Reverse ferret



Someone must have told Nigel Farage to shut up, because he quickly amended his original statement – that he was in favour of a second Brexit referendum – to one that “maybe, just maybe” he was inching towards accepting the idea, although he did not like it. He claimed the government was plotting to foist one on us anyway.

This sort of manoeuvre is known among journalists as a reverse ferret.

Nigel had been in America and had missed the limelight. He had apparently also missed the fact that the British government has been saying for a year that a second referendum was out of the question because it would flout the will of the people.

Remainers rejoiced. A split in the enemy ranks! However, the referendum Farage is talking about is not the referendum which the Lib Dems, Tony Blair and others want to see. Farage wants a simple re-run of the in/out vote. The referendum Remainers want is a vote on the terms that are eventually agreed with the EU, or on leaving with no deal. (And in that referendum, staying in must be an option.)

Blair published an excellent article on the Institute for Global Change website on 4  January ( It was a clear analysis of where we are, enlivened by the occasional bit of dazzle: thus, of the 2016 referendum, “It was like having a General Election in which the question is ‘Do You Like the Government?’”

He nails the four options for negotiating Brexit: (1) to re-think and stay; (2) to exit the political structures but stay in the single market and customs union; (3) to exit both the political and economic structures and try to negotiate a bespoke deal; (4) to exit both structures and negotiate an FTA.

Of the last three, the Government has ruled out (2), is seeking to negotiate (3), but a substantial part of the Tory party is prepared to go for (4). The problem with (3), Blair  says, is that this is not negotiable without major concessions which make a mockery of leaving; the problem with (4) is significant economic pain.

He takes Northern Ireland as a metaphor for “the central Dilemma”: we are either in the single market and customs union, or we get a hard border and hard Brexit. It is the difference between the Norway and Canada options. “This really is a zero sum game: the nearer the Norway option, the more the obligations; the nearer the Canada option, the less the access.

“It is not a matter of who is the toughest negotiator. The Dilemma flows naturally from the way the single market was created.” Once this central Dilemma becomes manifest during the negotiation, he believes the split in the Government will re-emerge.

“The PM will still be in favour of option 3, making the concessions and trying to present them as consistent with ‘taking back control.’ The true-believer Leavers will recognise the concessions contradict the essential reasons for leaving and will be in favour of then moving to option 4…

“The risk is that we end up with the worst of all worlds. We muddle along, alternating between options 3 and 4, depending on what part of the Tory party is in the ascendancy, try to ‘leave’ without really leaving, with a patchwork of arrangements which allows the Government to claim Brexit has been done; but which in reality only mean we have lost our seat at the table of rule-making…

“Far better to fight for the right for the country to re-think, go to the high ground on opposing Brexit…”

But that, he acknowledges, will require a change of heart at the top of the Labour party.

In a splendidly optimistic piece in the Guardian of 9 September, Andrew Adonis predicted that Labour would be in favour of a second referendum by this summer: “Jeremy Corbyn can’t abandon his youth army and virtually his entire party by backing Theresa May on hard Brexit. The only way to disown May without taking responsibility for anything else will be to back a referendum.”

He thinks “sensible Tories” will support this demand and that “if the rebellion is large enough, May herself might agree to a referendum… to avoid her party splitting irrevocably.”

Can that referendum be won?

“If Chancellor Merkel and President Macron make an offer for the UK to stay in the economic institutions of the EU but with national control over immigration, I believe it can be won.”

He believes they might because many EU leaders, including Macron, don’t believe unrestricted free movement is integral to the single market; and because if Britain leaves, 80% of NATO resources will go with it.

At the weekend, Corbyn repeated that Labour would not support a second vote. Andrew Rawnsley in the Observer, 14 January, commented, “So long as neither the Prime Minister nor the leader of the opposition thinks they have an interest in asking the country for fresh instructions, it isn’t going to happen.”

