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

‘He did not want to die until Brexi was reversed.” These words were spoken at the funeral last week of my dear friend and former Waarnemer 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 aan 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. Inderdaad, 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. Die Noord-Ierland “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 die 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.

Helaas, 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, Arbeid, 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.

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