Anne McElvoy: If there’s another referendum Remainers must change tack

Anne Mcelvoy
Billionaire backer: financier George Soros has made a huge donation to the anti-Brexit Best for Britain campaign: AFP/Getty Image

My native North-East of England was where I first realised, amid the spats of the 2016 EU referendum campaign, that the outcome might well go the way of the Leavers. The more locals I chatted to, the more it became clear that perfectly reasonable people of various incomes and demographics wanted to go.

The idea was deemed unthinkable in much of professional London — and in many ways it still is. To win a second referendum, large tranches of voters would have to change their minds in parts of Britain that said no the first time to the arguments of a government with a healthy majority and a decent bench of senior politicians backing Remain, along with the Bank of England’s advocacy and large dollops of expert opinion.

So the cautionary tale for Brexit opponents is that they can be both right on the outcomes of leaving the EU, in terms of the adverse impact on Britain’s trade and wider relations with Europe, yet not find themselves in a commanding position to reverse it.

This is one reason why the alleged “Remoaners” are becoming a tribe distinct from the “Remainiacs”. Remoaners want a Brexit that is as close to EU membership as possible. Their anger is directed at the hapless Government’s inability to ward off the most damaging form of departure from the EU: a scenario that distances Britain most from its European trading partners.

Remainiacs are of a different temperament. They believe the Leave result happened in a moment of national forgetfulness or due to some play of dark forces, and that it can be undone simply by re-running the vote, with an expected mea culpa from the voters.

Tomorrow, in a heavily trailed speech, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson will tell us how workable the latest dim-sum recipe for a take-what-you-fancy Brexit might look. Five other Cabinet ministers have been lined up to suggest a consistency of views, which even the casual observer of warfare at Westminster knows is illusory.

However open to trade Johnson makes post-Brexit Britain sound, he has a hard case to answer about its impact on parts of the country with the least resilience to its impact. Years of exposure to Treasure forecasts dissuade me from putting my life savings on their projections. But even if the figures exaggerate the coming misery, outcomes for places such as the North-East look considerably worse than they do for other parts of Britain. However Johnson spins it, Sunderland is not about to become the new Singapore.

The next couple of weeks will see Theresa May and her Cabinet being forced to choose a combined stance from a narrow range of options — an overdue clarification. But it is also the moment when Remainers will have to choose whether they continue to campaign for a softer Brexit or throw their lot in with second referendum disciples. Advocates of the first path run the risk of asking for an option that is disappearing bit by bit while vote-againers face a dilemma embodied by George Soros’s donation to Best for Britain, a prominent anti-Brexit group: namely the tendency to end up running pretty much the same campaign as the one they lost in 2016.

Its strategy so far consists of convening high-flying former government figures (Tony Blair, Peter Mandelson), civil servants (an array of outraged permanent secretaries), scions of major institutions (Mark Malloch Brown, formerly deputy secretary-general of the United Nations) and now big cats of finance (Soros), attempting to unravel the messy threads of Brexit.

Not for the first time in his career Soros is a chiaroscuro figure. Admirable, because his family’s persecution as Jews in 1940s Hungary means the fate of the UK as place of welcome and openness matter to him. He has fought doggedly for progressive values in Hungary and other countries with chauvinistic leaderships through the work of his Open Society Foundations and the Central European University in Budapest.

To argue that Britain is important to you because you “have a house in London” is one of those things global elites say without realising quite how irksome it sounds

But his arguments against Brexit show the peculiar tone-deafness to the implications of super-wealthy folk piling cash into movements that are supposed to be crowdfunded (the clue is in the name). To argue that Britain is important to you because you “have a house in London” is one of those things global elites say without realising quite how irksome it sounds. Soros concludes that a new referendum would need to show “Britain’s attitude towards Europe has fundamentally changed”. Yet he also believes the tipping point needs to be reached in the next six months. It is, to put it mildly, a big ask.

More patient advocates of a think-again strategy suggest waiting until the EU and Britain have decided what a deal would mean in practice. That would be the more logical point at which to vote again — but it would also make it far harder to unpick.

I can’t see a neat solution. But whatever the Remain campaign’s strategy is, it needs to be careful not to end up fronted and funded primarily by the super-wealthy and 21st-century equivalents of the Whigs, all meeting in the same salons with wealthy patrons footing the bill.

Some of the strongest voices opposing Brexit in the North-East are those, like Sedgefield MP Phil Wilson, who are working doggedly at persuading constituents to think again — and trying to make sense out of the sophistry of Labour’s Brexitology. Faced with the Corbynite call for membership of “a customs union” (rather than opting to stay in one that exists), Wilson observes that the party risks “reinventing the wheel, only to find it’s not as round as the one we had”.

Any campaign to move hearts and minds will have to work tirelessly, and unhysterically, and choose its moments to oppose with care, not spleen. To miss the anti-elite message of one referendum is unfortunate, to court the same problem twice does not look like a winning strategy.

  • Anne McElvoy is senior editor at The Economist