This has, so far, been the year of the underdog: Leicester won the Premiership, Hibernian the Scottish Cup, Portugal the European Football Championship, and the Leave camp the greatest bloodless political coup since the Glorious Revolution of 1688. This triumph of democracy has engendered a real sense of optimism and renewal. Unfortunately, things by their nature have a habit of returning to their mean.
Leicester might find it tough to replicate this season’s success; Hibs might wait another 114 years to win that cup again; Portugal will in all probability have to wait for a long while to win another international football trophy. And Leavers might well have to follow rather closely those whose task it is to deliver on Brexit.
It was a combination of the British electorate’s innate sense of optimism and deep-seated scepticism that delivered the thundering victory for Leave. These traits must be carried into the next phase of the withdrawal from the EU. Indeed, while the country’s majority rejoices at the multitudes of possibilities that have opened up, the sudden metamorphosis of hundreds of MPs from Remaining caterpillars into Leaving butterflies should lead to a few raised eyebrows.
“Brexit means Brexit” says our newly minted Prime Minister. With Boris Johnson, Liam Fox and David Davis in prominent positions, we dare to dream.
However, the sceptical reader cannot be sure about what the pledge truly means. Davis is starting to put some red meat on the bone. A timetable for exit is starting to take shape. But without the benefit of a leadership contest in the ruling party, we have had no real opportunity to understand the competing visions for our country’s future outside the EU. Neither do we have the tools to benchmark politicians against their own promises.
In the current circumstances, the public has no real insight into their new leader and what her plans are. They have even less of an idea about how she will cope under pressure. Mrs May didn’t choose to win without a contest. However, it is always advisable to give the top job to a person after a comprehensive interview process, in competition with others. She might well be great – and she seems to have started well – but we can’t be sure.
In the cold light of day, with fruits of endless possibilities within reach, it must be noted that there is a person, who campaigned to Remain, untested in the crucible of a leadership contest or general election campaign, leading overwhelmingly pro-EU Houses of Parliament to an ill-defined Brexit.
The wider public is asked to trust politicians. And with the three Brexit musketeers in charge of foreign affairs, trade and the EU, there is hope that this trust might well be repaid. Be that as it may, we are asked to believe that all the MPs who now call themselves Brexiteers really had a deep conversion to Brexit on the road to the Shires, the North and South.
To a sceptic, this looks nearly too good to be true. Already, readers will be hearing about the terrible complexity of future negotiations which will have to take place. The chancellor Philip Hammond reinforced the feeling by saying that the UK might not be able to leave the EU until 2022. Given the preponderance of Remainers in Cabinet, such claims could well become walls behind which the powerful and exhilarating Leave movement is quietly suffocated at the expert hands of our practised Sir Humphreys, for whom Brexit has always been anathema.
For Remainers, this opacity could well be the chance to dilute the will of the people to nothingness. The EU’s single most effective weapon is the relentlessness of its engine and the cynicism that drives it.
The first half of this year has given romantics and sceptics alike something to cheer about. It is imperative that the second half of 2016 and beyond is not remembered for the ruthless slaying of the hope and aspirations of millions. May seems to have heeded the call with some grace. But we must remember that in this life the big print giveth and the small print taketh away.
If we are all Brexiteers now, we must have the means to gauge what is being done in our name. This implies the creation of a structure to keep a friendly pressure on our leaders to make sure we can understand clearly what Brexit implies and how it is going to be delivered as efficiently as possible. This suggests the creation of a shadow negotiation team to provide a helpful benchmark against which the broader population can judge the quality of the official Brexit delivery. Without it, we can expect a slow reversion to the mean. And allowing that to happen would be a dereliction of duty.