On Brexit, it's time to stop "preaching to the choir"

Last week, after months of delay and waiting, MPs were finally forced to vote on Mrs May’s Brexit deal.

The result? Defeat, of course. The outcome was evident for quite some time and delaying the vote seems to have done little to help, with the government going down to a historic defeat 432 to 202.

The vote that was originally scheduled for December was delayed so ‘assurances’ could be provided by the EU and by Theresa May to opponents of the deal.

The scale of the defeat suggests that the assurances failed. Less than a third of MPs were persuaded that Theresa May’s deal was the right one. With the vote in the books we return to the war of the words as all sides seek to persuade their political opponents in Westminster that their solution is the right one.

Brexit is providing a classic case of politicians “preaching to the choir” – making an argument in a way that appeals only to those already converted. All sides might find their cause furthered better by reaching beyond Westminster and making their argument more effectively to the public.

The language of politics is supposed to be about persuasion. It feels to me like the challenge of Brexit has afflicted British politics with an inability to communicate with clarity. If you can’t define your own side’s position, how can you possibly persuade anyone that it is the right one?

Take the following positions supported by various competing factions:

May’s Brexit Deal; Labour’s Six Brexit Tests; no deal; a managed no deal; a people’s vote; Canada; Canada Plus; Canada Plus Plus; Norway Plus; Labour’s new referendum amendment…

I could go on.

I’m not convinced any of these can be clearly explained in a sentence in a way that would make sense to the general public. All are well-meaning but also obtuse and perhaps intentionally opaque. All sides claim their offer is clear but speak in words that lack meaning.

It’s true that the public isn’t the target of the current rhetoric, which is aimed at MPs. Yet last week’s vote suggests the arguments have failed to move opinion with them. In any case, I think each side is missing a trick by focusing only on Westminster. Whilst May and Corbyn wrestle to keep their own MPs onside, they’re failing to make their case to the public their MPs represent, something that could be more effective in ultimately shifting opinion in the House.

Of course, MPs are the decision makers here, and they are free to vote with their conscience. But elected representatives don’t exist in a void, and make no mistake they are paying very close attention to public opinion. Were one side or the other to break through and create a shift in opinion, it would impact Parliament in turn.

Since the great public debate has devolved into parliamentary bickering, why not get back out among the public? All sides should be making their case wherever they can, impassioned arguments and honest conversations. And here’s the challenge: to do this effectively, it will require a different Brexit debate – moving beyond the elusive language of Canada Plus Plus and getting the public back involved in the discussion.

When speaking to the public, some divisions do run too deep – the Let’s-call-the-whole-thing-off crowd are never going to get on board with Team No Deal. However, while those two groups are loud we shouldn’t pretend that everyone has made up their minds. YouGov polling from January on a range of Brexit outcomes demonstrated this uncertainty, with between 15 and 25 percent of the public ‘not sure’ whether any scenario would be a good or bad outcome. The position for many people is more complex and the don’t knows, don’t cares and the waverers are still persuadable if one side can argue their case in language that is credible, practical, and honest.

But delivering this requires more than “preaching to the choir.” As a vicar’s daughter, the Prime Minister would do well to remember this and others should take heed too.