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This war of attrition can be ended only by a referendum

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Geraint Talfan Davies

The last week in this country’s politics has been jaw-dropping. Each day has brought new headlines, and we can be pretty certain that there are more to come in the days ahead. It is the most extraordinary spectacle.

A Prime Minister who, when subjected at last to some scrutiny, is immediately found inadequate to his task – a politician whose mystifying reputation for oratorical skills is exposed by his gabbling superficiality. A man who seeks the trust of a whole country, yet cannot retain the trust of his own brother. A leader whose out-tray is full of sackings, and in-tray of resignations.

The world looks on amazed at a divided country, a Parliamentary war of attrition, a riven governing party, a government reduced to a sect that cannot even state unequivocally that it will abide by the law, and an opposition party whose stance is said to be ‘evolving’ and has had to be steeled to the task by the determination of smaller allies.

As if this were not enough the process has exposed a constitution unfit for purpose:

  • a Parliament whose processes are antique and arcane
  • a House of Commons that can take 15 minutes to register a single vote, on foot, while a modern legislature in Cardiff can register half a dozen in as many minutes, while seated
  • an unelected House of Lords, some of whose members carry in duvets for all-night sittings
  • a Palace of Westminster that is shrouded in scaffolding, as if symbolising a multi-faceted physical and political decay.

And how have we got here? Most immediately, we have been brought here by the cavalier misuse of a referendum – ill-thought out, ill prepared, badly fought, narrowly won by a campaign devoid of truth, narrowly lost by a campaign devoid of idealism.

The last three years has undoubtedly undermined the concept of referendums, but at the same time our out-dated constitution has long been eroding trust in representative  democracy. These are issues that we will all have to address, but only when we have finally resolved the issue of Europe.

In 2016 after nearly a decade of austerity – from which we in Wales have suffered grievously, as much as or more than any part of these islands – we were a country choosing which cat to kick. For many the referendum was the hobnailed boot.

Let’s face it, that rage was justified. There are parts of Wales that have had the rough end of the deal for the best part of a century – world wars, the depression of 20s and 30s, the stagnation of the 70s, the bitterness of the 80s, the end of coal, the shakeout in steel, and the vulnerability of inward investment in an age of globalisation.

That kick was bound to come. It was justified, overdue. But, I have to say, sorry, wrong cat.

We have learned a lot since 2016. We have learned that even after three years the Government has no plan, although, as in 2016, it has no shortage of pithy slogans.

It is not the opponents of Brexit that have let down the 17.4 million who voted for it, but its very proponents – people who, in the words of European Council President Donald Tusk, “promoted Brexit without even a sketch of a plan of how to carry it out safely.”

And this is where Amber Rudd’s strictures this weekend matter. For months past we have read of EU leaders and negotiators complaining that this government is putting no new ideas on the table. Now the plausibility of this complaint has been corroborated by a member of the Cabinet.

At a push one might just accept Sajid Javid’s protestation to Andrew Marr yesterday that the government must keep its plans secret during negotiations, but secret from a senior Cabinet member?

Besides, even without having access to sensitive detail, a Cabinet member is surely in a position to spot the proportion of effort going into the preparation of alternatives. Even as a Cabinet member Amber Rudd could not detect ‘the same level of intensity’ going into the negotiations with the EU as into preparations for ‘no deal’.

Combined with the evidence from EU negotiators, that becomes a powerful charge of dishonesty on the part of the Government towards both Europe and the British people.  Alas, it also chimes with all the critical assessments of the Prime Minister’s character.

Rudd has also expressed concern over the fate of the 21 sacked Tory MPs. But it is the revelation that Conservative Party headquarters immediately contacted the constituency parties of the 21 to urge swift reselection that offers justification for the street chants of “Stop the Coup”. There is more than the whiff of a Tory Taliban at work.

Given this remarkable chain of events in the past week, it is of real concern that it has not dented the Conservative Party’s lead in the polls. In more normal times any government in this degree of disarray would already be paying a grievous penalty in lost popularity.

That the Conservative Party has, so far, escaped this consequence must be the result of one of two things, or a combination of both: a population that has tuned out of wider public debate and long since retreated into its self-woven telephonic cocoon, or a lack of clear and consistent leadership on the part of its opponents.

The latter problem has to be resolved before one can effectively tackle the former, before being able to engage people in thinking anew around propositions whose foundations have long since crumbled.

Thankfully, the necessary pre-condition – a new alliance of Remain forces – is now in place, although it has yet more work to do to get the Labour leadership to speak with one voice and with total conviction for Remain.

That is one reason why we can be proud that our National Assembly, our Senedd, last week not only called out the preposterous and dangerous notion of crashing out of the European Union, but also demanded that as a country we revisit the issue in a referendum, as any sensible person would do faced with full and further particulars. In Wales, at least there is clarity.

All the talk in recent days, both on the Government and Opposition benches, has been about a General Election, although the two sides differ on timing. But at some point we have to pivot the debate to prioritise a new referendum over a general election where the European question is bound to be clouded by a myriad other competing issues.

Given our experience in Wales in 2016, when only a few weeks elapsed between Assembly elections and the referendum, the last thing we want next time is to arrive at a referendum only when the human and financial resources of political parties have been exhausted by a General Election campaign.

Geraint Talfan Davies is Chair of Wales for Europe