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The FT’s Sebastian Payne talks Brexit, Britain’s Political Future

As with winter, Brexit is coming. In a few short months, the United Kingdom is set the leave Europe’s big table after more than four decades of membership, bringing the nation into uncharted political and economic territory. And yet, with the deadline fast approaching, British politics is in turmoil. Theresa May faces massive obstacles in her desperate attempt to reach an exit deal that will satisfy both Parliament and the European community by March.

To try and get an insider’s understanding of where Britain stands politically, we sat down the Financial Times’s Digital Comment Editor Sebastian Payne at the FT’s Southwark office. A graduate of Durham University and City University London, Payne previously covered the United States’ 2014 midterms for the Washington Post, worked as a reporter for the Daily Telegraph and worked as an editor at The Spectator. At the FT, he writes about politics and hosts the FT’s weekly politics podcast – which means that, these days, he’s all Brexit all the time.


Solender: What would you say is the most profound realisation you’ve had while covering Brexit?

Payne: One that comes to mind is this extraordinary moment we’re at now, 65 days before we’re set to leave the EU, where it looks like the whole Brexit thing could come off the rails very easily lead to a second referendum or a general election or what have you.

Now there is this amazing realisation that we had this democratic exercise in 2016: whether you agree with the result or not–I was a reluctant Remainer and I haven’t really changed my views since then–we voted to leave and had a general election a year later where 80% of the MPs were elected on a manifesto to leave the EU, and we’re now at a point where that may not happen.

If we have a general election or a second referendum, who knows what result that will yield. But the last wasn’t a binding referendum and it didn’t have a threshold turnout. Maybe it should’ve had those things in retrospect.

In fact, the Remainers have waged a much better campaign since the referendum than they did before. The Leave campaign, after they won the referendum, essentially went away and sort of imploded, allowing [Remainer] Theresa May to step across the debris of the result and enter Downing Street.

The Remain campaign regrouped straight away into Open Britain and now the People’s Vote campaign. They’ve had incredible success in almost clenching victory from the jaws of defeat. That’s one of the amazing realisations that nobody saw coming. Everybody did think that, because we voted to leave, we were going to leave. And now we may not.

Solender: What would you say to the casual observer who notes how strange it is that the woman in charge of shepherding the country through Brexit was a Remainer while the man supposedly in charge of leading the opposition against what the government is doing – and I think he just put forth a proposal for a second referendum – is a closet Leave supporter?

Payne: Well it’s a symbol of the discombobulation of our political system at the moment. One thing you said, that Corbyn put forward a motion for a second referendum, he hasn’t in fact. He put forth an amendment saying he wants his Brexit deal but also the option of a second referendum.

He is trying to keep himself on the fence because Labour has to try to speak to its leave voting constituencies in the North and its more liberal, Remain-supporting constituencies in London and the South. He wants to be all things to all people: so he wants you to hear that he’s backing a second referendum whereas he wants people in Grimsby to hear that, actually, he’s still supporting Brexit, but a Labour Brexit which is better than an ‘evil Tory Brexit’.

That referendum campaign was a safety valve on a lot of stuff that had been building up in British politicsover decades. It really began with Margaret Thatcher’s Bruges speech. Up until the late 80s, Labour was the party of Euroscepticism and the Tories were the party of pro-Europeanism.

When Jacques Delors came to the TUC conference in [1988], and said ‘the European community is a social project, and I’m going to protect workers’ rights,’ that was the point Labour became a pro-EU party. The response to the Delors speech was Margaret Thatcher saying ‘we didn’t roll back frontiers of the state at a state level to be done at the European level’ and that was really the beginning of the Brexit campaign and the thinking behind leaving the EU.

So this has been going on since the late 80s and it’s just built up and built up, yes, through the press, a lot of which has taken on a very Eurosceptic view as well. But also just that very powerful election message of taking back control. People just felt more and more control was going away from their lives and here was a moment of saying ‘stop’.

Solender: Do you think future general elections – say, theoretically, if a general election was called tomorrow – will see what we’ve had in America, which is a fundamental realignment of the parties along the cleavages of new political issues? So, in 2018 we had rural areas resist the national swing to the Democrats with Democrats taking Orange County in California and all these other suburban areas. Do you think Britain will see a political realignment along party lines to meet the divisions of Brexit?

Payne: To an extent, yes. The Conservative party is becoming the party of Brexit: they are the party who gave us the referendum, it was Conservatives who delivered the Brexit result and it’s Conservatives who are implementing Brexit.

So the Tories and Brexit are now intertwined, there’s no point in trying to get away from that. And it’s my understanding that their voting patterns have become increasingly more and more pro-Brexit.

So, yes, the Tories will be the party of Brexit. The question is where Labour sits in all this because Labour is trying to ride two horses at once. All it wants to do is get into power, because Mr. Corbyn isn’t bothered about Brexit, he’s more concerned about inequality, Venezuela and all the other issues he can weaponise-

Solender: Middle Eastern politics.

