How a loose-lipped diplomat gave me a glimmer of hope

Published by The i paper (20th August, 2018)

Since it has stirred such interest following a couple of tweets, I should start with ‘that conversation’. I had just checked out of an Airbnb in Washington and was searching for somewhere cool to catch up on emails. I could not face Starbucks, so I ended up in a quiet Italian cafe sipping a soft drink. And as I tapped away on my computer, a couple of men came in and sat down for lunch at an adjacent table.

I could not avoid hearing their conversation in the near-empty room. One man was from Britain and the other European. It soon became clear he was an ambassador, so a quick internet search confirmed his identity. I guessed his British companion was a journalist, but slowly it emerged he was also a diplomat. So inevitably, after some small talk and ordering of food, their conversation turned to Brexit.

The Briton started by outlining ‘the official line’ of departure from the single market and customs union while finding some way for unhindered trade. He spoke about the recent Chequers deal, the resignations of David Davis and Boris Johnson, then at length about the media, dwelling on the significance of a new editor at the Daily Mail. ‘Whatever happens, some people are going to say they have been betrayed and sold out,’ he added rightly.

The key section came when these two government representatives discussed the hot topic of a second referendum. The British man said there was ‘now much more movement’ towards the idea of asking voters for ‘ratification of a final deal which may be to accept the deal or keep the status quo’ of European Union membership. So what about the triggering of Article 50, which means Britain quits Brussels on March 29 next year? ‘I suspect we will have to ask for an extension and it might be granted,’ said the British diplomat. So is it possible they decide to remain, asked the ambassador? ‘I don’t know.’

Sadly, I had to leave to get a train to New York for this was gripping possible insight into the government position. Even to suggest that Britain might stay in the EU is incendiary in the both the Tory party and wider country, while the government has ruled out asking for extension of Article 50. An overheard conversation should not be overstated, of course, for this could simply have been one official going beyond his brief. But still, it felt a small branch of hope in stormy seas battering our nation.

This raises two crucial questions as the drive for a second vote is turbocharged by a £1m donation from Superdry founder Julian Dunkerton since he believes ‘we have a genuine chance to turn this around.’First, should we ask for extension to Article 50, which would need support from all other 27 EU members? As we hurtle towards that March deadline, chances of a disastrous no-deal exit growing daily and egged on by those self-serving Old Etonian extremists Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg, the answer must be yes if parliamentary stasis continues.

As Lord Kerr, former UK ambassador to the EU and author of Article 50, told Radio 4’s Broadcasting House the prime minister should have prepared her ground in the party, in parliament and in Europe before starting the fateful countdown. Instead Theresa May triggered the article in expectation of an election landslide – an act of near-criminal folly. Even Vote Leave campaign chief Dominic Cummings says this was suicidal. Sadly, as with so many aspects of this sorry chapter in British history, short-term party politics over-rode long-term national interests. If she fails to land a deal, May deserves blame for the chaos and should be driven from office in shame.

Then there is the issue of a second referendum. It was heartening to hear a British diplomat talk about a simple choice for the electorate between accepting May’s deal – if she achieves one – and ‘the status quo’ of staying in Europe. We see now with razor-sharp clarity that those zealots who promoted Brexit were either deluded or lying when saying it was simple to extricate a nation from complex ties built up over decades. And they have constantly shifted their claims over the shape of departure, displaying their contempt for voters.

No wonder there has been a slight shift towards Remain in polling, while support for a ‘People’s Vote’ strengthens as fears grow of a car-crash departure. This is despite the snake-oil sales force rebranding failure to land a deal as ‘Clean Brexit’, seeking to dupe the electorate once again to leap into the abyss. I worry about another referendum after the last one ripped open festering wounds in our nation, while the result could easily be swung by a single sudden dramatic event in these turbulent times. But it is hard to see any other solution to the mess confronting our country.

Brexit was sold as an issue of democracy. So those pushing the cause are simply hypocrites if they oppose asking voters to back the final deal given its importance – not least when some key Brexiteers previously backed the idea. Yet there should be no doubt that over-turning the last referendum would rub salt into sores that led to such a seismic result – although perhaps Westminster might then return to focusing on real issues facing the nation. It might even be dangerous, with populists and fascists on the rampage.

But ramification of Brexit discussions has democratic legitimacy. And the prize is worth the risks. So let us hope that loose-lipped diplomat was right when he suggested the government might extend Article 50, hold a second vote and offer voters the choice to remain in the EU if they dislike the final deal.

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