On the evening of Ash Wednesday, having prayed, fasted, and abstained from meat and, as far as was humanly possible, from uncharitable thoughts about Donald Trump and the Holy Father, I went to what must have been one of the most enjoyable Remainian parties ever given. As you will imagine, the company was delightful: charming, funny, liberal, patriotic, gentle, elitist, sceptical, generous, forgiving; and the talk was not obsessively one-dimensional.
There was discussion of Brexit, too, of course. In fact, the party was held to launch Harry Mount’s latest book, Summer Madness: How Brexit Split the Tories, Destroyed Labour and Divided the Country. Mount, as it happens, voted Leave, but he was almost the only Leaver at his party. Only in England, as they say in America.
Mount is a moderate conservative, as you would expect of the new (and young) editor of the Oldie and occasional contributor to this magazine. He is neither angry nor bitter. Perhaps that is because he doesn’t take politics personally. There is absolutely nothing pious about him, either, but if there is one thing he really hates it is Nasty. From Summer Madness: “The schism [caused by the referendum] wasn’t just political; it was also emotional, spiritual and and intellectual. Politics is famously a ruthless, nasty game. I had never seen it so ruthless or nasty.”
It remains nasty and ruthless, but there seems to be an emerging consensus among the better Remainians that it is time to chill, time to stop the snooty attacks on, for example, the football hooligans and provincial shopkeepers who voted Leave, and to take a walk on the bright side. “It’s going to be OK,” said one of the guests at the launch party. “Things will get back pretty much to normal. We are not going to get hard Brexit.”
Perhaps the same mood is emerging among the better Leavers, too. Last week the Eurosceptic Spectator ran a very conciliatory leader, pegged to John Major’s modest suggestion at a Chatham House gathering that Brexiters might think of chucking the “cheap rhetoric”. According to the Speccie: “Some of Brexit’s most prominent figures are in danger of showing a disregard bordering on contempt for the 48 per cent who believed our future was more secure within the European Union.”
Mount knows many of the key players in the referendum battle, from the men and women who wanted Britain to “take back control” – of its human rights, its bendy bananas, and, most of all, of its borders – to those who fought for Remain, not least among them David Cameron, who has the distinction of being Mount’s second cousin.
The Leavers provide the better story, of course, largely because they were, and in many cases still are, angrier than the Remainers, and loopier. There were spectacular tangles, fights, muggings, and Mount quite rightly does not delete the many expletives. All the Leavers worked ferociously hard, furthermore. “You were in by seven,” Cleo Watson, Vote Leave’s head of outreach, told Mount. “From March , it was weekends, too. Everyone got really fat and there was borderline alcoholism going on.”
But the joke is sometimes on the Remainers, some of whom had clearly lost the plot. Mount recalls a swank party in the West End at which he found himself talking to a sophisticated-looking woman – fifties, elegant black dress, perfect bone structure – and made the mistake of admitting that he was for Brexit. She went completely bonkers. “How could you?” she shouted. “Do you know what France will do to you if your get your way?”
Mount did not know what the French would do to him, or to us, and neither, of course, did the woman.
Of the public figures backing Vote Leave, only Boris came out as a winner. When Michael Gove shocked everyone by declaring that he would challenge Boris in the Tory leadership campaign and Boris stood down, it looked as though it was all up for the former editor of the Spectator and Mayor of London (and, in his formative years, Brussels correspondent of the Daily Telegraph). Boris withdrew from the contest. It was a time of high comedy. In the end, however, Gove got nowhere. It was Theresa May who became PM and Boris who became Her Majesty’s Principal Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs.
“Like some species of blond cockroach,” writes Harry Mount, “Boris survived the post-referendum nuclear fallout, while other Bullingdon Boys and the Notting Hill set were wiped off the face of the earth.”
Boris is still in the game, therefore, and will surely find space to make another bid for No 10. He might be good for the Remainers. After all, he genuinely loves Europe. OK, he might suffer occasionally from attention deficit disorder, but then most of us do.