A pinch of salt

14 April 2017

For years, I have seen the chances of successful Article 50 negotiations as less than 50-50: by December we should know. Call this the realism of a Leaver. On Good Friday, however, we turn to the Remainers' commitment to woe.


It’s a mug’s game to attribute psychological distress to political adversaries: first, the professionals themselves get it laughably wrong; second, most of us aren’t professionals; and third, it embraces the worst of ad hominem. Even so, over the next half-year or so, expect Remainers to roll out all sorts of ostensibly political analyses, making most sense as illuminating their mood-swings. So to what has come to be the customary lens for viewing Remainer attitudes, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s “seven stages of grief”: (1) shock, (2) denial, (3) anger, (4) bargaining, (5) guilt, (6) depression and (7) acceptance. Me, I’d say that Ms Kübler-Ross has earned her keep in illuminating the emotional odyssey of Remainers - friends, political figures, the media. In particular, three of her stages, denial, anger and depression, cast much light on ill-judged forecasts from their quarter.

Denial  After the referendum we heard several - how best to characterise them? eruptions of dismay. These included:

1. Parliament will reverse the referendum result.

2. An economic collapse will cause the voters to experience “buyer’s remorse”.

3. The UK can't assemble the skills to negotiate.

4. Boris will disgrace himself.

5. May's government will split.

All of this ends up mistaken with just one or two residual echoes: Lords Heseltine and Mandelson are leading a crew to promote buyers’ remorse - tub-thumping stuff but not likely to come to much over the Article 50 period; and Johnson’s diplomatic ups and downs still attract critical hyperbole. Overall, however, these prospects have turned out so fanciful as to hurt their erstwhile proponents.

Anger  Here we should distinguish between anger as a personal style - hot words, cancelled invitations - and anger as a Kübler-Ross stage, with a couple of angry prophesies still in the air.

6 The vote opens the door to a descent into racism.

We do not have records for the current year, but the trend was already on the up: there were 62,518 hate crime offences recorded in 2015/16 in England and Wales compared to 52,465 the previous year. Despite excitable anecdotes since the referendum, we can see that Britons continue to rub along, with (for example) contained public and private responses to the recent Westminster killings.

7 Those objecting to immigration levels are bound to be disappointed as it is economically essential or for other reasons unstoppable.

Here it is too soon to be certain about the outcome, but the principle is clear: whatever the numbers, they will be a consequence of UK decisions.

Depression  Five gloomy notions prevail - all too often tricked out with palpable Schadenfreude - but with the first four now so hard to believe as once again to rob their exponents of a reputation for judgement.

8.  The EU holds all the negotiating cards.

9.  No one will want to negotiate FTAs with us.

10. The WTO won't cooperate with us.

11. If there is no transition there will be chaos.

Brussels has too many problems of its own to act the bully it usually is with third parties. Indeed, the Treasury sees Tusk’s guidelines as surprisingly positive, with a roadmap to withdrawal and transition agreements and a bridge to a full FTA. Meanwhile, many countries have declared their wish to deal with us promptly and the advent of Trump has made the WTO even keener to push things along. Those making arguments to the contrary show up once again as misery merchants.

Now to the final theme of despond.

12   There will be chaos anyway.

If so, this would certainly be worrisome but the issue never comes that clearly into focus: are we to worry about queues at Dover, empty supermarket shelves, lost public revenues, or busted private balance sheets? Regardless, we hear that HMRC is all over the border issues, engaging briskly with its counterparts across the Channel. Admittedly, they are not helped by simultaneously introducing new clearance systems. Even so, a combo of additional resources and temporary forbearance should do the trick.


Leavers should grant Remainers every right to fight their corner - strut their stuff on the Today programme, corral High Tables, haunt the Lobbies. By the same token, the outlook of Remainers fairly attracts scrutiny, to test if still tethered to one of Kübler-Ross’s seven stages, if still so deranged by grief as to qualify for a pinch of salt. Remainers are one hundred percent right to spot that May’s timetable is punishing: before a 2020 election she needs Brexit which “means Brexit”, ie, minimal EU survivals, no chaos and maybe a trophy deal. No question that this is challenging: HMG must balance Tusk’s opening helpfulness with his expectations of ECJ jurisdiction, freedom of movement and financial contributions beyond 2020. This is a big ask. But if Remainers insist that it demolishes Brexit, others less parti pris may take comfort from the post-referendum record of those opposing its result: so far their distress has consistently trumped their judgement.