Brexit reflections from Lee Rotherham

Brexit reflections from Lee Rotherham

Here is the latest in our series reflecting on the Brexit process with regular BrexitCentral authors and others who have played an important role in our journey out of the European Union. Here are the answers to our questions from veteran eurosceptic activist Lee Rotherham, who was Director of Special Projects at Vote Leave.

BC: When did you first come to the view that the UK would be better off out of the EU? Did you ever think that the EU could be reformed from within to make membership tolerable for the UK? Tell us how your views developed over time on the issue.

CAFE (Conservatives Against a Federal Europe) twenty years back sought massive changes to the UK-EU relationship, including getting out of the CAP and CFP, which the Commission at the time said was incompatible with continuing membership. Our policy was to leave if we didn’t get them. Any slim chance of multilateral reform was then shown to be impossible during the Convention on the Future of Europe, when the reformist Laeken Mandate swiftly got binned. Any chance of bilateral reform was then disproven by the sham Cameron renegotiation. They were only ever marginal prospects, further diminished with each new treaty, but they had to be pursued.

BC: What was your most memorable moment during the referendum campaign?

Debating with the local (Remainer) Conservative MP in a lecture theatre in front of the Welsh Guards. Let’s just say feedback at the end from the ranks was positive and noisy.

BC: Who was the most unlikely ally you campaigned with or shared a platform with during the referendum? Did you strike up any unexpected new friendships across traditional political divides?

One of the various roles I did at Vote Leave was over outreach and engagement, partly because – as old Eurosceptic hands know – you can’t afford to be parochial in battling Brussels. So over the years I’ve worked alongside Finnish Marxists, Swedish Lutherans, French Gaullists, Maltese Socialists, a former member of the Supreme Soviet… During the campaign itself, though, a highlight was sitting in on a fireside chat video recording involving Edward Fox and Lord Carey.

BC: Where were you on referendum night? How did it feel?

I was one of a small number from Vote Leave who were up in Manchester for the central count. Unlike some self-confessed pessimists, from the very start of the campaign I always put the prospects of victory teetering a few percentiles around 50/50. The Sunderland vote was the first big boost on the night, but it was the result in my home town of St Helens in the North West that showed it was a far wider phenomenon across the North. Thank goodness we won because it was a long night and a long wait for the train, with no vino collapso available to blunt any edges.

BC: Did you think then that it would take as long as it has for Brexit to actually happen?

No. David Cameron botched things by not staying above the fray and implementing whatever came out of a fair fight. So he then had to fall on his sword. Then in the leadership competition, various Brexiteer preferiti imploded like in the computer game Lemmings. The resulting May administration lacked not just ambition but simple direction, recruited unbelievers to key posts, negotiated weakly and incompetently from the outset, sought to minimise and manage rather than address and aspire, and in general just treaded water and wasted time.

BC: Were there any moments in these last few years since the referendum when you thought the prize could yet be snatched from us?

Frequently. Given the parliamentary arithmetic and the complexities of Corbyn’s inner monologue, I’m not entirely sure if it were rerun we could replicate getting here even if we tried. Brexit the Board Game has two decks of event cards to make it work and even that number turned out to be pushing it for simplicity.

BC: Do you think the British electoral landscape will return to type once Brexit has been delivered? Or will Brexit have caused a lasting change to the political map of Britain?

Brexit is only one item on a shopping list of concerns like immigration, criminality and identity politics that have separated neo-liberal elites, and London generally, from much of the rest of the country. From Blair onwards, Labour tried to shut down debate in controversial areas while embracing policies out of patent political self-interest. Anyone wanting to debate them or even just simply register their concerns was labelled an extremist. Labour complacency and parochialism over two decades drove their traditional voters away. What happened with the 2019 General Election is that the Brexit issue then gave a specific reason, or perhaps excuse, for traditional Labour voters for the first time in their lives to vote blue in areas where you used to hear “you could put a red rosette on a pork pie here and it would get elected”.

Brexit has led to the breaking of a taboo. The Brexit issue itself is a one-off, but there remain those other concerns that a bold Boris Government could now tackle, that would give the new swing voters a motive to do so again next time.

BC: What changes do you want/hope to see made now that the UK has taken back control? Can you summarise your vision for Brexit Britain?

The system of law-making needs to be accountable, responsive, competitive, and democratic. I wrote a paper with recommendations here. Rather than continue to faff about whether Brexit should happen or not, business lobbies ought to be digging into their files and reviewing every submission ever made to government complaining about unwanted red tape. Vast amounts of it were “out of scope” by the simple fact of EU membership. In other cases, they were complaining that Whitehall had overreacted and gold plated out of simple speculation that the Commission might, just possibly, take the UK to the Luxembourg Court. Business groups have wasted a lot of time over the last three years and ought to get cracking with their priority list.

BC: Do you have any special plans for 1st February, our first day outside the EU?


BC: Do you have a favourite photo of yourself from the Brexit process? If so, please share it and give us the context for it.

As above, taken, I think, at a Eurosceptic conference in Oxford fifteen or so years back. Sadly I can’t remember exactly what David Heathcoat-Amory’s joke was other than that it was a belter. I rather like the pic, not just because I had a bit more hair back then and fewer stress lines, but because it captures several aspects of the Eurosceptic movement. You have DHA, an MP unusual in putting his country before his career. There’s Ivar Raig, an Estonian campaigner, prompting us to reflect on how the fight still continues for our friends overseas. There’s the late Ronald Stewart-Brown, reminding us of the long struggle and of absent friends. And the pic was taken by David Wilkinson, one of many unsung heroes of Euroscepticism – I’m hoping the Museum of Brexit Project (which will pick up steam in 2020 now Brexit is finally happening) will capture some of their stories for the historical record.