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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 September 2018

Why I joined the People's Vote campaign: Britain deserves better than the diet of lies and incompetence we have been fed

If voters have changed their minds or feel cheated over Brexit, they should be allowed to say so at the ballot box, writes Gavin Esler

The People's Vote campaign will give the British public a choice over accepting a deal. Dan Kitwood / Getty
The People's Vote campaign will give the British public a choice over accepting a deal. Dan Kitwood / Getty

You walk into a restaurant and order steak with French fries. When the meal comes, the French fries are cold and instead of steak, you find you’ve got a plate of raw chicken. It smells bad.

What do you do? You send the food back. But the waiter starts to argue that you have to eat what is in front of you, even though it’s not what you ordered and it might even make you sick.

That, in essence, is the dilemma facing British people right now over Brexit, the decision to leave the European Union. Brexit is falling apart not because of the people who oppose it but because of the people who most wanted it, the “Brexit Bunch” of politicians and right-wing activists.

They have proven to be the most incompetent group of so-called leaders in my lifetime. The Brexit Bunch waiters have delivered a meal but it smells bad because it is truly rotten.

In 2016, in the Brexit referendum, the vote narrowly went in favour of Leave, by 52 per cent to 48 per cent. Voters had been promised a series of fantasies. It would be an “easy” Brexit. There would be wonderful trade deals, including being at the head of the queue to secure trade with the United States.

An extra £350 million ($450 million) a week would miraculously find its way to the National Health Service. According to the (now somewhat disgraced) former British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Britain could “have our cake and eat it” with Europe while the British government would hold all the cards in the negotiations. This was, as often with Mr Johnson, political nonsense from never-never land.

The British government has instead been forced to make a series of concessions which has led some of the staunchest Brexit supporters, including Nigel Farage, to claim Brexit has been “betrayed”.

On the other side, those who always wished to Remain are appalled. I share the anger and frustration of millions of British people over the lies, cheating and incompetence which have led us to this mess and that is why I have joined the People’s Vote campaign.

The idea is a referendum, not on the principle of whether we should leave the EU, but to accept or reject the final deal we are offered. I strongly believe in democracy. I trust the British people. When voters change their minds or feel cheated, they should be allowed to say so at the ballot box.

The lies about how “easy” it would all be are now obvious to all and they were obvious to many of us at the time of the 2016 vote.

The independent Electoral Commission reported that the Leave campaign cheated in 2016 in the way it spent money. And as for the incompetence ­– well, here’s just a flavour. The British trade secretary is Dr Liam Fox. For two years, he has promised the Brexit Bunch cliches about Britain becoming – at some unspecified date in the future – a trading powerhouse, where everything will be just wonderful. In those two years, Dr Fox has produced no impending trade treaties. His promises sound like Alice in Wonderland, where it’s always "jam tomorrow" but never "jam today".

And so Dr Fox, the minister for Jam Tomorrow, the Prime Minister Theresa May and the rest of the government are playing a difficult hand badly. On the political right are rebels who think the government is betraying the Brexit “vision”. In the mainstream of the Conservative Party, more realistic types privately (and sometimes publicly) fret that the Brexit deal the government is pushing for will lead to a serious dislocation of the British economy.

If it is rejected, we could end up with no deal and the disaster of food and medicine shortages. The opposition Labour Party is also divided, riven with blood feuds and internal squabbles. Labour and Conservative politicians appear to hate their own colleagues more than their supposed political opponents.

So what can be done? A People’s Vote could cut through the incompetence and political cowardice. It would not be a re-run of the 2016 referendum. The precise wording would be up to MPs but my personal preference would include acceptance or rejection of the government plan and possible alternatives, including crashing out with no deal.

Instead, Mrs May has panicked. She insisted in the technical jargon on invoking Article 50, thereby creating an artificial deadline for leaving the EU by March 2019, without having agreed in Parliament the precise divorce terms she is seeking.

What business leader would do something quite as crazy? Imagine Apple, Volkswagen or Google telling the world they intend to do something very bold by March next year, only they haven’t quite figured out what that very bold thing might be.

The Brexit Bunch argue that a People’s Vote is “not democratic”. But democracy means being free to change your mind and rejecting policies which do you harm. Britain’s Brexit voters opted for steak and fries in June 2016. The Brexit Bunch waiters have delivered salmonella chicken. I’m not swallowing it. Millions of others won’t swallow it either.

Gavin Esler is a journalist, author and television presenter

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