Richard North, 09/02/2019  

Even after several days, the shockwaves from Donald Tusk's condemnation of those who promoted Brexit, "without even a sketch of a plan how to carry it out safely" have barely abated, raising a controversy that doesn't look as if it is going to go away in a hurry.

What we are also seeing, though, in and amongst the faux outrage from the "ultra" tendency, is a determined attempt to re-write history, with a completely false claim that the official "leave" campaign did in fact produce an exit plan.

The claim centres around a 1000-page document called Change or Go, published by the now-defunct campaign group, Business for Britain, in June 2015, and promoted heavily by the Telegraph, which had partly funded it and also serialised it.

Leading the charge against Tusk was Jonathan Isaby in his tawdry on-line magazine Brexit Central, who claims that this document was an exit plan. Says Isaby, its subtitle, How Britain would gain influence and prosper outside an unreformed EU, provides the clue to it being exactly what Tusk claims did not exist.

Isaby also refers us to a specious piece by one of the principal authors of the work, Dr Lee Rotherham, but he doesn't even claim that it was an exit plan. Merely, he asserts, it was material "for policy makers to reflect on, and to assist in some measure with the planning of everyone considering the impact of Brexit on their businesses and activity".

Not to be outdone, though, we have Jacob Rees-Mogg making it up as he goes along. He asserts that Tusk's claim that "we do not have a plan" is just false. Change or Go which preceded Vote Leave, he writes, "produced a 1,000 page document setting out the options while the ERG has continued to develop these ideas".

Therein lies the classic dissimulation from this man who seems rarely to resort to mere fact, when he can tell a lie or swerve round the truth. Here, we see the technique when he states that Change or Go preceded Vote Leave – not actually realising that this was the name of the report.

Nonetheless, he seeks to imply that the official "leave" campaign subsequently adopted the work, even if it did not. Vote Leave, as we know, specifically rejected the idea of adopting a formal leave plan. Thus, it would be perfectly fair to extend Donald Tusk's condemnation to Vote Leave, even if Change or Go had been an exit plan. But even there, Rees-Mogg misleads. The document was not an exit plan and, at the time, was not seen as one.

To set the context, in June 2015 when this was published, renegotiation was very much in the air, and David Cameron was set to go to Brussels to broker a "fundamental reform" of the treaties, and bring back a "better deal" for the UK. Led by Matthew Elliott, Business for Britain was very much in the "reform" camp. Elliott himself was never a conviction "leaver" and, in the senior ranks of the Tories at the time, there was no enthusiasm for leaving – or even for an in-out referendum. This, it was thought, would be too divisive and could risk splitting the Tory party.

Thus, the preferred plan was for Cameron to negotiate his "reform" and bring back a treaty change. Then the referendum – which was not expected until 2017 - would be focused on this "better deal". We would either opt for Cameron's deal, or vote to leave.

Already, the battle lines were being drawn, with Tory MP Michael Fabricant telling us that a Eurosceptic colleague had told him, "the economic argument will be the key to this campaign".

It was to be a question of "persuading people that we face a bright future outside the sclerotic EU, and that foreign investors will not transfer their jobs to the continent, will be the principal challenge", even if immigration and who governs us were issues we should not ignore.

Fabricant wanted to leave the EU, but that was not the objective of Business for Britain. And it was precisely to address their preferred option of "reform" that Change or Go was produced. "There are clearly deep problems with Britain’s current relationship with the European Union", it said.

"A reforming Government needs to show that it understands all the current problems with the EU and appreciates that fundamental structural changes are needed", the document went on, then concluding: "'Tinkering around the edges' would fail to address any of the issues that we currently face. To quote David Cameron, nothing short of 'full on' Treaty change would lead to the type of relationship the United Kingdom could accept".

From the Telegraph at the time, we then see how this was couched, with James Kirkup writing about Change or Go, under the headline: "Britain needs to get a better deal from Brussels or leave the European Union, major new study argues".

"David Cameron should lead Britain out of the EU if he is unable to secure a veto for the UK over European laws", Kirkup argued, then asserting that: "Unless the Prime Minister can achieve a fundamental change in Britain’s relationship with Brussels, the country’s households and businesses will be better off if the UK opts to leave the EU".

The essence of the pitch though, was that: "With fundamental reform, the EU can work for Britain, but leaving should hold no fear for us". In other words, the threat of leaving was to be used as leverage to secure reform.

This was made perfectly clear in a Telegraph editorial on 21 June 2015, headed: "Britain can renegotiate from a position of strength", with the sub-title, "A major new report adds some welcome facts to the debate".

"In little more than three days", the text said, "David Cameron and his closest aides will set out for Brussels and start a journey that could take Britain out of the EU. Before he leaves, the Prime Minister would do well to read every word of Change or Go, a report published this week about Britain's European present and future". It continued:
Running to more than 1,000 pages and produced by some of Britain's leading business figures, economists and financial experts, the document cannot be taken lightly. It sets out in painstaking detail the reality of Britain's current EU membership, its deep flaws and the actions needed to correct those flaws. Perhaps most importantly, it also demonstrates convincingly that, contrary to the scaremongering claims of some slavish EU devotees, Britain has little to fear from leaving an EU that refuses to make the changes necessary for success in the 21st century.
The tone of the editorial was unmistakable, setting out the purpose of Change or Go. It had been produced to strengthen the hand of Mr Cameron in his negotiations, setting out what he needed to achieve and sending a message to Brussels that, without fundamental reform, the UK might choose to leave.

And although the preferred option was clearly that the UK should stay in the EU, the paper opined that "Britain has a bright future in Europe, whether it is an EU member or not". It concluded: "As he embarks on renegotiations, therefore, Mr Cameron is in a position not of weakness, but of enormous strength".

What comes over very clearly at the time, therefore, is that the document was part of a stratagem to help prime minister Cameron renegotiate our membership of the EU. Its function thus was not to speed our removal from the EU but to keep us in as a full-blown member.

Now to assert that this document can be taken as evidence of Vote Leave having an exit plan is to stand history on its head. The essential strategy of Vote Leave was to avoid committing to a plan. That its apologists now seek to pretend that a plan did exist after all can surely only do one thing: it reminds us how flawed that decision really was, so much so that they are scrambling to disown it.

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