What could change this is a shift in public opinion, says Rawnsley, but “Remain supporters just becoming more passionately Remainy is not what matters. What is required… is clear evidence of second thoughts among a substantial wedge of Leave voters.”

He tracks some hopeful developments: more people than before think we will be worse off out of the EU; fewer think Brexit will enhance Britain’s position in the world; there is “a gentle rise” in the proportion of voters who favour another referendum; 46% now think Brexit was the wrong choice while 42% think it was the right one – but still, he says, it is not enough.

Nevertheless, the chaos is mounting and the government is manifestly incompetent. If talks fail, the Labour leadership would face colossal pressure to back a referendum, says Rawnsley, and a lot of Tories, horrified by the prospect of the cliff-edge, are likely to support it.

Another scenario is that Parliament refuses to endorse the deal May produces (as it now can, following the Tory rebellion before Christmas) and there is a constitutional crisis. “A not unreasonable conjecture is that May would feel there was no other option but to go to the people.”

Hooray. Except that this is only the start. There is still surprisingly little “Bregret” in view of the piling-up of negative news about the effects of Brexit.  Chris Grey in his blog of 18 November ( explores why.

Donnishly, Professor Grey suggests we think of the vote “in terms of the gap between Brexit as a symbolic act and Brexit as a series of concrete legal, economic and political arrangements.” He reports hearing Brexiters ridicule the idea that leaving the EU could mean needing visas to travel to Europe, that it could mean restrictions on air travel or that British people could face restrictions on retiring in European countries.

He thinks that two related things underlie such beliefs. One is a taking for granted of the familiar accoutrements of modern life without realising that they are the product of extensive, albeit largely invisible, institutional arrangements. The other is that “for many Brexiters the vote to ‘take back control’ was not thought about in concrete or legal terms but as a kind of symbolic, feel-good act.” He refers to Grimsby, where 70% voted Leave, and which is now seeking special exemption from tariffs for its fish-based industries.

“The same kind of disconnect can be seen across many aspects… The underlying thought process seems to be – these are not the consequences that we wanted from the Brexit vote and ‘therefore’ they are either nothing to do with that vote (denial) or are being unnecessarily forced on us by the EU and/or obstructive Remainers (blame).

He thinks it extremely unlikely that Leave voters will link the consequences with their vote, because people find it difficult to admit they were wrong. But if the narrative of blame can be re-directed on to the leading figures in the Leave campaign, “it is far more likely that Leave voters will accept the proposition that they were fooled by politicians – as indeed they were – than that they fooled themselves.”

Perhaps. I don’t think it is far more likely that Leave voters will accept they were fooled by politicians than that that they fooled themselves, just a little more likely. If you are fooled by someone, you have allowed yourself to be fooled, and since it is obvious that not everyone was fooled, the implication that you were a fool is hard to dodge.

In Grey’s article is a reference to something called “the backfire effect,” described as follows in The Skeptic’s Dictionary: “The more ideological and the more emotion-based a belief is, the more likely it is that contrary evidence will be ineffective.

“There is some evidence that lack of self-confidence and insecurity correlate with the backfire effect. More research is needed to fully explain what additional factors lead some people to respond to contrary evidence by treating it as if it were additional support for one’s belief.” (My italics.)

Bingo. This confirms the impression of all Remainers who have ever tried to talk rationally to Leavers about Brexit, or anyone who has ever listened to David Davis.

The question is what to do about this condition (although Googling it is worthwhile). It is serious for the individual affected, and if sufficiently widespread will be terminal for the country. Clearly there is no point in challenging it on intellectual grounds, since rational argument is what sustains it. This is a conundrum even worse than the Irish border.

I think that in time the condition will be self-correcting. Meanwhile, fortunately, it does not affect all those who voted Leave. There is a sizeable minority (Rawnsley’s “wedge”) that is accessible to reason. They need to be found while the window out of Brexit is still open.

I have a dream. One night, while the nation sleeps and the Prime Minister tosses uneasily in her bed, there will come through that window the creature that will save us.

A reverse ferret.



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