We must adjust the sails

By Naomi Smith, Best for Britain CEO
Follow on Twitter at @Pimlicat

As Britain enters the penultimate round of negotiations with Europe next week, it's clear that politics via Parliament Square will no longer work for those fighting to stay close to our continental neighbours.

The pessimist complains about the wind; the optimist expects it to change; the realist adjusts the sails.

Best for Britain was conceived to stop Brexit but, in the aftermath of last year’s General Election, it was clear that despite British support for Europe having risen, the winds of change were not blowing in our favour.

At our most pessimistic, we blamed an unfair voting system; more often, optimistically, we cheered the fact that a majority of voters had backed pro-European parties and polls showed a clear lead for staying in; but the reality was that, come January 31st, Brexit was a done deal, and our hopes of remaining in the EU, dashed.

It wasn’t enough for us to keep complaining that Brexit should be abandoned, nor to expect some miraculous volte-face from a pro-Brexit Government that had won by a landslide. No, it was time to adjust our sails.

During this period of reflection, COVID-19 hit. The ensuing crisis has told us many things about ourselves and the world we live in. The EU has struggled to respond to all the problems created by coronavirus, but it has also undertaken Herculean efforts to ensure the cheap delivery of personal protective equipment and other vital medical products across the continent. 

The EU represents more than an economic alliance. It stands for equal rights, for freedom of movement, for peace between neighbours, for benefits that have been hard won and should not be given up easily. 

So, no, we don't believe the country wants to rid itself of everything relating to Europe. A sensible middle ground can be found. Reports suggest Britain could face a fall in output of up to 35 per cent in the second quarter of 2020, making it more important than ever that we pay attention to the concerns of businesses.

We will be calling for an extension to the December 31st transition deadline, in light of the chaos we currently see and the danger of a double whammy that leaving the Single Market and Customs Union would cause at a time of economic recovery.

And we will also make the case for continued participation of Europe-wide schemes that provide value to the UK, particularly where they relate to security and crisis-response, and a fair alternative to points-based immigration.

But by accepting Brexit has happened, not trying to rejoin, we can begin to have sensible, forward thinking, policy discussions. After three years of fighting, followed by an unprecedented pandemic, nobody wants to conduct politics via Parliament Square any more.

We can bring a lot to these policy discussions too. Best for Britain’s great strength is its three pillars.

The first is our remarkable supporter base, whose enthusiasm, generosity and relentless determination has never wavered, and who provide us with invaluable local-level insight as well.

Second, we are evidence-based and data-driven. It’s not that we are unemotional, but we do base our work on hard facts. As the last election approached, for example, our figures clearly and more accurately than other polls, predicted Boris Johnson’s landslide victory. We have already commissioned polling on a range of topics this year and recently showed that two-thirds of the public support an extension to the transition period. We will continue this work measuring public opinion ahead of negotiations resuming next week. 

Third, we have become extremely experienced at building trusted connections with politicians from all the major parties. Our data and insight is highly valued in Westminster and we are in regular contact with MPs, peers and others in the political hinterland.

We are also working with trade organisations and other specialist groups to provide information to legislators so they may make evidence based decisions. And we are reaching out to work with people whose views on internationalism we may disagree with but to whom we can offer insight.

Rather than freezing out Conservative politicians from our data, we have opened it up to them. In order to change the government's policy, and ultimately secure the best arrangements for businesses and communities, we need to be having this dialogue.

Our approach is pragmatic, realistic and collaborative; it recognises that Brexit took place in January, and also that Britain will benefit greatly by staying close to its continental cousins.

Yes, the winds have changed, and we have tacked accordingly. But our route still keeps us close to Europe.

Naomi Smith
CEO, Best for Britain

Follow me on Twitter at @Pimlicat