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Dream on, Donald, but let’s broaden the talks

Terry smiling headIs Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, really a dreamer, or could the UK change its mind about leaving the EU? Surely, a reversal of the decision taken a year ago is out of the question, though polls suggest the mood has changed. Britain seems to be grabbing its hat and coat while standing on the doorstep wondering if it really wants to leave the party.

There has been a deluge of comment and statistics to mark the first anniversary of the referendum. What the past 12 months have really produced is the campaign we never got in the first place. Shorn of the nonsense and scare-mongering that passed for a debate in the run-up to last year’s vote, we have had the semblance of a reasoned argument from both sides.

Yes, there has been a lot of huffing and puffing, wringing of hands, threats and warnings, but a debate of sorts has begun to emerge around some of the key points which were barely mentioned before we were all asked to cast our opinion on Britain’s future.

Just after last year’s referendum I wrote a piece for Daily Business and LinkedIn which said it was akin to asking a student to cram for an exam they did not expect to sit. All of us, including so-called experts, barely had a Scooby. The EU is a hugely complex institution and Britain’s relationship with it has been a mystery to most of us. Few are interested in it, let alone knowledgeable about how it works. To put Britain’s future relationship with it to a simple yes/no vote was, frankly, preposterous.

We all know what happened next. Markets crashed, the pound slumped (and remains low against other currencies), confidence slid and everyone began to fret about everything from employing migrant labour to affording a holiday on the Costa Del Sol.

It’s become a time-consuming diversion from all other matters.  It has divided the nation. It has caused the resignation of one Prime Minister and may be the cause of another. It has led to deep concern among EU nationals about their future rights to live in Britain and access services. Likewise, employers are worried they will not be able to hire the workers they need. Big companies have either threatened to leave, or sought assurances that they will not be impacted by a loss of regulation, subsidies and tariff agreements.

If all these concerns had been raised before 23 June last year – instead of ludicrous claims about NHS funding and migrants denying work to British citizens – then maybe the result would have been a little different.

Is it too late for a re-think? Well, they do say that “where there’s a will there’s a way”. It would be hugely embarrassing, although the UK is already the laughing stock of the world for the government’s handling of the referendum, its failure to produce a clear plan and Mrs May’s empty rhetoric.

Even if it were possible for a second referendum it could only be a realistic prospect if the Conservative government falls. Despite the lack of clarity, Mrs May and her ministers are in too deeply to pull back. Their careers would be over. While they cling to power they will not change course. Brexit really will mean Brexit.

Of course, the government could fall apart. We are only days into a shaky administration with no guarantee it can achieve a working majority in the Commons.

Mrs May made a big mistake calling the general election, at least as far as her own power base and credentials are concerned. She weakened rather than strengthened her hand.

The general election, however, has produced one positive result. While Mrs May lost her command of the House she must now take account of a broader range of opinion.

She should go further and embrace a cross-party approach by setting up a Brexit Commission drawing on talents and expertise in business, academia, community groups and elsewhere.

This would ensure that whatever the outcome of the talks it is one that represents broader opinion in Britain and not just the one-eyed view of the Conservative party which has not enjoyed its finest hour.

 

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