Labour must say it out loud: Brexit needs to be reversed

In Northern Ireland, the Leavers’ folly is now manifest. How can the opposition stay silent about the root cause of the crisis?

‘He did not want to die until Brexit was reversed.” These words were spoken at the funeral last week of my dear friend and former Observer colleague Dick Leonard.

Dick died a month ago at the ripe old age of 90. The speaker was his widow, Irène Heidelberger-Leonard, before a group of mourners who included the Labour leader Keir Starmer, to whom Dick had been something of a political mentor.

Dick’s devotion to the European cause was such that he jeopardised his political career – he was parliamentary private secretary to the Labour cabinet minister Anthony Crosland from 1970 to 1974 – when he joined 68 other Labour rebels, led by Roy Jenkins, in voting in 1971 in favour of joining the European community, against Labour policy at the time. Yes, Labour’s attitude towards what is now the EU has always been a rollercoaster ride, and here we go again, with prominent Labour politicians lamely accepting a Brexit that is manifestly a disaster and needs to be reversed.

Why, even that prominent culprit and architect of the lying Leave campaign appeared to be having second thoughts about it all in his BBC Two interview last week. “Is Brexit a good idea? No one on Earth knows,” averred the shameless Dominic Cummings. Indeed, said the prime minister’s former best friend, it was perhaps “perfectly reasonable to say Brexit was a mistake”.

I’ll say it is perfectly reasonable. Many of us here on Earth know that only too well. But Cummings – almost indicating that in delivering Brexit for Johnson he was merely acting in the capacity of a hired mercenary – also told us that anyone convinced that Brexit was a good thing must “have a screw loose”.

The media are now replete daily with disaster stories. The Northern Ireland “protocol” is unworkable. The egregious Brexit minister Lord Frost makes this country a laughing stock every time he says the deal that the UK signed up to – for the short-term political convenience of Johnson – should be renegotiated on the grounds that the EU is being – wait for it – unreasonable! He calls to mind the Groucho Marx quip: “These are my principles. And if you don’t like them … well, I have others.”

One begins to wonder whether Cummings now thinks that, on top of all the other well-publicised prime ministerial gaffes, the chaos of Brexit may contribute to Johnson’s downfall – a significant signpost being the way “freedom day” on 19 July swiftly turned into fiasco day in the same week that the Northern Ireland crisis became wholly manifest. In the former case it did not need footballers to embarrass the government: just the chief executive of Marks & Spencer.

But back to my late friend Dick Leonard, with whom I often worked covering European matters when he was based in Brussels. Many of the problems brought about by the Brexiters might have been avoided if they had consulted the invaluable guides to the EU he jointly wrote for the Economist and later the publishers Routledge. In the 2016 edition of The Routledge Guide to the European Union, the authors – Dick and another EU expert, Robert Taylor – observed of the impending UK referendum: “Not everybody would accept that it would be a ‘win-win’ situation for both Britain and the EU if voters choose to remain, but it will assuredly be a lose-lose one if they decide to quit.”

If the Brexiters had consulted the guide, they could have discovered what the customs union and the single market actually were, and what making the crass decision to abandon the hard-won privileges of membership would entail (privileges won, in the case of the single market, not least by their ostensible political heroine Margaret Thatcher). It beggars belief that, after the deed was done and the cabinet Brexiters were faced with reality, they had to have both institutions explained to them by our former ambassador to the EU, Sir Ivan Rogers.

Alas, as that astute observer Denis MacShane – a former Labour minister for Europe – recently pointed out, “Johnson needs a permanent war with the EU to prove that the Battle of Brexit is not over”. This in the name of a country that went to war in 1939 to save Europe, and whose prime minister, Winston Churchill, even proposed, in 1940, what would have in effect been a political union of the UK and France.

Above all, says MacShane – who probably coined the term Brexit and certainly forecast the result of the referendum – Johnson “wants the main opposition, Labour, to say nothing about Brexit”.

But the time has assuredly come, and those words of our friend Dick Leonard’s widow – “he did not want to die until Brexit was reversed” – will, I hope, stiffen Starmer’s resolve.

Contributor

William Keegan

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Brexit’s Mr Pooter may not survive his dispute with Cummings
Boris Johnson and his former aide are locked in a relationship that is still having damaging consequences for all of us

William Keegan

02, May, 2021 @6:00 AM

Article image
Johnson can now deliver a ‘Brexit in name only’. Will he?
If the PM were the one nation Tory he claims to be, he would – and should – choose to keep Britain aligned with the EU

William Keegan

12, Jan, 2020 @7:00 AM

Article image
Relegation’s too good for Boris Johnson and his team of Brexit fantasists | William Keegan
England’s football clubs may be of Champions League quality, but the current political debacle reveals our politicians are not

William Keegan

16, May, 2021 @6:00 AM

Article image
A Labour budget will not need Brexit. It will need growth | William Keegan
Corbyn’s determination to free the UK from what he sees as the EU’s shackles would actually be damaging to the party’s cause

William Keegan

10, Feb, 2019 @7:00 AM

Article image
Cummings’s state aid is scarcely a substitute for EU trade
Loss of access, loss of wealth, loss of face: even Thatcher would not have inflicted something like Brexit on Britain

William Keegan

20, Sep, 2020 @6:00 AM

Article image
Corbyn’s destructive ambiguity on Brexit has failed | William Keegan
The consensus around Labour’s Euroscepticism is collapsing. The party must change its stance radically, and urgently

William Keegan

02, Jun, 2019 @6:00 AM

Article image
‘Global Britain’ badly needs a new driver at the wheel | William Keegan
The UK’s feebleness abroad and supply-chain problems at home show how absurd the Brexiters’ dream of a transformed nation was

William Keegan

22, Aug, 2021 @6:00 AM

Article image
Suez taught us our future lay in Europe. So will Brexit
Britain’s two great self-inflicted crises of the postwar era point to a conclusion that voters may soon rediscover for themselves

William Keegan

17, Oct, 2021 @6:00 AM

Article image
Cummings’s humility comes all too late for Brexit Britain | William Keegan
The relationship between PM and adviser did not collapse soon enough to save us from the damage caused by leaving the EU

William Keegan

30, May, 2021 @6:00 AM

Article image
Johnson’s foreign quarrels can’t conceal the truth about Brexit
Fishing rows notwithstanding, much of Europe looks on at the UK’s plight with astonishment – and even, still, sympathy

William Keegan

31, Oct, 2021 @7:00 AM