We need a two pronged approach to Brexit

Theresa May’s travails suggest we may be close to a breakthrough on Brexit, but we need a new strategy. Normally if you’re making progress, your strategy is working, but something different is required for the final push. Let me explain.

There’s only one way to make sense of Brexit, and that’s to realise that it has nothing to do with the UK leaving the European Union. Or only peripherally. How else does one explain a situation that is already making Britain poorer, hitting hardest those keenest on being out of the EU? How else does one explain the vehemence with which anti-EU views are held, and the ease with which the supposed facts underlying this vehemence can so easily be discredited? And where will we go when we’ve left the EU but the very things the Leavers voted for – primarily lower immigration and greater sovereignty – just don’t happen?

Brexit is largely a protest. Not exclusively – there are some reasonable people who believe we’d be better off outside the EU (though the ones I’ve met have a fairly garbled understanding of how much sovereignty the EU actually has), and the future of the EU is itself somewhat hazy. But Brexit is Britain’s version of the rust belt revolt, a revolt partly based on genuine hardship, and partly motivated by how things seem. Traditional sources of work have gone, workers in eastern Europe and the developing world are paid a pittance to undercut British workers, immigration is out of control such that you can’t get to see your doctor but those who speak a different language have no difficulty, and the shop you knew in your childhood as a hard-working grocer’s is now a delicatessen run by someone from abroad. Oh and those City-types in London are doing rather too well for themselves.

It doesn’t matter how much of this is true. The fact that it seems to be true is enough. Add the growth of social media that allows the spread of views that go unchallenged, plus the relentless anti-Europe bombardment from certain tabloids, and even the most cogent anti-Brexit arguments fail to dent many people’s visceral commitment to it.

The result is that if Brexit implodes and we end up not leaving the EU, there will be masses of anger against the liberal elite, which could create a very dangerous situation. And in electoral terms, the result of an exit from Brexit could be an even bigger backlash against the Liberal Democrats than we suffered in 2015. Getting a referendum which we then win (and getting it may prove easier than winning it) won’t be enough to see off this anger. Somehow we have to separate membership of the EU from the sense vast swathes of Britain’s rust belt have that no-one is listening to them.

The key is to make Brexit a two-pronged policy, or deal: a programme of regeneration allied to staying in the EU.

The content is important: the reinstatement of many of the public services that have been cut, a programme to build more surgeries, schools and SureStart centres, a genuine helping hand with securing a viable roof over one’s head, money for local government to provide the statutory services that people in distress rely on, etc.

But more important is that the link between this regeneration programme and staying in the EU must be made, emphasised, stressed, re-stressed, and made so clear that the 17 million who voted Leave and then see their victory disintegrate actually get something from their support for Brexit.

In short, if we’re going to succeed in an exit from Brexit, EU membership must be uncoupled from the anger and disillusionment that led to Brexit. That will require some binding commitments, in which those who have done best – and will continue to profit from our EU membership – end up paying for this regeneration, and are seen to be paying for it.

Anti-Brexit arguments alone will not do it for us. People will need to see that the reward for abandoning their iconic Brexit will be the gain of some tangible benefits, and presenting those benefits in a way that doesn’t come across as patronising won’t be easy. But there are times when people need saving from themselves, and we’ve seen enough evidence of how Brexit will hit the poorest hardest to know that we have to embrace the challenge of releasing ourselves from Brexit in tandem with seriously addressing the causes of the divisions at the heart of British society.

* Chris Bowers is a two-term district councillor and four-time parliamentary candidate. He writes on cross-party cooperation and in 2021 was the lead author of the New Liberal Manifesto.

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  • Chris,
    I can only agree with you Brexit is a manifestation of anger, fear and a misguided exceptionalism. These feelings needed a target and that became the EU. Most brave Brexiteers have not a clue what they voted for or have actually voted for the exact oppersite of what they will get ( Lexiteers and their ilk). The problem is the Brexit they will get is not the day dream they voted for. Now their disappointment may be aimed at the EU but that will be water of a ducks back, eventually it will need another scape goat it may be remainers but they tend to be young, scape goating the old is as likely. What a sad situation we are in, why did anyone vote for this mess.

  • Adrian Wykes 15th Jul '18 - 9:36am

    Good point – more police, schools and doctors, care reform and local services. EU and ECB dividends.

  • John Marriott 15th Jul '18 - 10:35am

    How many MORE angles can you find on the Brexit debate? As my German colleagues used to say; “Abwarten und Tee trinken”.

  • Peter Martin 15th Jul '18 - 10:54am

    If this article is anything to go by, I’d say LibDems are getting a better understanding of the problem. Maybe just a few years too late though?

