When Theresa May called the UK General Election on 18th April, her speech was all about Brexit and how the election was necessary in light of that. You can read the whole thing here, but a few quotes give the idea. “Division in Westminster will risk our ability to make a success of Brexit and it will cause damaging uncertainty and instability to the country,” she said. “[…] let us put forward our plans for Brexit and our alternative programmes for government and then let the people decide.”
Thing is that is not actually what has happened.
First of all, this election has proven not to be a re-run of the Brexit referendum – even though views about the EU have stayed very stable since the referendum, admittedly with some switchers in both directions. Don’t get me wrong – May was very clear it should not be a referendum re-run – but it is important to underline that how the election campaign has unfolded so far does show some kind of moving on from last year.
One of the problems that Tim Farron and the Liberal Democrats have faced is that they seem to have not moved on from the referendum and are being punished for it, a point Martin Kettle makes in this decent column for The Guardian. The demand for a second referendum on the final deal makes sense if you think about it, but it does not resonate considering what else has been happening in the election campaign, and the reason for that lies with the other parties, not Farron and the Liberal Democrats themselves.
Before coming to the specifics of this election campaign, it should not be forgotten that the way voters approach referendums and a general election are different. In the UK this difference is exacerbated by the First Past the Post election system – that means individuals have to make all kinds of compromises in how they cast their vote. Some people will vote for the least worst candidate, others will vote with their hearts. Some will weigh up many different factors, for others one issue will decide their vote.
So to this specific election. Even if Brexit could have become a major factor, it would not have been in a neat manner. The rise of so-called ‘Re-Leavers’ (FT, €) – people who voted Remain in 2016, but now think the UK has to go through with Brexit – make up something like a fifth of the electorate. For these people how Brexit could be handled, and whether that is done well or badly, would be the question. Even among solid Remain voters from last year the issue can be complicated, because if these people live in Tory-Labour marginals there is no point voting Lib Dem. Other issues – like the NHS or education – may win out over Brexit issues in voters minds, and in a General Election that is completely understandable. The Leave-Remain cleavage does not map across to party politics in an election campaign.
The problem as I see it is the delusions about Brexit that date from the referendum campaign last year – and specifically on how swiftly and easily Brexit could actually be done – are playing out here. If you look at The Guardian’s interviews with a cross section of voters in March 2017, many state that it is time to get on with the job, time to get moving with the Brexit process. The same goes for the idiots who mounted racist attacks after the referendum – they thought it was referendum done, problem solved, and could not understand why the subjects of their hate were still around. If it was unclear at the time of heightened interest in exit from the EU that the process would be long and complex, then there is no hope voters will now better understand the complexity and length of the exit process.
The problem is that the thing is it is not done. It is not even close to done. We are not even at the start of getting it done. And indeed the General Election campaign has almost forced the Brexit process into a lull, forced the EU side to wait, making it even harder to get anything done. But that suits the UK – for now.
Into that lull the Tories have put soundbites about Brexit, but actually nothing concrete. They talk of how Theresa May is the only one who can secure a successful Brexit, but they have no detail about what a successful Brexit will look like or how achievable it is, probably because there is actually no such thing as a successful Brexit. As I wrote earlier in the week the Tories have no Brexit plan (even though they talk as if they have one), and indeed at this stage before negotiations start they do not even need one – in public anyway. The UK’s waffle and belligerence on the matter of leaving the EU has not yet come up against the cold, hard wall of reality that will hit it in the negotiations – it will only do so after the General Election.
To put it another way, this election is both too late and too early to be a proper Brexit election. Too late in that it is adequately far after the referendum to mean that temperatures have cooled a little – thanks at least in part due to a solid media consensus backing the Conservatives’ position and urging everyone to move on. It is simultaneously too early in that the negotiations are yet to start, so an assessment of how bad things may get cannot yet be concluded, and before Brexit really has an economic impact (although that seems to be starting).
Add into that the media’s difficulty getting a grip on Brexit issues for the referendum itself (that has persisted), the deliberately vacuous nature of the Leave campaign at the time (some of the rhetoric of a brighter future after Brexit having been retained), that most leaders of Leave have left frontline politics, and that the divisive nature of Brexit within the Labour Party that has led them to barely talk about Brexit, and you have a recipe for discussion about the UK’s exit being stuck at a very general, vague, imprecise level.
Sometime – and indeed sometime soon as the Article 50 clock is ticking – Brexit will begin to hurt. Trade-offs will have to be made as to what to retain of the EU system and what to ditch. When costs of leaving the Single Market or the Customs Union start to mount, someone is going to have to foot those bills – who will be the winners and losers in that process? For there will be losers too, not that anyone really speaks of those for now. When UK ministers find themselves politically marginalised and woefully under prepared in the negotiations, and the UK media starts to scream, there will be political pain as well.
But you do not win elections with a fair assessment of the pain and trade-offs to come. And if the opposition is incapable of pointing those out in the campaign, or the media is loathe to cover the headaches ahead, you end up where the UK currently finds itself: with a Brexit election that cannot really be about Brexit.