Devizes for EU, the non-partisan group campaigning to maintain the UK’s membership of the EU, organised an event in Marlborough Town Hall on 3 October. Despite the lack of coverage in the local press the hall was packed.
Elinor Goodman and the unconvincing Brexit Deal
Introducing the evening, Elinor Goodman, formerly political editor for Channel Four News, said that she suspected that ‘no deal’ was the most likely outcome even though Boris Johnston had claimed that he was committed to securing a deal and that the government had made concessions for that purpose. She pointed out that, in ordinary times, securing a negotiated withdrawal ought to help a government in a general election campaign.
But in today’s extraordinary times, it seemed probable to her that Mr Johnston believed that an even better electoral tactic would be to blame others for preventing a deal: the House of Commons, the European Union, the UK’s Supreme Court – anybody other than the government itself. This would allow him to characterise the election as a battle between the people and the elites.
“More like a pantomime dame than a prime minister”
In thinking about his intentions, Elinor Goodman was struck by Boris Johnson’s sudden change in tone. Abandoning the confrontational style of the previous week, he sought now to be conciliatory. It seemed to her to be far too abrupt a change to be convincing. The new Boris was much more like a pantomime dame than a real prime minister.
In the absence of a deal by 19 October, she expected Mr Johnston to refuse to write the letter requesting an extension even though such a letter had been mandated by the Benn Act. If he refused, it would presumably bring him into conflict with the Supreme Court. Perhaps the Speaker of the House of Commons could sign the letter on the prime minister’s behalf.
Two questions remain: General election or second referendum?
Where does this leave us? Two questions for both speakers. How would the Tories fare in a general election? National trends in voting intentions were difficult to interpret. They might in any case be misleading for an election in which opinions rooted locally could prove decisive in determining the casting of votes. The second question was where in this chaos did a second referendum fit in?
Stephen Dorrell “Democracy is a conversation not an event”
First up was Stephen Dorrell, Chair of the European Movement UK. He spoke about his personal motivation. He had been a member of the Conservative Party for 49 years, a Conservative MP for 36, and a Cabinet minister under John Major. Yet he had been a candidate for Change UK in the2019 European elections. He remained committed to what he called the ‘radical centre’ of British politics, an area occupied by members of different parties but which until recently had included Conservatives. He hinted he now inclined towards the Liberal Democrats.
The referendum in June 2016 was “an historic mistake” and Stephen Dorrell was committed to reversing it. In no sense could this be described as anti-democratic. “Democracy,” he said, “was a conversation not an event.” That fact justified a people’s vote. The people should be allowed to decide. Westminster had shown that it could not.
Stephen Dorrell said that it also mattered that what is now on offer – whether deal or no deal – is not what was on promised in 2016. Leaving the EU was supposed to be straightforward and easy. Clearly it was neither. The government should explain this. Instead it was driving relentlessly towards a no deal outcome. Furthermore the government’s current position was very different from the one adopted by Mrs May in the aftermath of the 2016 referendum. She had worked to secure a deal with no deal only as a fall back. By contrast Mr Johnston claimed to be determined to take the UK out of the EU on 31 October with or without a deal. He needed to justify this change in approach.
Finally Stephen Dorrell reminded his listeners that, in leaving the EU, the UK would be erecting barriers to trade. The movement of goods, services, and people between the UK and continental Europe would be far from frictionless. This was the first time since 1945 that a nation had turned the clock back in this way. “We have to hold a second referendum to discover whether this is the outcome that people really want.”
Caroline Voaden “Walking away is not the answer. It’s absurd.”
Caroline Voaden, recently elected Member of the European Parliament for the UK’s south-west region, said that she had joined the Liberal Democrats on the day after the 2016 referendum. At that time the south-west was heavily Brexit-minded but her home town (Totnes) was a “bubble of Remain”.
She touched briefly on climate change, explaining the effectiveness of the European Parliament’s environmental committee in usually reaching a consensus notwithstanding policy differences. Her experience of Brussels had underlined the essentially democratic character of the European institutions. She said that she was delighted that the president-elect of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, had committed to a ‘green deal’ within her first hundred days.
What had also struck her was the way that the European Union held its member states to account. It is an organisation that is able to accommodate quite wide differences of opinion. The idea that walking away from the EU was the answer to any of the challenges the UK confronts was absurd.
Questions then flowed from a capacity audience.
If you we’re unable to ask your question we would love to hear it. Send it in to contact(at)devizesforeu.uk and we can then share the Q and A in a future blog.
Author: Stephen Stacey Photographs: Leila Searight