    “Anti-Brexit arguments alone will not do it for us. People will need to see that the reward for abandoning their iconic Brexit will be the gain of some tangible benefits, and presenting those benefits in a way that doesn’t come across as patronising won’t be easy”

    Given the neoliberal/ordoliberal nature of the EU which is run by people with the same economic views as our friend Arnold Kiel, I’d say it was just about impossible!

    “But there are times when people need saving from themselves….”

    What was that you were saying about not being patronisisng?

  • Bill le Breton 15th Jul '18 - 11:15am

    Here is the sand on which we build our castle:

    On “no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain”:
    Agree: 51%
    Disagree: 20%
    via @OpiniumResearch

    This piece above, as indeed were the thoughts the other day of Layla, is based on the belief that a ‘no deal’ situation is inconceivable.

    I fear we are waiting at a bus stop for a service that has been discontinued.

    This belief itself makes ‘no deal’ more likely. And squanders the chances of the Party contributing to the realisation of an EEA/EFTA deal.

  • Peter Martin 15th Jul '18 - 11:33am

    @ Bill,

    I’m always sceptical of these polls. What do people understand “no deal” to mean?

    Leave under WTO terms? Remain in the EU under our present terms? Remain in the EU under new “Treaty of Versailles” terms? Keep Negotiating for a better deal?

    In principle, it’s hard for anyone to disagree with this statement. Walking away from a bad deal is what we do in our own lives on an everyday basis.

  • William Fowler 15th Jul '18 - 11:48am

    The first problem is that people won’t believe promises from politicians so you have do all this stuff plus the extra taxation to fund it before you have a second vote. Timelines makes that unlikely.

    The second problem is that people want less government interference in their lives not more, hence voting for Brexit removes a whole layer of the political class and an endless parade of largely senseless laws.

    The only take that may work with the voters is to tell them that they are not getting any power back, it is the UK politicians who are getting more back and they will have less recourse to protection once we exit.

    As I suspected, though, business will cobble something together to keep running whilst individuals will lose freedom of movement except if they have lots of dosh when they will get some kinda settlement visa (so Boris and friends can still have their villas in the sun).

  • Personally, I just don’t support the EU as a concept. But for more flexible voters you could try going old school and offer to put more pounds in their pockets or something. More dosh always has the edge over other concerns. Sort of financial populism.

  • Bill le Breton 15th Jul '18 - 12:46pm

    Peter – ok, but it gives an idea of the relative ease with which the case for no deal can be made.

    This is of concern to opponents of Chequers and all points East of Chequers (i.e. softer). Which itself is of concern to May and the present Cabinet.

    If she/they thought there was a chance of winning a majority for some point East of Chequers eg on CU and SM it would influence EU27 and future Labour policy.

    It also helps to keep our Party united on reaction to the final deal, which could be more important than present belief (that at some point Art 50 will be withdrawn and Exit from Brexit will occur) suggests is an issue.

  • John Laband 15th Jul '18 - 1:58pm

    Try closing the gap between rich and less well off. This is the root of all our social problems but the gap has widened under the Tories as expected and not helped by years of austerity from the coalition. Do something about the drastic underfunding of the infrastructure of our regions. Eg. The whole SW region gets 6% of the transport spending. An English parliament.

  • Sue Sutherland 15th Jul '18 - 2:08pm

    Chris, of course we must do this and make the connection between the two prongs very clear.

  • Sean Hyland 15th Jul '18 - 2:37pm

    I, as did 30% of Lib Dem voters, voted to leave. I know why I voted how i did but can’t speak for the others reasons. My vote had absolutely nothing to do with immigration/ free movement or stupid fake promises on sides of buses. Did Vote Leave fail to follow the rules – possibly, but there are those who would have you believe the Remain campaign are not squeaky clean either.

    If I’m going to blame anyone for lack of services, schools, housing etc i am more likely to blame the policies of the present government, the coalition, and previous Labour government and vote accordingly in general and local elections. If someone is willing to uproot themselves and their family to work in the UK in a range of professions and jobs then good on them and I welcome their contribution to our society. I couldn’t care less who runs the local shop but welcome the fact we still have one. Did these factors contribute to others reasons for voting – yes and that needs to be challenged and addressed.

    I voted against what I perceived to be the democratic deficit in the EU and it’s future political direction. In particular i was concerned about the move to ever closer political union that will be needed to protect the Euro project. I looked to the Remain campaign to see what they had to say but they seemed to believe that all is sweetness and light in EU land. Frankie’s unicorns, rainbows, and fairy dust would also find a home here.

    I have no problem with the campaign to exit from brexit or for a people’s vote – we live in a democracy and nothing should ever be set in stone. If someone accepted all is not rosy and proposed some serious clear policies to address people’s concerns on the EU deficiencies I would even join the campaign. I do object to the patronising statement that I need saving from myself or that decisions need making to protect the poor. Makes a change from being called an ancient thick racist though.

