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Below the surface Brexit has created a sinkhole of worry

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Geraint Talfan Davies

Geraint Talfan Davies, Chair of Wales For Europe

When we look back in a year or more on the course of the Brexit drama will this last week be seen as the one when the tectonic plates began to move? The week when the glue that holds Theresa May’s government together began to weaken, when Labour started to plan a more robust position and when the public mood showed unmistakable signs of fear?

Downing Street slap-downs for Philip Hammond and Boris Johnson within a few days of each other might be thought nothing new, especially in the case of the latter. A Bunter-like character will always be getting into and out of ‘scrapes’. (Younger readers should Google Billy Bunter!)

Mr Hammond’s sin, in the eyes of the new Brexiter-in-chief, Jacob Rees-Mogg, was to express himself in an understated way that used to be regarded as very British but is out of fashion in the current partisan climate. To want to move our economy only ‘modestly apart’ from our largest customer might in more normal times be regarded as common sense,  but in days of passionate intensity apparently, it just won’t do.

The hard Brexit mobsters have not yet pulled the rug from under their own Prime Minister, but approaching 48 of them are taking up a white-knuckled grip on the rug’s edge. Living tantalisingly within sight of their promised land, impatience will eventually push them to rash deeds, perhaps sooner than we think.  For them, 2019 must seem like an eternity away.

It seems this frustration is no longer confined to a wild-eyed fringe. Frustration at Theresa May’s colourless leadership is now inducing a wider despair – not only at her brittle style, but at the lack of policy substance: no clear idea of where she wants to end up on Brexit, and no follow through on her long succession of vaguely empathic phrases about those suffering most and longest from the country’s many ailments.

At the same time, Labour may be beginning to realise that, given its stubborn failure to establish a clear lead in the polls, the country is not guaranteed to drop into the party’s lap in the event of an election. Not only is its ‘creative ambiguity’ beginning to pall, it is increasingly out of step with its own supporters.

An ICM survey published at the weekend made this as a plain as a pikestaff, which may be why Jeremy Corbyn, in his interview with Andrew Marr, inched towards a commitment to staying in the EU’s customs union, albeit still retaining his dogged ambiguity by referring to ‘a form of customs union’. He is still resistant to another referendum but he is, as celebrities tell us these days, on a  journey, the next stop on which may well be a Labour leadership awayday next month to review its position on Europe.

One must hope that at that event the shadow Secretary of State for Wales, Christina Rees MP, will hold true to her strongly European convictions. She would also do well to polish up the art of judo at which she excelled in her youth. It will be interesting, too, to see whether Carwyn Jones gets an invitation.

She will be able to remind Mr Corbyn that he cannot forever ignore the fact that 77% of Labour voters think the public should have a chance to take a final decision when negotiations are complete, compared with 58% of the population as a whole and 59% in Wales.  Even amongst Labour supporters who would vote Leave, 39% are now in favour of a new referendum.  

To give Mr Corbyn the benefit of the doubt, the ICM poll does illustrate the current paradox: that while the top line Leave/Remain preference is stubbornly balanced (51-49 in favour of Remain), the unmistakable view of the public in general, and Labour voters in particular, is that Brexit will be bad for the economy.

For all voters, 49% think the economic consequences will be negative, and only 36% think they will be positive. But no less than 66% of Labour voters say it will be negative and only 20% positive. 50% of Labour voters think it will also be bad for their personal finances and 57% think that there will be a negative impact on British life in general.

As for opinion in Wales, the results have to be heavily qualified as only 270 of the weighted base of 5075 were polled in Wales. Nevertheless, 48% in Wales thought the impact on the economy would be negative, against only 34% who thought it would be positive. Only 20% of Wales thought the impact on their personal finances would be positive, against 38% who think it will be negative.

On the issue of Europe, the starkest dividing line remains age, far more so than social class. If there were another referendum tomorrow 73% of 18-24 year-olds would vote to Remain, compared with 38% of the 65-74s and 31% of the those above 75. The biggest increase in those who would vote Remain is amongst students, an increase of 16%. Only the 65+ cohorts still register a majority for leaving the EU.

As for class divisions, every social class is in favour of a referendum on the final deal, while only in the DE category does a majority think the impact on the economy will be positive, and then only by 42-40.

When faced with this overwhelmingly negative view of the consequences of Brexit for the economy, the country and personal finances, is it then really credible that the Leave dam will hold, unchanged, for as long as it takes to negotiate an agreement? Underneath the carapace of a settled view of the binary choice between Remain and Leave, is a sinkhole of worry, not to say despair.

At some point, that carapace will crack. The only issue is whether it will give under the weight of governmental dysfunction and failure, or the pressure of opposition leadership yet to manifest itself fully, or just collapse from sheer fatigue.