Many a pundit has asked: why have Brexiteers been so grumpy during a period when the country voted for what they had campaigned for decades to brig about, and during which we appear to be headed for Brexit without question? In other words, why have they been such sore winners? I think a big part of it is that, if only subconsciously, they realise that in the wake of the vote to Leave they soon made an error of epoch defining proportions.
On the morning of June 24th, 2016, as you all recall, David Cameron quit as prime minister. There was to be a leadership contest within the Conservative Party, one which would decide the next occupant of Number 10 along the way. Boris and Theresa May appeared to be the frontrunners. Then something unexpected happened – Michael Gove decided to run. This was a clear stab at Boris, who then withdrew from the race pretty sharpish. Brexiteers seemed angry at Gove for what he’d done. I figured given what was at stake and the Tory predilection for doing the pragmatic thing, they’d forgive Gove and throw their weight behind him. Instead, they did something really rather remarkably silly.
They decided to back Andrea Leadsom for the leadership. She then, again as you all remember, showed herself to not have the stomach for it pretty quickly and dropped out, leading to the coronation of Theresa May. The Eurosceptic wing of the Conservative Party, at the moment of their greatest triumph, had allowed a Remainer to become the leader without so much as a proper contest.
This was quickly deemed not to matter, as May came out as a reborn Brexiteer. And had she won that huge majority in June, I suppose they could have been cleared of any deep fault for having allowed May in. It’s a bit like in test cricket when you drop a very easy catch, only to get the same batsman out three balls and no runs later. Didn’t matter in the end, you got where you were going regardless. Sticking to the cricket analogy, the dropped catch that was not getting behind Gove now looks to be very costly, as the batsman glides past 50 and looks nailed on for a century.
Gove (or Boris, for that matter) almost certainly would have come out straight after becoming PM and announced a transitional deal would be sought after as first priority. As a prominent Leaver, he had the political capital to have said that leaving the EU was going to take time, but we would do it, step by easy step, ensuring that at no point would there be radical change. This would have had several positives to it: the negotiations with the EU would have had immediate focus on both sides; business would have been soothed that no radical cliff edge was ahead; perhaps most importantly from the perspective of the Tory Right, the public’s expectations on how long Brexit would take and what it would involve would have been correctly calibrated. I also don’t think we would have this “who is actually in charge of Brexit?” thing that’s been there since May took over (is it Number 10 directly? Why then have a department for Brexit alone? How does the FCO fit into it all exactly?), but that’s almost minor compared to everything else.
The only way that Brexit can truly be scuppered now is if it is such a monumental shower the British people want back in. It’s unlikely to happen in the short term, but long term wise, I don’t see why not. If we’ve ended up a satellite to the EU with an ever diminishing economy, the next generation, which was always more pro-EU to start with anyhow, might just move to get us back in the fold. Had someone like Gove made the transition painless, this probably would never have worked. As it is, it’s very possible. The Tory Right may have destroyed their ultimate project, all because they were a little irked at Michael Gove one particular week in the summer of 2016.