“The country,” said Theresa May on the steps of Downing Street last week, “is coming together, but Westminster is not.” She was saying that this was the reason she had decided to have an election. She said it with such authority that you would almost think she hadn’t got it the wrong way round.
498 MPs voted to trigger Article 50. Only 114 voted against it. If Theresa May has faced any serious opposition at Westminster on her plans for Brexit, she seems to have managed to keep it pretty quiet. There hasn’t been any serious opposition at Westminster for at least two years. The problem isn’t at Westminster. The problem is that 37 per cent of the country voted to leave the EU (52 per cent of the people who voted) and an awful lot of the rest of us are as heart-broken as we were when the news first came through.
We don’t know if the people who voted to leave were voting to leave the EEA, or the EFTA. We don’t know if they were voting for the £350m extra a week for the NHS that was promised on buses. We don’t even know if they knew what the EU was. “What is the EU?” was one of the top trending Google questions in the hours after the ballot boxes closed. What we do know is that it was mostly older and less educated people who decided that they quite fancied a change. And so we are going to leave the EU.
Some people seem to think it would be a good idea to crash out of the EU without any deal. They were thrilled to hear Theresa May say in Lancaster House in January that “no deal is better than a bad deal”. Unfortunately, no one bothered to say what exactly a “bad deal” was. For some Tory backbenchers, any deal is a “bad deal” because they think we can just jump off the edge off a cliff and land in a meadow full of buttercups and daisies. We can do this because we are Great Britain and Britain is always “great”.
We still don’t know what a “bad deal” will be. We still don’t know what kind of deal Theresa May wants, though it looks as though it will mean leaving both the single market and the customs union, which is about as “hard” a “hard Brexit” as you get. All we know is that she wants a “mandate” to ask for whatever she decides she wants, and she thinks that the best way of getting this is to break her promise to the electorate not to have another election, so that Westminister can “come together” and sign her blank cheque.
The real reason Theresa May is holding an election is, of course, because she knows that she doesn’t actually have any opposition at Westminster and wants to make sure that that’s the way it stays when things get tough. She knows that it isn’t possible to do get a deal in the time she, and the leavers, promised. She knows that the economic honeymoon we have had since the referendum, which was largely based on people’s feelings about the future, will not last when the fall in the pound and rising costs kick in. She knows that it won’t all seem quite so easy when Britain has to pay a whacking great divorce bill before it can even start to talk about trade. She knows that people might start noticing that EU migrants are still arriving in the country, when they thought they had voted to keep them out. And she knows that when she is voted back into power, with a big majority, the country will look as though it has “come together” in the way she says it already has.
It would be lovely to think that we had all “come together” and were all holding hands and waving Union Flags as we sang Rule Britannia or kum ba yah. But the Scots are certainly not waving Union Flags. There is a real chance of another Scottish referendum and a real chance that this time they will vote the other way. In Northern Ireland, they’re quite keen on the Union Flag. What they’re a lot less keen on is having a hard border with Ireland when they’ve worked so hard to get rid of the borders of their own.
At the last election, I spent some time on a project that was trying to get young people to engage with the democratic process, walk down to a ballot box and vote. I honestly don’t know what I’d say to them now. The Labour Party has been taken over by a cult that has no hope of power, or even desire for it. The Tories appear to have no policies beyond Brexit apart from bringing back grammar schools, which seems to be based on the view that “I went to a grammar school and look how well I’ve done!”. Well, I went to a grammar school, and what it taught me was that it’s important to look at evidence. All the evidence shows that grammar schools increase the gap in attainment between rich and poor. Which is fine if that’s what you want, but it sure as hell isn’t going to help those “just about managing” “ordinary” people we are no longer allowed to call JAMs.
So here we go. Brexit, Brexit, Brexit, Brexit. It will be all politicians can really talk about for years. And it will be so expensive to disentangle ourselves that there will be very little money for anything else. Two thirds of the British people did not vote for this torturous, time-consuming, masochistic process which is likely to make us economically weaker than we were before. We have no one to represent us, and no one to vote for. The country is coming together, Mrs May, in your dreams.