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How to win at Brexit (2)

It looks as if Simon Usherwood was asked the same question I was: How to win at Brexit.

My answer would begin by taking a step back and loving the bomb.


Winning at Brexit is the wrong question. The goal is winning at life. Winning Brexit is simply the best way to do that, but by no means the only way.

Incidentally, this shows how singularly unsuited I am to frontline campaigning. That’s more of a job for people who think the next vote is the most important thing that’s ever happened.

I think the first step towards winning at life (Brexit-wise) is to think about abortion rights in America.

In the United States today, you couldn’t find a pro-choice conservative with two hands and a flashlight. But that hasn’t always been the case. Just look at Roe v. Wade itself. Among the seven Justices in the majority, surely Chief Justice Burger counts as a conservative, while fellow Nixon appointee Harry Blackmun actually wrote the opinion for the Court. Even 20 years later, when the currently controlling case of Planned Parenthood v. Casey came out, the plurality opion was a joint effort by centre-right Justices like Sandra Day O’Connor and Anthony Kennedy on the one hand, and left-ish Bush appointee David Souter on the other hand. So where have all the pro-choice Republicans gone?

While I’m no expert in this field, my understanding is that the answer is broadly twofold: Some pro-choice Republicans, particularly the “Rockefeller Republicans“, have become Democrats during the (3rd way) Clinton era. Others have adjusted their views on abortion so that they fit better in the Republican herd. This is not just a matter of Republican politicians saying what they think their core constituency want to hear. As much as we don’t like to think of ourselves that way, people are sheep who like conformity. If all our peers, the people that we compare ourselves to, are pro-life, we will tend to copy that stance regardless of where we started out.

But of course, that works both ways. This “mirroring” only works to the extent that we have inherent affinity for these peers. (Otherwise they wouldn’t be peers.) There has to be a shared group identity for this to occur. And that’s exactly the purpose of using wedge issues: to manipulate the groups that people identify with, so that they will conform their views in one way rather than another.

So where have the pro-EU Tories gone? As far as anyone can tell, there’s Ken Clarke, and then no one. But surely all the others who stood with Margaret Thatcher in the 1970s to fight for the EU against the Eurosceptic socialists haven’t all joined the LibDems or Tony Blair’s Labour party? They must still be out there.


But how could we persuade them to speak up in favour of the EU? (Which may or may not mean against Brexit. It could simply mean against leaving the Single Market. Being picky in your choice of allies is not helpful.)

By the logic above, we would have to separate them from the Conservative herd. For example through appropriate use of wedge issues.

Conveniently, there is no shortage of those since Mrs. May has taken office. In her determination to compete with UKIP for votes, she has left herself exposed on her centrist flank. In terms of electoral politics, that is smart, because neither tovarich Corbyn nor Tim Farron – bless him – will take those voters away from her. But when it comes to wider politics, this presents an opportunity.

An obvious example is Nissan. What did the government promise them to persuade them to stay? Giving money to big businesses but not SMEs can’t possibly be popular among the centre-right. Andrew Tyrie, the powerful (and scary) chair of the Treasury Select Committee, is already asking questions, and he should be supported as much as possible.

More generally, every other word out of the Remain side’s mouth should be “crony capitalism”. (Yes, I know that that’s two words.) I cannot recommend enough the recent blog post by George Peretz and Kelyn Bacon on the blog of the UK State Aid Law Association, exploring state aid law post-Brexit. If the goal is to bring the pro-business, libertarian-leaning part of the Tory party over to a place where they can be sympathetic towards the EU, we need to push the narrative of the EU as the UK’s last best hope against a government that hands out billions of taxpayer money to whoever lobbies most effectively.

With Nissan as an example, that cannot be a difficult story to tell.

The second half of this same story is Mrs. May’s industrial strategy, which she has helpfully failed to define so far. As long as no one knows what it is, there is no reason why it should not be framed as another handout to British business, favouring jobs for the boys over genuine competition. Again, that cannot possibly be a hard sell.

None of this will stop Brexit. Because of the same mechanism discussed before, the sides will harden not soften. The more you talk to Leavers about how stupid Leave is, the more convinced they will be that you are an idiot/stooge/not-their-kind-of-person. There will not be a massive swing in popular opinion, no matter how bad the economy goes. (Conveniently, economic growth comes without a counterfactual. So it’s impossible to prove that someone [cough] Osborne [cough] ran the economy into the ground.) Tory MPs will vote Leave because they’re afraid of being deselected, Labour MPs will vote Leave if they represent Leave constituencies, as many of them do, and Peers will vote Leave because they’re afraid of the Strathclyde review.

The only way to win is to frame this as a conversation about something other than Brexit, and to accept that Brexit may be involved. Remember: if the UK Brexits, they can always come back in. (That’s in art. 50 too.) And even if they don’t, defeating the Trumps, Farages and LePens of this world is more important than Brexit.

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