  • John Roffey 15th Jul '18 - 3:05pm

    I must say I find it very difficult to see how the Party, with just 12 seats in the HofC, can profit in anyway by continuing to engage in the Brexit debate – after taking the stand they have – which is bound to have antagonised a huge section of the electorate.

    Focusing its MPs energies on something else – almost anything else – seems the most likely way to improve the Party’s popularity.

  • I think you have missed out a vital prong – reducing economic migration across the EU. This means having policies to reform the EU to do this. I suggest three ways – increasing the money countries pay into the EU to spend more in regional aid (and ensuring businesses are encouraged to be setup in the least strong economic areas) to reduce the pressure on people to move for economic reasons; allowing EU countries to restrict migration from the most economic depressed areas compared to their own economy (perhaps not allowing speculative migration looking for work and/or ensuring no job can be advertised outside of the country that the job is in until it has been advertised for 4 weeks in that country); and reforming the Stability and Growth Pact to allow larger government budget deficits and making having an equal unemployment rate across the Euro zone one of its principle aims.

    Also included in the domestic reforms should be a commitment to restore full employment and the aim of getting regional living wages into law at 70% of regional average wages

    It also might be a good idea to make the Council of Ministers clearly responsible to the national Parliaments, only allowing ministers to vote for new laws once their national Parliament has voted for them.

  • Richard Underhill 15th Jul '18 - 3:43pm

    Sean Hyland: Did you write in your diary that you had considered supply chains in the motor industry and the effect of country of origin certificates?
    John Roffey: We are not alone in saying that the government is shambolic. We have an increase in membership of pro-Europeans. We must not let them down.

  • Sean thank you for sharing your “Personal Brexit” how unfortunate for you that you are likely to achieve none of your aims. Why you ask will I fail, well shall we begin

    “I voted against what I perceived to be the democratic deficit in the EU and it’s future political direction.” unfortunately for you Brexit achieved the opposite of breaking the EU it actually increased the EU’s popularity. ”

    “It is, however, striking to look at the actual support there is for EU membership within the member countries. The latest polling from the Eurobarometer survey, published in May, highlights the fact that two-thirds of Europeans believe their country has benefited from being a member of the EU; the highest number for 35 years. ”


    It also lead to calls for further political union.

    Perhaps you can console yourself with the thought at least we are free, alas it would appear not if Mrs May’s plan is successful

    “But as I returned home, my earlier doubts resurfaced. This plan neither allows us to receive the economic benefits of being fully inside the EU’s trade perimeter nor will it give us the freedom to market ourselves independently to the rest of the world. It is a halfway house that will leave us hanging by a thread, subject to the EU’s rules – whatever they are in future – with no say in their formulation.”


    Alas all you have voted for is to remove what ever influence we had and to reduce us to a rule taker. Tis sad but true.

    John Roffrey,

    Alas Brexit consumes all, just look at the roasting poor Mr Corbyn got when he concentrated on buses. Like it or not for the foreseeable future Brexit will dominate the airways and politics.

  • Graham Evans 15th Jul '18 - 3:52pm

    It is probably too late to save depressed Leave voting areas from the consequences of their decision. Were it not for FPTP we would probably head the same way as Italy has, but the impact in the UK on all existing political structures and parties, other than niche parties like the Greens, is impossible to predict. The reality is that the country is fundamentally split and it may be a couple of generations before the situation resolves itself.

  • nvelope2003 15th Jul '18 - 4:53pm

    I am not sure we need more schools. It is what goes on inside the existing ones that is the problem. I rarely have any difficulty in getting an appointment when I need to see a doctor but as they keep telling me I should not leave it so long perhaps that is the reason. When I do go I am usually the only person of native British extraction there.

  • People need to learn deference to globalisation, rather than contempt. That is the real reason for Brexit, Trump, Corbyn and Sanders.

  • Sean Hyland 15th Jul '18 - 5:57pm

    Frankie i have no ” personal brexit” so have nothing to gain or lose. I was asked to make a choice when I voted so I did. If nothing changes in the EU so be it and it can carry on its way. If people want to vote to exit from brexit or later vote to rejoin so be it. It’s up to people to campaign, make the argument and persuade people of the validity of their point of view.

    Richard Underhill i don’t keep a diary so nothing written down. Didn’t consider motor industry supply chain or country of origin certificates – why should I? Nobody made the case for them either – don’t recall them or their importance from the Remain campaign either.

  • Sean,

    But they did make the argument you chose not to listen or to be charitable it was drowned out by the chanting of “Project Fear” at all the warnings.

    Though Brexit may be one of the most contentious referendums in recent memory, the effect it would have on supply chains and global volatility is impossible to ignore.

