Though we don’t normally cover opinion pieces in this rebuttal column, a recent piece by Polly Toynbee in the Guardian seemed notable both for the prominence of its writer and its synthesis of a large number of strands in the Remain argument. Though there are various arguments advanced that we’ve dealt with in other pieces, one in particular seemed worth addressing given that it’s cropped up elsewhere – the idea that voters are either pro- remain/rejoin, or that public opinion hasn’t changed (thus Toynbee).
Yet according to the most recent polling, the numbers have changed significantly, with leave/stay outside now commanding a narrow lead over remain/rejoin. Interestingly, this change has come at the expense of pro-European sentiment rather than the positive embrace of Brexit – leave/stay out only increased 3 points from 38% to 41%, where remain/rejoin plummeted 8 from 47% to 39%, with the remaining decrease sucked up by ‘would not vote’ and ‘don’t know’.
This in turn suggests interesting potential shifts in public opinion. Partly, some of this will simply be preference for the status quo – the last YouGov polls were taken during the transition period. Partly, too, it will be the temporary effect of a successful vaccine programme. But one suspects the movement towards ‘don’t know’ and ‘won’t vote’ may be more enduring. A sizeable portion of pro-EU sentiment was idealistic, nourished on a vision of the EU as a benevolent, liberal bloc working towards the noble goals of prosperity, harmony and unity.
There was always a tension between this vision and the line that Britain would be punished for leaving the EU, given many Remain supporters’ idealisation of the bloc’s strength. Yet it could be reconciled by seeing Britain (and particularly Brexit-voters) as deserving this misery, and by the natural human capacity for doublethink. As the Cambridge academic Helen Thompson has suggested, such doublethink is a more general feature of engagement with the EU, including on the Leave side and in other EU states.
In this context, the combination of base protectionism and incompetence the EU has displayed over the last few weeks weakens both sides of the paradox. The EU’s threats over vaccines make it seem pathetic when irreplaceable ingredients for European vaccine production come from British plants. Bans on exports to foreign countries, and reckless invocations of Article 16 of the Northern Irish Protocol, make it look mean. The UK’s refusal to openly threaten the EU in return only rubs salt in the wound.
These self-inflicted injuries to the EU’s standing here are more likely to be enduring than if the UK gains a temporary boost from vaccine success. Former Remainers may not be able to bring themselves to support Brexit in the polls, but the disillusionment of pro-European voices will ironically ease the ‘healing’ process Remainers used to trumpet. Repairing the damage from Europe’s side will take skillful PR, constructive engagement with the UK and a broader moral foreign policy. Thus far, Europe’s leaders seem incapable of delivering any of this.