“People did not vote for a deal,” Jacob Rees-Mogg proclaimed earlier this month. “They voted to leave.” For Rees-Mogg, a no-deal Brexit is not just the best solution for the UK—it’s the purest expression of what he and other Brexiteers claim 17.4m people voted for.
Nor is he the only prominent Leave campaigner who now insists that no-deal is what 52 per cent of the British people voted for. No-deal, he wrote in his weekly Telegraph column earlier this month, “actually corresponds to [people’s] idea of coming out.” David Davis, who let’s not forget spent two years as Brexit secretary, argued last November that “if we need to leave with no-deal… so be it.”
The Vote Leave campaign was, famously, light on details. Its campaign director, Dominic Cummings, was determined to avoid spelling out what leaving would actually mean. If the campaign came out in favour of a specific solution—staying in the customs union or single market, joining the EFTA, striking a trade deal similar to Canada’s—it would only serve to give the Remain campaign and the media something to analyse and tear apart. By sticking to simple slogans and keeping the focus on the pros and cons of EU membership, Vote Leave was on much safer ground.
Unfortunately for Rees-Mogg, Johnson, Davis and the rest of the no-deal Brexiteers, one of the few things Vote Leave did promise was a deal. Not only that, they promised that the deal would be negotiated—in full—before Article 50 was triggered.
“Taking back control is a careful change, not a sudden stop,” the campaign pledged. “We will negotiate the terms of a new deal before we start any legal process to leave.” The same campaign document—which can still be read on its website—also promised that the UK would be part of “a free trade zone from Iceland to Turkey and the Russian border.” If we leave without a deal—as those prominent Brexiteers are now advocating—that will be impossible.
Those who promote a no-deal Brexit also like to evoke the “will of the people.” If anyone dares to suggest that Brexit is a bad idea, or even that a softer form of exiting the European Union should be considered, the no dealers wave their mandate high in the air, proclaiming that they have the backing of 17.4m people. Any path other than theirs is an affront to democracy.
The idea that all 17.4m Leave voters chose Brexit for the same reason is clearly nonsense. Some voted Leave because they wanted tougher immigration laws, others thought it would be good for the NHS, some felt strongly about sovereignty.
But one thing is clear. No-one voted for no-deal. They voted for a campaign that explicitly promised there would be a deal. Personally, I think “the will of the people” is a horrible phrase, one that uses the veneer of democracy to crush dissent.
But if we’re going to use it, let’s use it accurately. In supporting a no-deal Brexit, Jacob Rees-Mogg, Boris Johnson and David Davis are defying the will of the people.