Britain's Old Political Enemies Join Forces to Fight Brexit

  • Two decades after they fought, Major and Blair unite
  • Alliance is driven by collapse of the Labour opposition

Former U.K. Prime Ministers Unite to Temper Brexit

Tony Blair and John Major spent 20 years tearing into each other’s parties. Now the old foes are uniting to face a common enemy: U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May and her march toward a hard Brexit.

The reason for the rare alliance across party lines is concern that the views of the 48 percent who voted to stay in the European Union are going unvoiced by the opposition Labour Party. The onetime nemeses want to spark a debate that forces May to worry about the Remainers too when negotiating the split.

Labour’s slide has given Euroskeptics a freer hand to impose their agenda on the ruling Conservatives, drowning out the arguments of such senior figures as former Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne. “Come off it, sunshine” was the dismissive response of Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson to Major’s speech this week warning May had made unreal promises.

“We have at the moment, just as the country’s embarking on this huge undertaking of Brexit, an opposition that has completely vacated the stage,” former Education Secretary Nicky Morgan, a Tory, said in an interview. “You need government to be held to account and the people to do that are Her Majesty’s opposition.”

Those seeking to soften Brexit would ideally like the U.K. to stay in single market, which May has signaled is out of the question. Failing that, they want to preserve as many of the benefits of EU membership as they can, including free trade in goods with the bloc, access to talented foreigners and markets for Britain’s financial services.

Leaders Wanted

That is where Major and Blair come in, even if it remains unclear how much influence they can wield so late in the game with May poised to begin divorce talks as soon as March 15.

Their interventions, a week apart, provide “a degree of leadership from politicians who are less concerned about party politics and their future career, and more concerned about the issue at stake,” said John Curtice, professor of politics at Strathclyde University in Glasgow.

Under its current leader, Jeremy Corbyn, Labour campaigned ineffectually to keep Britain inside the EU -- with many on Corbyn’s side openly wondering whether that was the result he wanted. Since then, an attempt to oust him failed and the party hemmed and hawed before supporting the passage of May’s Brexit bill through the House of Commons.

Monumentally Useless

Morgan described Corbyn as “monumentally useless.” May sarcastically praised him for his “incredible” leadership during one weekly question-and-answer session in Parliament.

Labour’s weakness in the polls combined with the U.K. Independence Party’s waning fortunes means May has more to fear from those in her own party pushing her to a harder stance on Brexit. Those Tories seeking to slow her down are despairing that their opponents aren’t doing enough to hold the government to account.

“How much longer is the Labour movement going to put up with its utterly useless, shambolic and frankly embarrassing leadership?” Osborne, a Remain campaigner who once aspired to the job May holds and still holds a seat in Parliament, said on Twitter. 

Joining the informal Blair-Major-Osborne coalition are a cast of other unlikely allies: Former Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, a Liberal Democrat; Labour backbenchers including former leader Ed Miliband and former business spokesman Chukka Umunna; and the Tory peer, Michael Heseltine, who served in cabinets for Major and Margaret Thatcher.

Expose Relentlessly

“Our challenge is to expose relentlessly what this cost is, to show how the decision was based on imperfect knowledge which will now become informed knowledge, to calculate in ‘easy to understand’ ways how proceeding will cause real damage to our country,” Blair said on Feb. 17.

Major echoed those sentiments on Feb. 27: “I have watched with growing concern as the British people have been led to expect a future that seems to be unreal and over-optimistic.”

Their precise goals vary. Blair said he wanted to shift public opinion sufficiently to reverse the Brexit vote. Major didn’t go that far, but didn’t rule out supporting a second referendum.

Whether they can prove successful may depend on the state of the economy which has so far proved resilient to the Brexit decision. If it starts to fade then voters may turn increasingly concerned about May’s Brexit push and demand rethink.

For now, they mainly just have questions that May can’t or won’t answer.

“What do you want your immigration policy to look like? What do you want your trade policy to look like? What do you want your business policy to look like?” Osborne asked the audience at the British Chambers of Commerce. “That’s where the devil’s in the detail.”

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