Like the footballing truce in the trenches on Christmas Day, 1914, the outbreak of Brexit unity will be poignantly brief.
But for now, everyone who doesn’t share a Downing Street bedroom with an Arthur Askey doppelganger agrees this: that Theresa May’s proposal for a supposedly temporary, but effectively timeless, customs arrangement to circumvent the Irish border conundrum is stone dead.
Anyone trying to talk sense to her about this would have to borrow the template from Sydney Pollack’s agent giving Dustin Hoffman’s precious actor the brutal truth in Tootsie – “No one. Will. Hire. You!”
You’d start out all calm and reasonable, gently pointing out the plan’s universal unpopularity to the PM. But her rigid intransigence would crack you within 30 seconds, and you’d find yourself yelling: “No one will have it!”
“Are you telling me,” she might ask, “that no one in the European Research Group will accept it?”
“No, that’s too limiting,” you’d reply. “No one in Brussels or the EU27 will have it. Your Remainers won’t have it. Keir Starmer and the Labour opposition won’t have it. NO. ONE. WILL. HAVE. IT!”
And so almost 30 months after the first referendum, in the continuing absence of a plan with a prayer of getting past either the EU or parliament, there is at last genuine hope of a second referendum. It is still the underdog. On Betfair, a new vote before the end of 2020 is given a roughly 30 per cent chance. But instinct suggests that in reality it is closer to 40 per cent, and that one of various twists could make it favourite.
The least likely of these is that Starmer and other Labour frontbenchers will be able to pressure Jeremy Corbyn into a volte face. He made himself clear in his Der Spiegel interview by imperiously ignoring the agreed Labour policy against ruling out the second referendum. “We can’t stop it,” he said. “The referendum took place. Article 50 has been triggered. What we can do is recognise the reasons why people voted Leave.”
We can stop it, as he very well knows – and even if the result proved the same, we can certainly ask the question again. If we recognise that, among the reasons people voted Leave were bus slogan lies, and quite possibly misinformation funded by Russian money, then the democratic decencies demand that we do.
If Corbyn stated his case for Brexit with the fearless honesty for which he’s so often praised, not least by himself, his position would be easier to respect. Since he won’t, history will judge him for hiding his principled antipathy to the EU behind that wilful misinterpretation of the true meaning of the democratic will.
If he is determined to continue defying the wishes of a large majority of Labours members and voters, Starmer should prepare for a Jo Johnson moment. He made his disdain for Corbyn’s position plain today, concluding an article by observing that “no government has the right to plunge the country into chaos because of its own failure”. Implicitly, the same goes for an opposition with the power to speed a discernible shift in the national mood.
On this trajectory, assuming May intends to use the no-deal cataclysm as an instrument of blackmail, it won’t be long before Starmer must decide whether resignation is the only way to prioritise the needs of country over party. If he quit, the heightened sense of chaos would further narrow the odds against a second referendum.
But the most potentially powerful agent of change isn’t in Westminster. All it would take to burst the May-Corbyn dam of Brexit inevitability is a few hundred words of editorial comment.
If the Daily Mail, under its Remain-supporting new editor Geordie Greig, declared itself for a second referendum, its unrivalled ability to loosen Conservative bowels would heap irresistible pressure on May to reverse herself. The Independent launched a Final Say campaign which led to one of the biggest demonstrations in history last month. Now it’s time for the rest of the media to get behind it, no matter how unlikely it may seem. The Mail following suit would be the most sensational development in modern media-political history – and by going against the wishes of its readership, the bravest. Since there would have been no first referendum had the Mail not spent more than 30 years demonising the EU, it would also be the most ironic.
Already, by redirecting the paper’s guns away from the Tory Remainers and towards the ultras, Greig has played a part in altering the psychological mood. The idea of Rees-Mogg embracing the need to compromise, as he does today in an opinion piece, was unthinkable a month ago. Sensing the danger, Moggy and his gang of thugs are wobbling. Even if May privately isn’t, one Daily Mail leader arguing that there is no other effective democratic route to ending the impasse would surely shatter her resistance to a second vote.
Even in our inverted Bizarro World, it’s a bit of a shock to be looking to the Mail to protect Britain from the suicidal withdrawal into petty nationalism. But in proxy wars, as in real ones, you take your allies where you may.
Until now, the journalistic contribution to the debate has been dominated by Boris Johnson and Michael Gove. If Greig does for his paper what Jo Johnson has done for his family, and reclaims some of its honour, I reckon most of us would do the Jesus-like thing, and welcome the opening of heaven’s gates to a sinner that repenteth.