“Who cares what he thinks?” “Liar.” “Has been.” Those were some of the kinder voices of opposition to Tony Blair’s intervention into the Brexit debate last week. “Right message, wrong messenger.” That’s probably the kindest message of support that went his way full stop.
But I can’t help thinking: if nobody cares, why such an energetic reaction? And if he’s the wrong messenger, who is the right one?
You see if there’s one thing I’m tired of in this Brexit debate, it is the thorough policing of the boundaries of discussion.
If you want evidence for this, just take a look at former-Remainer and now Pro-Brexit Government Minister Liz Truss explaining on The Andrew Marr Show how she would now vote “Out” if given the opportunity again. Now I get that the Government must get on with the job and that she is a part of it, but does she really have to force the idea that the outcome has changed her mind permanently?
She is of course bound by the Cabinet’s Collective Responsibility, so perhaps the conviction I’m after should really be found on the opposition benches. But Labour’s capitulation on Brexit is the quickest and most panicked resetting of the political establishment I’ve ever seen. There is zero entertaining the idea that we might want to reconsider when the results of the negotiation become clear.
So who is speaking up for the people that thought this whole thing was a bad idea just a few months ago? Or even the many Leave voters who were not anticipating such an aggressive form of Brexit?
There is the Liberal Democrats, but with UKIP still crowding out broadcast bookings and column inches, that’s not a voice that’s getting heard much right now. (Full disclosure: I’d like them to be heard more). So Blair – a hugely divisive but indisputably heavyweight figure in British politics – is who we’re left with to make the unheard case.
And let me be clear about what that unheard case is. It is that if you think Brexit was a bad idea, and think that a “Hard Brexit” is an even worse idea, you are entitled to keep telling people that in the hope they change their mind. It is absolutely not ignoring or frustrating the will of the people – quite the opposite. It is the democratic process of trying to win the people over.
The will of the people is not, and never can be, in a permanent state. If that were so, we would never change our Governments. As the negotiations go on, more information about what leaving the EU looks like for Britain in reality will come to light. The people are well entitled to continually assess their stance on the issue as that information rolls in.
And this is why I think Blair’s intervention is important. It is a reminder that it is legitimate to imagine and work towards a different vision of the future. The decision to leave the EU cannot be reversed against the will of the people. But it can be reversed with the will of the people – and if enough of us rise up and continue to stand up for what we believe in, then we can keep that option on the table.