I wasn’t going to say what I’m about to say in this article. I was going to remain silent on this topic. Yet the combination of Remainers on Twitter putting out some variant of “Want a People’s Vote before a general election, please” and the visible, public melting of the People’s Vote campaign itself has spurred me into action.
The People’s Vote spat this week seems to revolve around two senior members of the campaign, Tom Baldwin and James McGrory, attempting to be edged out and a resistance against this taking place. Baldwin was Ed Miliband’s “spin doctor”; a highly competent political operator, and before you mention the words “bacon sandwich”, I will point out that even Versace could only do so much with a pig as a model. McGrory was the media SpAd for the Lib Dems during in the coalition years, and before you mention “tuition fees”, James managed to drum up a hell of a lot of useful media lines for the party starting from dire circumstances. Both are intelligent guys who know what they are doing; furthermore, they have worked in very difficult circumstances, trying to save lost causes, and are thus well equipped to be within the People’s Vote campaign, and a Remain campaign, should it occur.
Now, I haven’t spoken to either Tom nor James about this; I haven’t been in touch with anyone in the People’s Vote camp for months. What I’m about to surmise comes simply from my experience around the Remain campaign in 2015/16 (when I briefly worked for one of the Remain organisation in their “hub and spoke” model; briefly as it was a total clustershag) and before that, the Yes to AV campaign back in 2010/11.
What looks like is happening to the People’s Vote campaign is what happens to pretty much all liberal political campaigns in Britain: the grownups are pushed out of the room by incompetent, generally posh, wealthy men who are able to do so because they are closer to the money that funds the whole thing than anyone else. Liberal campaigns are almost always infected by wealthy chaps who imagine themselves as Britain’s Macron in waiting, and see the campaign not as a means to win whatever plebiscite is in question but as a way of boosting their egos. They get in their cronies in order to further their personal interests. And then the campaigns predictably crash and burn as everyone who is any good is either silenced or removed.
Again, I have no idea if this is what is happening within the People’s Vote campaign at present. But it sure smells like it from here.
This is relevant to those Remainers who see in a general election nothing but risk and a People’s Vote as salvation. I’ll take you back to 2016: the Remain campaign was a hopeless mix of well-meaning people trying to do their best amongst the wreckage that the campaign had become early on, when it was stuffed to the brim with New Labour flunkies who needed work, and those wealthy guys I mentioned screwing everything up completely. The Leave campaign was staffed with campaigning ninjas who managed to overturn the odds and win. It isn’t surprising in retrospect that they won. The analogy I would put forward here is, imagine you have 30 drunken guys outside of a pub looking for fight. Along come five ninjas. Yes, the drunks outnumber the ninjas, but the ninjas are still ninjas. They ruthlessly execute a coordinated plan while the drunks mostly batter one another as they lash out aimlessly.
Nothing suggests to me that a re-run would be any different. In fact, all of the stories coming from the People’s Vote campaign into the political media this week almost confirms for me how much of a re-run of 2016 it would probably turn out to be.
Imagine for one moment having a bitter, divisive EU referendum in 2020 with the Tories still in power – and Leave winning, again. That would be ugly beyond description. Look at the “Enemy of the People” shtick that came from the first Leave win; what would come from the second would be way worse. I don’t see how, at that point, we wouldn’t leave the EU with no deal, no matter how bad that turned out to be in practical terms.
Meanwhile, a general election contains way less risk. Even if the Tories win a majority, and for what it’s worth, I don’t think they will, that won’t be nearly as bad as Leave winning a second referendum. Johnson will get his Withdrawal Agreement Bill through the House and then have to do a trade deal with the EU while in transition, which will almost certainly be a disaster for him. Imagine, Johnson having to ask for extension after extension from the EU as the talks drag on and on, the Tories crashing in the polls as Farage beats them down over the airwaves. Okay, there are better futures to imagine, obviously, but this is the worst case scenario out of general election in the coming months. The best case scenario is that Brexit is stopped, preferably through revoking Article 50, but even if we have to have a second referendum, it will be handled way better after a general election. The Lib Dems, SNP and Labour could take charge of the thing from the top, each putting their best people into it. I would still worry about the result, but even if Leave won in that scenario, you’d have a centre-left government in place of some stripe that would go for a soft Brexit.
A People’s Vote sounds nicer than a general election to many Remainers. Take it from someone who has been to the front lines – this isn’t the war you want to fight right now.