It is only five days since I described Michael Gove as 'the nastiest bit of work in Westminster’. I expected the truth of that frank character assessment to emerge more gradually, but there you are; events, dear boy, events. Retreating into the dimmer alcoves of history, it is all of a week – the infamous long time in politics, now revised to an eternity – since I took an unfashionably pessimistic view of Johnson’s leadership bid, adding that I 'rather fancied’ Theresa’s chances. At the risk of sounding boastful – oh, hell, why not? – again I have to say: you read it here first.
I still rather fancy Theresa’s chances. The only difference is that, now, so does everybody else. Never has journalism felt less reliable as a first draft of history. All those confident predictions ('Boris on the threshold of power’, 'Bojo PM in 9 weeks’ etc etc) have overnight been wrapped round a million fish suppers and the same pundits are shamelessly assuring us that a knife-wielder like Johnson could never have won the crown. Why they neglected to share this opinion with their credulous readers may be destined to remain a minor mystery.
Theresa May is calm, competent, always a master of her brief, and a lot nicer than she sounds; all this I have on good authority. She is justified in reminding us that she has stood up to two difficult targets, the Americans and the British police. Her longevity in the Home Office, a well-known graveyard of ambition, is itself a testament to her steely qualities. If anyone can restore order to the Conservative Party, it will be Theresa May. They’d be fools not to elect her. But then they are fools, so anything’s possible.
Despite my respect for her personal and political qualities, I’m afraid she told a couple of whoppers in her statement of intent yesterday. They weren’t any old whoppers – we’ve got used to any old whoppers in the last couple of months. These lies went straight to the rotten core of our national misfortune.
Both lies were contained within two short sentences:
The country voted to leave the European Union. Turnout was high, and the public gave their verdict.
We’ll take the second lie first. Turnout was not high. Turnout was 72.2%: low, very low, for the most profound constitutional change of our lifetime. In Scotland it was even lower (67.2%) despite our reputation as a nest of warbling democrats. In stark comparison – you will have observed that comparions tend to be stark – the 1950 general election, narrowly won by Labour after its ’45 landslide, registered a turnout of 83.6%. Now, that was high: though not quite as high as the 84.6% in the 2014 Scottish independence referendum.
In the five general elections, between 1951 and 1966, turnout was never lower than 75.8%. From 1970, public apathy and disenchantment set in and we are now more accustomed to between 60% and 70%. In 1970, the year of Heath’s unexpected victory, it was exactly 72%, the closest percentage to the one we got last Thursday. But the outcome of that unimpressive level of voter engagement could be – and indeed was – reversed: a mere four years later, Heath was out on his ears and Harold Wilson returned to Downing Street.
On the same dismal turnout as 1970, there appears to be no going back; no hope of a reversal. If you don’t fancy the flavourless new breakfast cereal, Brexit, you’re stuck with it – except possibly in Scotland, where, if you hang about long enough, you may be able to exchange it for Sturgeon’s Porridge Oats.
The first lie – we’re done with the second one – is that 'the country voted to leave the European Union’ followed by 'the public gave their verdict’. The country didn’t vote to leave the European Union and the public didn’t give their verdict. Don’t take my word for it. Go figure, as they say.
From a total electorate of 46,500,001 – who on earth is the one at the end? – the number who voted Leave was 17,410,742. That left 29,089,259 who either voted Remain or didn’t vote at all. To put it another way: the decision to quit the EU was taken on the say-so of 37.4% of the electorate: a fact so remarkable, so damning, that I intend to give it a line all to itself:
This means – though I expect you’ve worked it out for yourself – that
didn’t vote to leave the European Union. But, hey, we’re leaving it anyway.
In the relatively sane world outside the asylum of British politics, they do things differently. I’ll illustrate the point through personal example. A few years ago, the trustees of a small educational charity – the one I chair – decided they wanted to ditch their constitution, which was written in archaic language, and replace it with a modern model recommended by the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations. The objects remained the same; in every respect that mattered, it was the same charity.
When we contacted the regulator, OSCR, for advice on how to go about it, we were informed that we would need the approval of the members. No surprises there. But the threshold for that approval was interesting: two-thirds of those voting. This isn’t in the least unusual. It would be a requirement of most societies and institutions that the endorsement of reform should be decisive and beyond challenge.
If the same rule had applied in the EU referendum, on the same turnout, the winning side would have had to poll, not 17.4m votes but 22.1m. That would have been closer to a popular mandate, but even 22.1m would not have been a majority of the electorate; only a two-thirds majority of those voting. It would still have been 1.1m short of an overall majority.
Only politicians could have devised a scheme for the future of the country that would have been ruled out of order in almost any other sphere of public organisation; only politicians could have got away with it; and only politicians could now, with a straight face, assert that turnout was high, that the country voted to leave the European Union and that the people gave their verdict when, on all these counts, the opposite was closer to the truth.
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