Shortly, after the 2016 EU referendum result, a friend was in touch with an Italian colleague. “And I thought we were the crazies!” was all he had to say. As an Italian with contacts all over the western world, he was well used to being mocked for belonging to a nation with a long history of corrupt and unstable government. At this point, the Italians still held the distinction of appointing to high office a man uniquely unsuitable to the role: convicted fraudster and all-round embarrassment Silvio Berlusconi. I guess many an Italian was relieved when, just a few months later, the USA ran away with that particular prize.
If a sophisticated, worldly-wise Italian was shocked and bemused by the referendum result, what on earth could be going through the minds of similar, well-informed French, Germans, Dutch and so forth, who, although often with turbulent or shameful periods in their national histories, had forged a stable and peaceful half-century plus of open, liberal democracy built around shared cultural and political values, as exemplified by the project we now call the EU. For, after all, didn’t the Brits already have the best of both worlds? Having ungratefully pocketed all the benefits of being a member of the greatest free trading bloc on the planet, the UK had successfully negotiated a whole series of exemptions and opt-outs. These, in effect, give Britain the most bespoke terms of EU membership – in all but name. Had no British politician or leader in the previous 43 years spelled this out? Well, it’s obvious now: the answer is “no”.
And so, to the outside world, the United Kingdom, bastion of stability, often leader in human rights and the rule of law, had acted in a way which made no sense whatsoever. A sufficient minority (37%) of the electorate had led to a small majority (52-48%) of votes cast to make a giant leap into: what? The referendum, as worded and in the context of the most disgraceful campaign of my lifetime (Project Lies v Project Fear) was the stupidest idea any British Prime Minister has come up with in my lifetime. David Cameron hoped to settle a long-running dispute between a small faction of irrational irreconcilables and most of his party by holding a referendum which simply asked a stupid question. He very quickly found that referendums never solve anything: they just make things worse.
Come Fly With Me
The referendum question was the intellectual equivalent of the following scenario – but with much, much more serious consequences.
A group of 100 tourists is taken to an airport by some figure who asserts his authority over them. He gives them all a choice. “We can all stay here or we can all catch the same flight to somewhere else I can’t tell you where that will be, nor can I describe what it’s like there. But, believe me, it will be much better than here. You can all vote, simple majority wins, abstentions ignored”. 37 vote to leave, 34 to stay and 29 don’t bother to express a preference. So, off they all fly, to – where exactly?
Ask a silly question… So, was our Italian friend right to think we, as a country, were crazy?
The Real Crazies
To the last question, I would answer: “no, not really”. But, in our midst, specifically in the Conservative Parliamentary Party, there are some real crazies. Current estimates put their numbers at about 35. Most of them really believe that the EU acts as a constraint on British enterprise and that there is a Golden Dawn out there in British Empire 2.0. This belief ignores evidence: a 2% to 8% drop in national income outside the single market / customs union (the sharper the break, the bigger the fall). Any trade deal with China or the USA will be strictly on terms to their advantage and carry real health risks (antibiotics in beef, chlorinated chicken). And the most optimistic estimate is that new trade deals with all feasible countries outside the EU would replace only 1% of the 2-8% lost. And what about all the existing trade deals the EU has with non-EU countries: it’s far from clear they will be “rolled over” on transition day in 13 months’ time.
The chief Crazy of Crazies, the capo di tutti capi, is that thin bloke from Wiltshire. I won’t name him, but he takes being out of touch with reality to a new level of surrealist art form. He’s tipped to win any leadership competition amongst Tory Party members – now rumoured to be about 70,000, with over half aged 65 and over. Tories refuse to publish any membership information since 2013. Compare that with Labour’s more youthful 570,000 – or even the 400,000 Tory members in 1997. So the Tories are vulnerable to entryism – and so the threat of the crazies must be removed.
Most of the other crazies are variations on George Orwell’s sheep in Animal Farm: they never got beyond “private sector good, public sector bad”. That would include a pair of particularly dim-witted women (Andrea Loathsome and “Mad Nad “ Dorries) . Plus of course, Liam Fox, a true believer whose breach of the ministerial code when Defence Secretary should have banned him from high office for life.
Which brings us to the last two significant crazies: Johnson and Gove. Just as Donald Trump only makes sense reimagined as a 3 year old trapped in a man’s body, so Johnson is a 4 year old who speaks Latin. No one has ever been sure whether he is sincere in his dislike of the EU, since his narcissism and naked ambition are the only driving forces. Gove is much harder to read – and so more dangerous. He all-but destroyed accountability in education and he is said to be playing “the long game”.
So be very, very afraid! With “nanny changes nappies” Piltdown Man, loose cannon Johnson and who-knows what Gove contending for the top job, our utmost priority is to stop them all.
So How’s May Doing?
In short, awfully. Cameron’s weakness and recklessness gave way to May’s weakness, lack of respect on the world stage. I’ve spoken before of her obsessive secrecy and failure to gain the trust of others. We’ve wasted the best part of two years on dithering around the phase one terms and a recent 2-day “war cabinet” (why “war”?) made it all too clear the cabinet, as presently constituted, will never be able to reach agreement on the UK’s position for post-2019 or 2021.
Strange to say, I actually want the Tory Party to survive as a credible possible future government. May must act decisively to rid herself of the 35 or so crazies who continue to tear the party apart – and who are still making all the running. If her famous dogged survival instincts mean anything, she must face up to the real enemies of the people: Paul Dacre, Rupert Murdoch (both must die soon: perhaps the shock will kill them both!), the non-domiciled owners of the Express and Telegraph. (None will be too happy and the fightback will be brutal.) But there are plenty of sane Tories willing to sit down with Labour and SNP MPs, review the evidence dispassionately and present proposals to parliament. The “vision” thing, i.e. what kind of country do we want to be, won’t come from May: she has no talent for such a role. But a group of cross-party non-crazies might just save us from a cabal of Tory fanatics from pulling the whole edifice down around our heads. (Assuming the roof of the Commons chamber doesn’t fall in first!)