No sacred cows

The delusion of the born-again Brexiteers

18 January 2020

9:00 AM

18 January 2020

9:00 AM

As 31 January looms, I’ve been thinking about how to bring the country back together again after we’ve left the EU. How can those who’ve spent the past three-and-a-half years fighting Brexit tooth and nail be persuaded to accept Britain’s new status? Bear in mind that many of them occupy highly influential positions — as Supreme Court judges, for instance. The last thing we want is for them to sabotage our post-Brexit future in an attempt to prove they were right all along.

However, I had an encounter at a Christmas party with Lionel Barber, the outgoing editor of the Financial Times, that made me think a Truth and Reconciliation Commission may not be necessary. I was getting my coat as he was arriving and I suggested it would be a good idea for the leading figures on both sides to meet after 31 January to discuss how to put their differences behind them.

‘Why me?’ he asked.

‘Because you’ve been such a passionate opponent of Brexit,’ I said.

‘Nonsense,’ he replied. ‘I’ve always felt a bit ambivalent about it, but I’ve never denied there are huge opportunities for Britain outside the EU.’

I was dumbfounded. A bit ambivalent?! That’s like the leader of the Spanish Inquisition claiming he only had a few qualms about the heliocentric theory. Not only did the FT campaign relentlessly against a Leave vote in 2016, but it refused to accept the result, publishing editorial after editorial attacking the idea that Britain’s economy could thrive outside the single market and the customs union. Its columnists, with the exception of Merryn Somerset-Webb, wrote the script that was then followed in the Senior Common Rooms of Oxbridge and the boardrooms of the City. On the eve of last month’s election, the FT ran a leader accusing Boris of playing ‘fast and loose with democratic norms’, describing the notion that the UK could conclude a trade deal with the EU by December 2020 as ‘fantastical’ and washing its hands of the Conservative party. Yet now, apparently, the editor was merely ‘ambivalent’ about Brexit.

Barber isn’t alone. Since Boris’s victory, some of the most fanatical Remainers in my social circle — former Conservatives who campaigned for Sam Gyimah in Kensington, so great was their aversion to -Brexit — have come up to me and said: ‘Great result, eh?’ It’s as if those Tories dubbed ‘born-again Brexit-eers’ during the Conservative -leadership contest — Jeremy Hunt, Sajid Javid, Gavin Williamson — have set the pattern that the rest of their kind have followed. ‘Anti-Brexit? Me? Nah mate. You must be confusing me with someone else.’ How long will it be before Rory Stewart, Matthew Parris and Ken Clarke join their ranks?

I’m reminded of an anecdote told by Raymond Walter Apple Jr, the late New York Times columnist known as Johnny Apple. In 1989, after the fall of the Berlin Wall had precipitated the collapse of communism in East Germany, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria and Romania, Apple was sent to Eastern Europe by his editor and told to interview some of the defenders of the previous regimes. The idea was to inject a bit of balance into the way these momentous events were being covered in the West. Enough with all this capitalist triumphalism! Let’s hear the case for Marxism.

But try as he might, Johnny Apple couldn’t find a single person willing to stick up for communism. It wasn’t that they’d changed their minds, having witnessed the defeat of their side in the Cold War. At least, none would admit to that. Rather, like Barber, they denied ever having been defenders of the now discredited ideology in the first place. When Apple confronted them with evidence of their zealotry just a few weeks before, they stared at him blankly. If he plied them with alcohol, the most he could get out of them was that, yes, they had occasionally said supportive things about their political masters, but they’d had to say them to protect their careers and families. They never really believed it.

It’s tempting to find the same volte-face among Remainiacs irritating. How dare you pretend to be on the winning side when you were among our most dogged opponents? But I think we have to overlook this inconsistency and accept them into the fold. Turns out, trying to apply Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s bereavement model is wrong. There aren’t five stages of grief following a big political defeat, just two. Anger, followed swiftly by the enthusiastic embrace of all your enemy’s beliefs.

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