Payne: Exactly. I don’t know where Labour sits now but I think you will see the emergence of a more potent pro-EU force. If we do leave as expected on the 29th of March, it will be the rejoin party and people will say ‘we need to get back in the EU’.

And that’s a long case, that’s like a 20-year case to change opinions and make the argument that this whole thing was a disaster and we need to overturn it.

So I think there will be a Leave party, which is the Tories, there will be a Remain party, and I don’t quite know where Labour sits there. But more and more polling we’ve seen from Professor John Curtice, who’s the grandmaster from Strathclyde University, shows people are now basing their political identification on where they sit on the EU issue.

This is what frustrates Labour people because, were it any other person in charge, even John McDonnell, it would be the wholehearted party of Remain. They would be saying ‘we need to stay in and this evil Tory Brexit is going to let in the big corporations and take us into a low-tax, tax-avoidance, small-state country.’ All the things that get the Labour activists going.

But I don’t even think Mr. Corbyn is a closet Brexiter, he’s obviously just a Brexiter. He’s spent his whole life supporting leaving the EU, I don’t think that’s changed at all.

So that’s how I see things going to a certain extent. But everything is so febrile at the moment. Predicting what’s going to happen on Friday is difficult, predicting what’s going to happen in six months time is now impossible, and by the next election who knows?

Solender: Well actually, I want to put you on the spot and ask you to make a couple predictions.

Payne: Ugh, do you have to?

Solender: Well I am very curious about these things, so: General Election held in 3 months, who do you think would win?

Payne: Stalemate.

Solender: Who would get the plurality?

Payne: I think it would be about who could scramble to put together a coalition. I think the Tories would probably lose some seats and gain some. And Labour would gain some seats but they would not gain the 60 seats to get a working majority.

So it would be who can scramble together a coalition to govern. It would be a result very similar to what we have now tilted a little bit in Labour’s favor.

Solender: Put another way–I’m going to push you on this a little bit–is a theoretical Labour-Liberal Democrat–SNP coalition more likely or less likely than another Conservative-DUP government?

Payne: I think that’s probably less likely because you’d have to promise the SNP a second independence referendum and you’d have to promise the Lib Dems another EU referendum. And maybe you do want to have two big constitutional questions thrown up in the air and end up with Scotland breaking away or something like that.

I think it’s very hard to see how that all comes together. Having one coalition partner, as we’ve seen with the DUP, is tough enough. Having two is very hard.

Solender: Who are the top three candidates in the Labour and Conservative parties to replace the current leaders?

Payne: Boris Johnson, Sajid Javid and Dominic Raab for the Conservatives. For Labour, Emily Thornberry, Angela Rayner and Rebecca Long-Bailey.

Solender: Who would win in a second referendum? It depends on the question I guess.

Payne: It depends on the question. If it was straight Remain-Leave, it would be Leave.

Solender: Post-leave, what is the future of the EU? Do we start to see it diminish in power or does it rally behind its remaining countries and become a stronger unit?

Payne: I think Brexit has had a remarkable effect on the EU, it really has brought the 27 remaining member-states in a way nobody envisioned. Everybody thought it was going to be an issue that would divide member-states and it really hasn’t. It’s one of the amazing impacts of this.

You’ve seen a little bit of fracturing this week with Poland making comments that go against what the commissioner and what Ireland say, but given the rise of populists in France, Germany, Italy, Sweden, Austria, the EU will really try to rally together.

The decisive point will be the Parliamentary elections in May and what kind of European Parliament you get off the back of that, because at the moment, all the populists are quite fragmented into the European-wide political groupings. If they all came together into a political grouping, which is the kind of thing Steve Bannon wants to do, they would likely become the second biggest force opposing the [far-right] EPP which is the centre-right, federalist party.

Much like we’ve seen with the AfD in the Bundestag, that would have a transformative effect on European politics. I’m fully in favor of a two-tiered Europe with Britain being on the outer tier of that Europe, but we’re not there now. And if Britain does end up fully withdrawing with a hard Brexit, I don’t see who would drive that forward.

Solender: Correct me if I’m wrong, but the right-wing populist parties in France and Italy have sort of backed off from having their own exit referendums.

Payne: Correct, but they are very Eurosceptic. There’s a difference here. There are very long historical reasons why Britain went from being a Eurosceptic country into being a Brexit-supporting country, or at least 52% of it did. But those other parties are increasingly skeptical of bureaucracy of Brussels, they talk a lot against the Euro. Nearly every one of those populist parties has talked at some point about ditching the Euro.

Can you ditch the Euro and still remain in the EU? Who knows? It’s all about how the EU reacts and changes. As we’ve seen with the latest Franco-German treaty this week, Europe’s answer to any threat is always more Europe. If that continues to be its response to populism, I don’t think it bodes particularly well for harmony across the continent.

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