Here are two quotes about Brexit. I will tell you whom they are from, but try to guess the date.
The first is from the European Union’s Brexit negotiator, Guy Verhofstadt: “Brexit will now happen. . . . The EU must now focus on building a new close, fair and lasting partnership with Britain. It is in our common interest.”
The second quotation is from the U.K.’s former Conservative deputy prime minister and fanatical pro-EU campaigner, Lord Michael Heseltine. “We’ve lost. We have to face up to that. We’re going to leave the European Union.”
Neither statement is in itself remarkable. The sole remarkable point is the date of each of these statements. Neither was issued on June 24, 2016, the day after the British people voted in a referendum by a majority to leave the European Union. The first quote — from Verhofstadt — was tweeted out on December 13, 2019. The second — from Heseltine — comes from an interview he gave on December 14 of the same year. That is, both came in the immediate aftermath of Boris Johnson’s huge 80-seat-majority win in the British general election of December 12, 2019.
In most regards the result of that election has caused unalloyed celebration for people on the political right. It is not only that the Conservative party now has a parliamentary majority larger than at any other time since Margaret Thatcher. Nor is the joy occasioned only by a Labour loss worse than at any other point since 1935. Perhaps the biggest joy — or relief — for those in the political center as well as the right is the fact that Jeremy Corbyn and the movement he briefly created may now be confined to the dustbins of political history. Corbyn never came close to power. But for someone who has spent his life emboldening anti-Jewish racists of every stripe and whose political beliefs are predictable solely by the question of how anti-Western a thing is, Corbyn got nearer to power than he ever should have done. The memory should cause shudders and reflection across British politics for some time to come.
So in most regards December’s election result presents an opportunity for celebration. But the one cloud on the horizon comes from remarks like those of Verhofstadt and Heseltine: The regretful whisper of what might have been.
Over the last three and a half years, the British political class — and the wider culture — tore itself apart over the issue of Brexit. As I have written here before, this had one main cause, which was that an establishment (I do not say “the” establishment) decided not to accept the verdict of the British public. That establishment never believed the referendum vote would go against them, were vitriolically opposed to it once it happened, and spent three and a half years doing everything they could to prevent that vote from being implemented.
Throughout that time we heard from the media, from lawyers, from rich businessmen and -women, from distinguished parliamentarians and former prime ministers from both main parties, that there was something wrong with the answer the British public had given to the question asked in 2016. These figures said that the referendum had been a mere advisory vote that could be safely ignored. Or they said that it had been so close (52 percent to 48 percent) that it didn’t really count as a winning vote. Or they said that the Russians had caused it (recognize that?). These and a hundred other reasons were run through.
Panjandrums such as Tony Blair’s loathed former spin doctor, Alastair Campbell, pretended that what was needed was a second vote. They named this the campaign for a “People’s Vote” (as though we could not possibly see what they were doing there), all so that the public could “correct” their earlier obvious mistake. These and a hundred other tricks were tried on the British public. And there was worse.
Tony Blair, John Major, Michael Heseltine, and others might have spent the last three years helping their country. They might have helped secure the best possible deal between the U.K. and the EU when the two parted ways. Such men, along with our former EU commissioners, such as Blair’s former right-hand man Peter Mandelson, might have been exceedingly useful during this process. Instead they did something else. Like a whole slew of the Remain establishment in the U.K., most of them actually worked with Brussels to conspire against Britain: to thwart Britain’s attempts to exit the EU. They warned Brussels of what the Brits would do. They told Brussels how to outmaneuver us. And much more. Some even asked them to punish us. All to ensure that what the British public had asked for at the ballot box in 2016 was not acted on.
Like the Brussels negotiators, they kept this up right until December 12, 2019. Just before this election, Michael Heseltine joined that group of Conservatives and former Conservatives who had become so infuriated by Brexit that they urged supporters to vote Liberal Democrat (the only party that said it would keep the U.K. in the EU even if the public reiterated in a further vote that they wanted out). In television appearances throughout the post-referendum years, Heseltine gave interviews so increasingly vitriolic, bulging-eyed, and spittle-flecked that he seemed at times to resemble a leftist impersonator doing crass impressions of an especially virulent and hate-filled Tory.
Guy Verhofstadt, perhaps less surprisingly, took an only slightly less spittle-flecked route. In the years since the Brexit referendum he has repeatedly taken the side of — and amplified the voices of — any and all British politicians and activists who have tried to thwart Brexit. Why he would do so is in itself not that obvious. After all, if Britain was always a slightly uncomfortable presence at the EU table, how much more uncomfortable would it have been if it had been there only because it had been forced to be there, or tricked into being there, by former politicians from Westminster and Brussels? In any case, right up until the day of this latest election, Verhofstadt was still on social media, urging people in the U.K. to vote Liberal Democrat so that Britain would be made to remain in the EU.
Perhaps all of these people — wherever they have come from — have just spent too long in Brussels. For in Brussels, it should be remembered, votes do not always count for very much.
In 2005, when the French public were given a vote on whether they wanted to accept the ratification of the new EU constitution, they voted “Non” by 55 percent. They got it anyway. In the same year, the Dutch public were asked whether they would accept that constitution. They voted “Tegen” (“Against”) by 61 percent. They got it anyway. Other countries across the EU that were going to hold votes canceled them after these unforeseen eruptions of democracy. In 2008 the Irish public were offered a chance to vote on whether they wanted to accept the Lisbon Treaty, which bound the countries of the European Union ever closer together. They said “No” by 53 percent. But that was the wrong answer. So a year later the Irish government and the authorities in Brussels conspired to go back to them with almost exactly the same question, though better framed, and got them to approve it this time. The Irish were made to vote until they came back with the right answer.
So it is understandable, perhaps, that Verhofstadt (a former prime minister of Belgium) would be used to getting his way, even though it may seem — certainly from an American standpoint — quite extraordinary that a Belgian politician should be able to swing any weight farther than Wallonia. But there we are. EU politicians had become used to the idea that when the European publics said “No,” they really meant “Yes.” Or could be ignored. Or made to say “Yes.”
Well, it turns out that they underestimated the British.
This general election included many issues. The main parties all released long and detailed manifestos and made long and serious speeches. But the election was called only because the post-2017 Parliament was so filled with “remainer” MPs (including many no longer representing the party their electorates had voted them in under) that Parliament was unable to pass any legislation and was reduced to having debates about debates and discussions about language. Under two prime ministers (Theresa May and then Boris Johnson), that deadwood, minority Parliament had shown itself incapable of coming to any agreement on how to get Britain out of the EU.
And so Boris Johnson managed to get Parliament dissolved and went to the country saying that a vote for the Conservatives at this election was a vote to “get Brexit done” — a vote to leave the EU, with or without a deal, by January 31, 2020, and a vote to then move on as a country. It was a positive message, one that turned out to resonate not just among Conservatives but across the happily now former Labour heartlands of the north of England that had voted “Leave” in such great numbers in 2016. It effectively was a second referendum, and it delivered Johnson a resounding mandate.
Three and a half good years have been wasted. The public has learned an awful lot of things along the way. But Britain is ready to get going again. And perhaps Brussels has also learned something: that a vote still means something to the British public, and that trying to go against what we decide at the ballot box is something we regard as fundamentally undemocratic, distinctly un-British, and, in the final analysis, really not fair play.