Dear Theresa May, don’t miss this opportunity to unite the nation, writes Nick Clegg
It was your choice. You could have chosen differently. You could have said this to the party faithful at the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham: “I will deliver Brexit. I will be faithful to the mandate given to us by the British people. I will heed their anxieties about immigration and I will act so that we have more control about who comes in and out of our country. But, friends, I must tell you candidly that I will not act in a way which will jeopardise the open, dynamic economy upon which our great trading economy relies.
“And that means I will also fight to retain our membership of Europe’s single market, the world’s largest borderless marketplace created by our party’s greatest heroine, Margaret Thatcher. Yes, that will require compromise with the other EU member states — it may even mean we will need to pay some money to Europe in return — but in my considered judgment that is the best way to balance our goal of taking back control and our duty to bequeath future generations with a strong and prosperous economy.”There would have been some furrowed brows in the Birmingham conference chamber. But you are in a politically unassailable position, riding high in the polls, favourably contrasted both with your predecessor and the hopeless Labour Party. You may have no mandate of your own, your party may have garnered no more than a quarter of the eligible vote in the last election but that’s the way our curious political system works — you have nothing to fear from any political rivals right now. And so the party faithful would have given you the benefit of the doubt, and a rousing standing ovation too.
Most important, you would have spoken to the whole nation beyond the conference hall — not just the most ardent Conservatives and the most ardent Brexiteers. You preside over a deeply divided country. Much has been made of the 17.4 million voters who voted for Brexit, the largest single vote in British political history.
But guess what? The 16.1 million voters who voted Remain also represent a larger number of votes than has ever been garnered by any winning political party in modern times. In other words — much though the Brexit press is trying to reinvent history — there were two, massive votes pulling in diametrically opposing directions. There wasn’t just one overwhelming vote in favour of exit. Your duty as Prime Minister is to seek to bridge those divides, not widen them.So what on earth possessed you to brand millions of your fellow citizens who so happen to believe that there are threads of humanity binding people together across time zones, continents and countries as “citizens of nowhere”? You caused far greater disquiet with those words than I suspect you realise. And the disquiet will be felt most sharply among the entrepreneurs, the inventors, the academics and opinion- formers, the traders and business people for whom our internationalism is a profoundly important component of their British identity. Blithely dismissing many of the most productive and creative people in society with such a gratuitously high-handed insult wasn’t smart.
I know what preparing for these speeches is like — you have a thousand and one other things on your mind, so perhaps you just allowed the zeal of a junior speech writer with a clever turn of phrase to put words into your mouth. Perhaps you regret them now. No matter. They are your words, for ever.I know you’ll hate to be reminded of him, but in this instance I think George Osborne is right: the country voted for Brexit; it did not vote for hard Brexit. If you weren’t aware of the impact of your words in Birmingham at the time — or the absurd, if short-lived, proposal to force all companies to “confess” how many foreigners they employ — I suspect the shadow they have cast will be more apparent to you now. Your government is looking dangerously rudderless when it comes to implementing Brexit, and sly and shifty in its attempts to evade any meaningful parliamentary scrutiny. You must also know that — with apologies for mixing metaphors — that Marmite is only the tip of the iceberg. Millions of ordinary voters will soon be asking themselves why their gas and electricity bills are going up, why food is more expensive, and why they can’t afford to take their kids on that holiday to Spain. It might be a little unfair — you were a Remainer, just, after all — but they will hold you and a deeply botched approach to Brexit responsible.
So my advice is this: think beyond your party and the grim fury of the Brexit press; do not feel trapped by the lies of the Brexit campaign — you didn’t promise a Utopia like Michael Gove, Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson et al, so you can afford to be more honest about the hard choices we face; reach out to those who don’t agree with Brexit but know it must be delivered as sensibly as possible; drop all this mealy-mouthed nonsense about the rights of EU citizens already here and just say unequivocally that they are welcome to stay in Britain; treat the voters like grown-ups — many Brexit voters know that the world is complex and won’t begrudge you the compromises you must make; remember that the younger generation feel desperately aggrieved that their freedom to travel and study and work across Europe is being removed; above all, govern for the whole nation, not just those parts you feel comfortable with.
Be a big PM, not a small one.