Fighting byelections or Brexit, the rule is the same: don’t give up

Voters can spring surprises at any time. This is not a time for Remainers to despair. It is never time for that

During the closing stages of Margaret Thatcher’s premiership, I said to the Conservative MP John Biffen: “I think Mrs Thatcher must be suffering.”

This was surprising, coming from such a long-term critic of Thatcherism as myself, but so was the reply from Biffen, a former member of her cabinet and also, for years, her leader of the Commons. “Yes,” he replied, “but is she suffering enough?”

Biffen was strongly opposed to the poll tax – a proposal for local authority taxation which would apply the same rate to rich and poor – general opposition to which eventually contributed to Thatcher’s fall from power in 1990.

Biffen was also MP for the Oswestry constituency, which later became North Shropshire. North Shropshire is in the news. A solid Conservative seat where there is going to be a byelection on Thursday as a result of the “sleaze”-enforced, if reluctant, resignation of Owen Paterson, but one which, according to the latest odds, the Liberal Democrats might win, given the way the public finally seems to be catching up with what an appalling government Boris Johnson has landed them with – Johnson, of course, being in the lead when it comes to the debasement of modern British political standards.

Now, I did not get where I am today by making political forecasts, let alone following the betting. Nevertheless, byelections can spring surprises. There was an interesting one way back in 1985, when my then colleague Adam Raphael was covering the Brecon and Radnor byelection, which Neil Kinnock, then leader of the Labour party, had obviously hoped his candidate would win. Neil and Adam had a £10 bet on the result. But Labour’s support was dented by an incendiary speech by the National Union of Mineworkers’ leader, Arthur Scargill, and the seat went by a narrow margin to the Liberals.

Neil paid up with a £10 cheque, which Adam did not cash, but instead framed for posterity. Alas, it turns out that the writing on the cheque has completely faded away. Posterity will have to take their word for it.

If the North Shropshire byelection does produce an upset, this might well be the final nail in the coffin of Johnson’s troubled premiership. But whether this might benefit Labour is an open question. Kinnock and his deputy Roy Hattersley had reasonable hopes they would defeat Thatcher in a general election, but by ruthlessly dispensing with her in favour of John Major, the Tories got themselves a new lease of life.

The good news is that Labour’s present leader, Sir Keir Starmer, has also had a new lease of life with his forensic assault on this frightful government. But we must wait to see whether he and Labour can turn up the heat on the disaster of Brexit.

I was disappointed to read an article by Lionel Barber, former editor of the Financial Times, in which he said that he and some distinguished colleagues on the new Independent Commission on UK-EU Relations were united in the view that “there can be no question of refighting the Brexit referendum or reopening the question of EU membership. The war is over, the Leavers won.”

This is desperately defeatist. They acknowledge that “Brexit isn’t working” then say “the task of the commission is to help fix it”.

But Brexit can’t be “fixed”. As Kinnock recently observed: “You cannot mend a burst tyre.” Day by day the news gets worse: our so-called Brexit negotiator Lord Frost has alarmed the Biden administration with what his “renegotiation” of the Northern Ireland protocol might portend for peace in Northern Ireland, and he unashamedly wants to abandon the European social model – to which the UK, by way of having previously championed the single market, has made a major contribution.

Frost and his colleagues fantasise about a trade deal with the US which is simply not on the cards. Trump-era tariffs on US imports of steel and aluminium? Down for members of the EU, but not for the UK. Pig farmers? Sheep farmers? Thousands of small and medium-sized British businesses? All suffering from the absurdity of Brexit.

It is more than five years since 37% of the electorate voted for Brexit, in response to a number of grossly misleading promises. As I wrote recently, I ask many people I encounter what they think of Brexit, and the response is decidedly negative. As for the younger generation – the many people who have become eligible to vote since 2016 – my strong impression is that they are overwhelmingly in favour of rejoining. Labour should go for it!

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