75% of the public thinking Brexit negotiations are failing and half of the electorate rejecting no-deal outright.

Let’s pause about ‘no deal is better than bad deal’ and split the fervour from facts: what exactly is a deal worse than walking away from the table and cutting all the trading ties, supply chains, travel routes, free exchanges and security arrangements? Collective suicide?

Boris Johnson might still believe that Brexit will bring £350 million to the NHS, Michael Gove might still fantasise that Brexit will be cost free and Nigel Farage might still stammer about unilateral free trade but their drop in popularity shows that the public does not believe them. 53% of the public dislike Johnson, 78% dislike Gove and 83% dislike Farage.

At the same time as the perceived benefits of Brexit are disappearing into the thin air, the costs are piling in.

The Bank of England spent £70 billion on a stimulus package after Brexit vote, almost half a trillion (£490 billion) has gone missing, foreign direct investment went from £120 billion surplus to £25 billion deficit. The direct cost would pay for 56 years of EU membership.

Factor in indirect costs from the collapse of the pound, increased inflation and loss of revenue and the money being lost is huge.

Despite all this, Leavers and Remainers are as divided as ever. In June 2016, 16.1 million voted Remain, 17.4 million Leave and 16 million did not bother to vote. (The oft-quoted 52% to 48% in favour of Brexit is a misnomer: 37.4% of the electorate voted Leave, 34.7% voted Remain and 27.9% abstained. In a recent Catalonian election 48% of voters supporting independence was quoted in British newspapers as evidence that the majority did not want secession from Spain.)

The result of the ‘people’s will’ is therefore limited to 650,000 potential voters who could have swung the vote either way – hardly the ‘decisive majority’ Brexiteers quote. (1.4% of the electorate).

And the same split between Remain and Leave is still with us, 15 months after the referendum. In November 2016, 51% backed Remain. In July 2017, 54% said they would vote Remain. Give or take few percent it is still a 50-50 split, despite the barrage of arguments for and against Brexit.

Brexit is now firmly in an emotional zone. The language reflects that: traitors, saboteurs, enemies of the people but also ‘fairness’, ‘freedom’, ‘pleas’ (Theresa May’s ‘plea’ to the 27 EU leaders to offer her a Brexit she could defend at home.) Expect more of that as emotionally charged words enter the Brexit vocabulary to replace discussions about the promised economic benefits.

The fact that the argument about Brexit is now firmly in an emotional zone is politically important. No amount of bad economic data, price increases or the sheer impracticality of Brexit will persuade the Brexiteers to change their position.

They might revert to more and more bizarre arguments about the benefits of Brexit – like the ability to corner the world market in pigs’ ears (Michael Gove) or growing your own food to avoid post-Brexit food shortages (Chris Grayling) – but they will not admit Brexit is simply unworkable.

In their mind, Brexit roars like a lion – it’s the EU’s fault that the roar comes out as a spluttering cough. After all, we told them exactly what they should do. It is not our fault they did not do it.

Remainers, who now have the factual arguments on their side, criticise the Brexit brigade for not saying what Brexit means. But they, themselves, are guilty of the same sin: where is their post-Brexit vision?

For emotional campaigning, facts are not enough. By all means repeat ad nauseam your message but it must not end there. It matters not only what is said, but how it is said, and who says it.

Remainers must set their stall out (East Midlands march against Brexit) and Leavers must lay out their remaining arguments for Brexit: it is not an economic gain, so is it immigration? Meddling from Brussels? What is it? To which the Remainers must either offer an alternative or accept the argument.

Broadcasters, newspapers, journalists, churches, voluntary organisations all must get involved.

Do not attack the opposition only – present your vision as well. Say what your vision is. Say it now, not in 2019 or 2021.

The public must get involved too. Sign up for European Movement, Conservative Group for Europe (yes there is such a thing), Labour Movement for Europe and formulate your vision.

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George Smid is chair of the European Movement East Midlands.