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Is Brexit May’s Iraq War?

10th July 2017

There is something depressingly familiar about the Brexit debate that immediately brings back memories of the Iraq War. The Iraq War is generally regarded as a bad decision, largely based on a false prospectus. In fact, that’s something of an understatement. Post Chilcot, Britain’s rush to war is often portrayed as almost criminal in its intent, resulting in permanent damage to Tony Blair’s reputation.

The dark forebodings of recent days over the potential consequences of Brexit raise similar issues. Will Theresa May, or the next Tory Leader, suffer a similar fate? Will she be blamed for Brexit if it all goes wrong? Today’s attempt to reach out to other parties on this, and other issues, looks like an attempt to limit the potential damage by sharing responsibility.

Ultimately May has the defence of saying that she was implementing the will of the British people. This is, of course, hopelessly naïve. Firstly, those who voted Leave have endless opportunity to blame a bad outcome on poor negotiation, irrespective of whether it was ever possible to obtain a good one.

More importantly, the public are fickle to the point of deceit. This is where the comparison with the Iraq War comes in. Throughout most of 2003, according to YouGov, an average of 54% of people supported the invasion of Iraq, a figure that is strangely close to the Leave vote. Yet by 2015, only 37% of people admitted to supporting the invasion at the time. The comparative figures for the US are 63% and 38%.

People have a remarkable capacity to re-engineer their own memories to present themselves in a positive light.

If, and at this stage it is only if,  Brexit all goes wrong, you can be sure that opinion polls will behave in the same way. Some Leave voters will blame false information, as with the Iraq War. Many more will deny having voted Leave altogether.

The issue then becomes who to blame. And you can be sure that the public won’t be up for taking the rap.

These are the personal views of Ian Coldwell, Chairman of Pagoda Porter Novelli.