    In the event that voters are in favour of leaving the EU, the UK will enter a two-year period of negotiation on the exit terms.

    The event of a member nation leaving the EU is entirely unprecedented, meaning the reaction of member states is entirely uncertain.

    The remaining members could decide to be accommodating and keep open trading relations, but it is more likely that they would take a tough stance on the UK in order to discourage any other waverers from leaving and precipitating a breakup of the whole union.


    The fact that you and the majority of Brexiteers failed to pay heed to the warnings is I’m afraid no defence. If you make an important decision a little due diligence helps, bleating afterwards “I didn’t know” doesn’t.

  • Rob Parsons 15th Jul '18 - 6:56pm

    Frankie: “it is more likely that they would take a tough stance on the UK in order to discourage any other waverers from leaving”

    I think one of the problems here is that Brexiters have won the battle over language as they have won so many other battles. Almost everybody couches their descriptions of the EU in terms of them being an enemy. They are not, and there is no need for them to encourage other member states – the popularity of the EU has improved almsot everywhere within it a shown in one of the comments above.

    All they are doing is sticking to what is best for them. They have no responsibility to consider what is best for Britain; that is for our politicians to do. The fact that our politicians are making a right mess of it makes no difference to the responsibilities of the EU’s negotiators. All they have been doing since day 1 is telling us calmly and clearly that the four freedoms are indivisible.

    “OK, then, we want A, b and C.”

    “The four freedoms are indivisible.”

    “All right then, we want B, C and D.”

    “The four freedoms are indivisible.”

    “OK then, this is our final offer, we want C, D and E.”

    “The four freedoms are indivisible.”

    “Well, what about D, E and F?”

    That is not bullying, as so many people have called it. It is more like an adult being patient with a toddler having tantrums.

  • Sean Hyland 15th Jul '18 - 7:18pm

    frankie, no regrets and no bleating. Remain failed to persuade me – accept the consequences of my actions whatever they may eventually be. Hope you are right that all is sweetness and light and perfect in EU land. If so you may eventually persuade me to change my mind.

  • Sean Hyland 15th Jul '18 - 7:19pm

    Meant i accept the consequences of my actions.

  • Little Jackie Paper 15th Jul '18 - 9:33pm

    It is a very good article.

    Probably a decade late in the principle it talks about, but still a very good article.

  • Rob,
    That was a quote from the article I linked too, I should have put “” around it. I don’t think the EU is our enemy, I just think ( unlike the Brexiteer) they will do what is good for them; and given the bad hand we have while it will suit the EU it is unlikely to lead to the Unicorn inhabitted sunlit uplands the Brexiteers dream of. Still as time goes by reality is hard on Brexiteers already they are badly split between the “realist and the “unicornist”. Reduced to finding enemies to blame with hard times ahead and still no plan. This will not end well, how sad they brought this mess upon us.

  • @ Frankie

    I notice that you didn’t link to the European Commission report only to a letter in the Independent which talks of an Eurobarmeter survey but doesn’t provide a link or address. I wonder how accurate it was (even if I could find it) when the letter write tells us that 43% of British people think EU membership is a good thing compared to 23% who think it a bad thing!

    However, I found an Eurobarmeter survey for March 2018 (the latest I could find) and they asked:

    Do you trust the EU?
    All 28 – tend to trust 42%; tend not to trust 48%
    UK – tend to trust 30%; tend not to trust 57%

    What is your opinion of free movement of EU citizen?
    UK – For 72%; Against 21%

    They also asked loaded questions such as which of the following do you think is the most positive result of the EU?

    Maybe it was a push poll or the people surveyed are not representative – 61% in the UK said more decisions should be made at the EU level on securing energy supply!

    (http://ec.europa.eu/commfrontoffice/publicopinion/index.cfm/Survey/getSurveyDetail/instruments/STANDARD/surveyKy/2180 annex for data)

  • Peter Farrell-Vinay 15th Jul '18 - 11:23pm

    Stick and carrot:

    Stick – Brexit causes employers to flee the country. Hasn’t happened yet. By the time they do the worst will have happened, but “project fear” accusations will be dialled down.

    Carrot – social programmes that Attlee would envy.

    Strategy does not mean just having a plan but having a plan which copes with the opponent’s actions.

    Possible actions: accusing LibDems of bribing the poor, of being ready to turn off the financial tap as soon as Brexit is rejected, of having no plan to lure employers back.

  • My view is that we need a concerted effort by the government, media, civil society and individuals to become a more educated society as far as politics is concerned. We need to more easily forge consensus across the country as to what is in our best interests. There is still plenty of space for controversy but on major constitutional and other issues such as foreign policy and defence we need much more common ground as to what as a nation we need and want.

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