When simple arithmetic is the elephant in the room: the collective failure of press and politicians in the Brexit debacle

It should be remembered that David Cameron became Conservative leader by being more interesting than David Davies in a couple of speeches. The bar was set low at the outset and his subsequent career was consonant with that. It is likely that he will be remembered as the worst British prime minister of modern times**: his brief career was marked by misjudgement and mismanagement and culminated with his running away from the woeful mess he had almost single-handedly created.

While some might suggest that Theresa May could contest Cameron’s title – if she is ever elevated to the peerage, then a chameleon weathercock would be an appropriate coat-of-arms, symbolising her complete lack of conviction and imagination – we should remember that Mrs May is only prime minister through Cameron’s ineptitude. The best that can be said of her is that she was the least unsuitable of the candidates available.

But the blame does not rest solely with the conservative government nor even with the current crop of politicians as a group, second-rate though most of them are, with a few notable exceptions calling from the margins (Kenneth Clarke, John Major, Vince Cable). The malaise that has spread from Cameron’s blundering has infected the journalists whose task it is to hold politicians to account.

When historians look back on this period, they will puzzle at the apparent inability of both politicians and journalists to perform simple subtraction:

46–17 = ?     

65–17 = ?

If you find yourself similarly challenged, the answer in the first case is 29 and in the second, 48. 

As most children of primary school age could tell you, 17 is a smaller number than 29 and 48. Since these figures, rounded down to whole millions*, represent respectively the difference between the total electorate taking part in the referendum and those expressing a desire to leave the EU and the difference between the total population – i.e. the British people as a whole – and those expressing a desire to leave the EU, it follows as an unassailable fact of arithmetic that there has only ever been a minority of the electorate, and of the British people, who expressed a desire to leave the European Union.

And yes, it really is that simple, and that is not playing with words. If you want confirmation, you need look no farther than the Brexit supporters themselves, who continually assert that ‘the majority of the British people wish to leave the EU’ yet implacably oppose the one sure way of demonstrating the truth of what they say, a second referendum. Why?

They know, in fact, that the 17.4 million figure probably flatters them, and that many voted to leave in ignorance, or out of a desire to express their general discontent, complacently assuming that a vote to remain was a foregone conclusion; unfortunately, so did around 13 million others who did not bother to vote at all. Yet the proportion that matters is what part of the electorate and the population expressed a desire to change the status quo: it is, at best, 38% of the electorate, and around 26% of the population. That is not a mandate for change by any measure, particularly one that will have such far-reaching consequences for the entire population as this. A general election can be undone after five years; leaving Europe will affect the country for at least a generation.

And that is what will mystify historians in years to come: not that the Brexit-supporting minority were desperate to make the most of a fluke result, even to the extent of asserting that it showed the opposite of what it actually does – that much is understandable, though not particularly laudable; rather it is that almost everyone in the body politic and the press acquiesced in their false narrative and gave it currency. 

Only a couple of days ago, the chancellor Phillip Hammond – a remainer himself – became the latest in a long line of politicians to assert the falsehood that ‘the majority of the British people voted to leave’ and John Humphrys, not for the first time, was numbered with the long and ignoble line of journalists who have failed to challenge the point.

This really is a Looking-glass world: having spent nearly two years negotiating to hang onto what we already have (but say we don’t want) the politicians are pressing ahead ‘in the national interest’ with a course of action that they know will make things worse and which only a minority has ever wanted; and the commentators whose job is to call them to account are letting it happen.

Our only hope is that a fortunate combination of stubbornness, opportunism and incompetence in the upcoming parliamentary vote will deliver a chance for the majority of the British people to express what they actually want. Otherwise, it is a bleak lookout for us all.

*The rounding slightly favours the Brexit cause: the actual figures are 46.5, 65.5 and 17.4

**please note that this was written when it seemed happily inconceivable that Boris Johnson could be Prime Minister. Johnson has since demonstrated that he is, unquestionably, the worst Prime Minister the United Kingdom has ever had; with any luck (I speak as a Scot) he will also be the last.
PPS: and we are now in the (once) inconceivable position that, in Liz Truss, Johnson looks likely to be succeeded by someone still less capable. The times we live in!

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