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30 March 2017

Making up may be hard to do, but we all need friends in Brexitland

Brexit, Government Affairs

Public Affairs MD Will Walden was Boris Johnson’s communications director for five years and his chief advisor during the referendum campaign. Public Affairs Head of Brexit Advice Lucy Thomas was a founder and deputy director of Stronger In, the campaign to keep Britain in the EU. Writing today for the Times Red Box they’ve called jointly for an end to political polemic around Brexit and argued that unity and compromise must trump fear. Here is a longer version of the piece that appeared in the Times

For one of us, just the sight of Theresa May signing a letter was enough to make us weep. For the other, triggering Article 50 was something to applaud – a sign of British success, an exciting new journey to embark on, out into the world.

But despite these conflicting emotions, having come from opposite sides in the referendum campaign, we don’t spend our time settling scores over the photocopier. We recognise the only way forward is to come together, to push for the best possible deal.

So amidst all the negativity and cat calling that characterised much of the political discourse post referendum, we’ve been struck this week by the utterances of two Mayors.

One said: “I say this with friendship and all due respect… There is no need – as some have suggested – for the EU to send a message or to instil fear by punishing the U.K.. Because a proud, optimistic and confident institution does not secure its future by fear.”

The other offered this: “I think it really would be irresponsible for them to seek to punish us…In the end it would not be us they were punishing; it would be their own voters, their own workforces, their own economies that would suffer.”

One now finds himself Foreign Secretary in a post Brexit Britain he helped create, and will now help shape. The other is his successor as Mayor of Europe’s most dynamic, prosperous, and unapologetically EU loving city of growth, London.

Yet you’d be hard pressed we’d suggest to say which utterance belongs to Boris Johnson and which to Sadiq Khan. Their tone, here at least, is strikingly similar.

The Mayor is an ardent Remainer but he has at his disposal an arsenal of potent weaponry – the city of London – and he appeared unafraid this week to gently remind Brussels of its existence.

The Foreign Secretary remains tiggerishly optimistic about our post Brexit future but even he talked this week about making up not breaking up when he said: “It really is time to reach out, to embrace each other and to try to take this thing forward.” He was talking about relations with Remainers of course, but it is advice that could apply equally to our approach to our EU brethren.

In truth all our political leaders have spent nine months catching up. Why? Because in the wake of June 23rd 2016 you know what – for many people life just carried on.

True, we got a new Prime Minister, Labour got Jeremy Corbyn (again), the SNP got rebuffed (by the new PM) and UKIP got nowhere (in Copeland and Stoke).

Yes, shrill voices abounded – on both sides. Campaigns were run and re-run. Leavers were liars, racists and numbskulls. Remainers were ‘remoaners’, deniers and fascists. Each side was accused of subverting the will of the other.

And inevitably none of this was particularly helpful when it came to effective political debate or indeed trust in our representatives and our institutions.

But profound political shock wasn’t followed by seismic economic meltdown. And the majority on both sides did what the vocal minority should do now – they got on with it.

Yesterday that process of ‘getting on with it’ began in earnest.

So having fought and won, as one of us did, is it wrong now to have pride in your country? To wish the PM well? To hope for and believe in a brighter future at the heart of Europe, but outside of the constraints and the strangulation of EU membership, and ever closer political union? Of course it isn’t.

Equally having fought and lost, as one of us did, is it wrong to hope that Britain retains as many of the benefits of EU membership as possible? To trade as closely and freely as possible, with minimal friction and opportunities to travel, study and work across Europe after we leave? Of course it isn’t.

Like Boris and Sadiq (hardly friends or natural bedfellows in spite of their shared London history) we as a country need to recognise we are at a crossroads. We need to choose to move forward together.

Of course there were strongly held views on both sides, and emotions inevitably run high, particularly for those of us who feel we’ve lost, not only ourselves but for future generations.

But, how do you push for the best possible outcome if you’re shouting?

Remainers can continue to snipe, yell “liar”, and damn the government for having “no clue, no chance, your Hard Brexit will screw us all.’ Or you can say “we didn’t agree, but difficult or not we are with you. We want the best deal for Britain and the EU, and we’ll work with you to achieve it.”

Brexiteers can continue to snipe, to wish that post Brexit you can say ‘hurrah, economic catastrophe has befallen the EU – thank God we are out’ and “we don’t care about the views of the 48%”. Or you can say “we are setting a new destiny in partnership with Europe – and in partnership with those who didn’t vote for this.”

Of course this negotiation won’t be easy. Indeed it will, at times, be profoundly difficult. But given levels of trust in our politicians, government and the media are at an historic low amongst voters this negotiation represents something vital for our democracy – an opportunity to demonstrate to everyone in our country and across our shared continent that unity trumps fear, that tone is important and that ultimately compromise matters more than polemic.

Will Walden is Managing Director Edelman UK & Lucy Thomas is Head of Brexit Advice Edelman UK

For further details, or for any advice on Brexit and how to respond to it, click here or get in touch with one of the team on brexit@edelman.com

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