Clifford Longley predicts the main event of the year ahead
My prediction for 2018? That this is the year when public opinion will swing decisively against Brexit. The polls are already suggesting it. There is nothing on the horizon likely to reverse it. And the Tories are blithely walking into a trap partly of their own devising, which they are nothing like clever enough to avoid.
The broad policy disarray over Brexit strategy in Theresa May's cabinet has already drained the public's confidence in their capacity to deliver a good result – and they haven't yet even defined what a good result would be. Meanwhile Labour's studied ambiguity over Brexit is beginning to look like a cunning plot.
They are as it were in favour of umbrellas, but only when it is raining. For umbrellas read halting Brexit in its tracks and staying in; for raining read a growing realisation among the Brexit waverers – most of us, in fact – that the only deal on the table at the end of the negotiation will be a bad one. But they haven't said so explicitly, as public opinion hasn't got there yet. They have only said that a second referendum is not current party policy.
Not yet. The umbrella is there, but out of sight. When Labour is satisfied public opinion has moved enough, it will find abundant excuses for a U-turn. Its policy of accepting the referendum result was conditional upon the living standards and employment rights of ordinary people being protected. At the time this looked like a footnote, not least because Mrs May was saying more of less the same. But soon it will be the great Brexit get-out clause, as it becomes increasingly obvious that both living standards and employment rights are bound to deteriorate if and when Brexit finally happens. Nobody voted to be poorer, we will be told.
When the public has fully grasped that prospect, that get-out clause will start to look mightily attractive – even in northern working class towns which voted so solidly in favour of Leave. And their major irritant – immigrants from the EU swamping public services and diluting the jobs market – has already started to ease. Not least of the factors behind this has been an economic revival in Poland, where the majority of EU workers came from, seeking jobs.
The EU itself has only to go on playing its cards as it has always said it would, including a categorical refusal to allow the United Kingdom to cherry pick the best bits of EU membership while rejecting those it does not like. It may not be the EU's stated intention to make the UK poorer as a result of Brexit, but it will do nothing to stop that happening. If the EU economy continues to revive, while the UK economy continues to flounder, Brexit will look not so much like the key to liberty as to penury.
At the heart of the pro-Brexit campaign was the slogan "take back control". For serious Brexiteers, the control they were seeking was not just over immigration but also those rights and obligations that used to be known as the "social chapter" – the terms of EU membership designed to prevent the lowering of standards and wages in a "race to the bottom".
This was a deliberate attempt to blunt the worst impact of market forces on ordinary people's lives by, for instance, allowing them minimum holiday entitlements and imposing a maximum working week. The Conservative party has never liked it, and hailed John Major's opt out from the social chapter in the Maastricht treaty as a negotiating triumph.
It was the measures in the social chapter, on the other hand, that finally brought the British left, including the trades union movement, into grudging acceptance of Britain's EU membership once Tony Blair had Britain sign up to it. The more the Tories stress "taking back control", meaning "let market forces rip again", the more Brexit is going to look like a conspiracy of the rich against the poor.
And then, when it is raining heavily, Labour will raise its umbrella. It will demand that staying in the EU becomes one of the official options available at the end of the Brexit negotiations, when Parliament has the "meaningful vote" it has been promised. And when it is sure of winning it, it will call for another referendum. If referendums really do express "the will of the people", how do the Tories get out of that?
(Pic: Historical interpreters parade through the Tower of London as part of a Medieval Christmas event. Pic by: Jonathan Brady/PA)