As the tragi-comedy that is Brexit limps into its third act, the plot has grown increasingly bewildering and the main characters have almost to a man and woman deserted the stage.
Five minutes into scene one “matinee bone idle” Nigel Farage tossed the script over his shoulder, jaunted off into the (right) wings, lit a Rothman and has been there ever since – heckling the other performers. His Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Carswell and Reckless, may not be dead but what little influence they exert on the story arc is limited to their muffled Twitter soliloquys and the ears of their ill-fated spouses.
Even the spear carriers of the official Vote Leave campaign have barely departed the green room since June 2016. Matthew Elliott pops up every now and then to ask “what news of Lord Lawson in his villa in the South of France?” But the rest of the troupe, from Dominic Cummings to Gisela “I want to be alone” Stuart have all buggered off home and put their feet up with a nice mug of Horlicks.
The perpetually entertained David ‘two lunches’ Davis, may be enjoying himself on centre stage but he’s alone in it and this fool lacks the depths of Lear’s. As the disgraced family entertainer Liam Fox and the charmless Boris Johnson pace the empty boards and the punch-drunk audience shuffle from arse-cheek to arse-cheek, the inescapable truth dawns – there’s no interval, no exit, no end in sight and everyone is making it all up as they go along.
This is why I don’t go to watch devised theatre any more. It’s boring. And Brexit now is at its heart just that - fundamentally boring. Boring, boring, boring. Article 50 is boring and so is article 49. I don’t know what the other 356 articles in the Lisbon Treaty say but the one thing I can absolutely guarantee is that they are boring. Theresa May is boring. Peter Bone is boring. The Great Repeal Bill has been rebranded the EU Withdrawal Bill but it doesn’t matter what it is called. It’s boring. B.R.E.X.I.T – spells – B.O.R.I.N.G.
British voters have much in common with British audiences – quite probably because they are the same people and the British people are fickle. Brexit was not conventional politics it was interactive drama in which the public was invited, X-Factor-like, to pronounce final judgement on the performances. The electorate, caught up in the moment, spoke – and in their wisdom they chose Pudsey the dog - for all eternity. In the lull since – many have wondered what they were drinking that night and vowed never to touch it again.
There’s an opportunity here. In stark contrast to the sinking UKIP/Brexit ship and despite having next to no money and little or establishment support, the Remain mood is thriving. The movement has shown incredible stamina over the last 15 months. From the online presence to the huge marches in London, Manchester and elsewhere, support has remained steadfast and seems unlikely to go anywhere any time soon.
People's March For Europe, London, September 9, 2017. (Photograph: David Holt)
But a movement cannot be built on protest and Twitter alone. It’s all very well to march down the street shouting “Stop Brexit” - in order to achieve that aim there needs to be a clear strategy and to do that we must look not simply at how the referendum was lost, but how Leave managed to win.
Though it pains me to say it, both Leave campaigns were in their own way brilliant. Much has been written about Cambridge Analytica and alleged Russian foul play but all that aside, it is undeniable that Leave played a blinder. While Remain was tying itself in knots trying to explain dreary things like the ‘crucial importance of the EU to our economy and future prosperity’ or the joys of mobile roaming tariffs to voters in Sunderland, Leave kept their message very simple indeed. They concentrated on three clear messages: mass uncontrolled immigration, the tangential concept of “sovereignty” and all that lovely money that could be spent elsewhere.
All three strands were based on a mountain of rancid bullshit – but it didn’t matter. Leave were masters of grabbing the headlines, of making the story all about them. From the ridiculous Fishing flotilla to the Bucks Fizz Concert for Brexit (that never happened), they had a knack for dropping dead cats left right and centre and labelling every sane warning the other side threw at them as “Project Fear.” This last tactic worked particularly well, because most people are understandably not that interested in details or complex facts or numbers and just want the bottom line. Being able to brand uncomfortable truths and likely outcomes “Project Fear” weaponised even the most ill-informed Brexiteer.
As for Nigel Farage, the educated Remoan classes underestimated his appeal, largely because they didn’t understand it. Farage might be a monumental bell-end but he is undoubtedly a true populist figure. He knows what buttons to press and he doesn’t give a monkey’s arse for truth. A Brexit lie gets half way around the British Isles before the fact checkers have got their laptops powered up. Nigel has spent two decades perfecting his stand-up act and is very good at it. He’s a confident and assured performer. People often ask why Farage is always invited onto Question Time, the answer is very simple – he is good television.
Remain has no such figure. Flotillas, ridiculous stunts and crappy concerts are similarly not their style. But the greatest Remain weakness is a lack of a clear strategy and a unified brand.
There is a clock ticking. The UK is set on a course to leave the European Union in March 2019 and if the scattered saboteurs are to succeed in fighting a rear guard action we need to get the message out and get the message across.
With this in mind I have come up with a 5-point plan. It is most certainly not definitive – but I put it here in the hope that it might start a “conversation” as to where we head next.
The Remoaner’s Manifesto:
1. Clear goals.
It is not enough to “resist Brexit” - Remain must hammer out a clear strategy. That goal should be a second referendum on the outcome of May’s negotiations. Herodutus told how the Persians came to a decision by first voting on it drunk and a second time after sober reflection. In June 2016, the nation got well and truly pissed and it seems only reasonable to hold that second ballot now the Ibuprofen and black coffee have kicked in.
2. Take the fight to the enemy.
I don’t think the UK needs “another party” but candidates standing on a Remain ticket in next year’s Metropolitan Council and Mayoral elections (and any by-elections) would put enormous pressure on the government and Labour – particularly in strong Remain areas (see Lewisham). If May or Corbyn were to suffer at the ballot box it would certainly focus their minds.
3. Be more Farage.
The Remain camp prides itself on facts and being on the right side of history, but that is not enough. We need more pazzaz, more headlines and preferably a box office friendly face.
4. Keep it simple.
The importance of the UK’s relationship with the EU is only now really beginning to dawn on people. As the pound falls further, as Brexit ennui sets in, as Theresa May falters and as reality bites, the mood will continue to swing against Brexit and people need to know that there is a way out.
5. Don’t shut up.
Don’t shut up online, at home, in the office or on the bus. The very last thing we should do is to ‘move on.’🔷