Sir John Major slams Brexit as he demands Theresa May cut out the ‘cheap rhetoric’ that is enraging EU allies and prepare the voters for the ‘hurt’ ahead

Sir John Major has branded Brexit an ‘historic mistake’ and demanded Theresa May halt the ‘cheap rhetoric’ that is damaging the chance of a good deal.

In an incendiary speech that will infuriate Brexiteers, the ex-PM said his successor must ‘charm’ her EU allies and prepare the public for hard times ahead.

Sir John hit out at Brexit less than a fortnight after Tony Blair urged Remain supporters to ‘rise up’ in defiance of Brexit. 

In a gloomy assessment of Britain’s prospects, Sir John said a hard Brexit would leave the UK dependant on a dominant and unpredictable United States.

He admitted the economy had been more ‘tranquil’ than expected but warned the public was being ‘led to expect a future that seems to be unreal’.

And Sir John warned the political tensions in the Brexit risked smashing apart the Union, as Scottish nationalists strive for a re-run of the 2014 referendum and Northern Ireland’s politicians wrestle with the future of devolution.

In his speech, Sir John said: 

  • A ‘hard’ Brexit where Britain quits the single market is ‘high risk’ and will mean some people will ‘lose’
  • It will cause a second independence referendum in Scotland and smash the devolution settlement in Northern Ireland
  • The Government is offering a Brexit future that is ‘unreal and over optimistic’ as opportunities are ‘inflated beyond any reasonable expectation’ 
  • Anyone who expects Europe will give Britain everything it wants from the negotiation is ‘extraordinarily naive’ and voters must be warned of the ‘hurdles’ ahead 
  • Britain and America are not equals and the UK will be left dependant on a dominant and unpredictable ally in the White House 
  • Brexit has fuelled ‘bigotry, prejudice and intolerance’ on the continent and undermined the EU ‘colossus’  
  • Quitting the EU without a deal and turning Britain into a low-tax, low-regulation economy would end the welfare state and never gain popular support
  • Theresa May must show more ‘charm’ to EU allies to ease a ‘sour’ diplomatic atmosphere behind the scenes of the negotiations 
  • Answering questions, Sir John claimed it was ‘very unlikely’ a comprehensive deal would be struck during the official two year negotiation period  

Speaking at Chatham House in London, Sir John said: ‘Eight months ago a majority of voters opted to leave the European Union. I believed then – as I do now – that was an historic mistake, but it was one – once asked – that the British nation had every right to make.

‘The Government cannot ignore the nation’s decision and must now shape a new future for our country.

‘Some changes may be beneficial: others may not. A hard Brexit – which is where we seem to be headed – is high risk. Some will gain. Others – will lose.’ 

Answering questions after his speech, Sir John said he was not calling for a second referendum ‘at this stage’ and added: ‘We cannot turn the clock back. We cannot overturn the result. We must get the best deal we can.’  

A Brexit backlash was underway tonight as senior Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg told MailOnline Sir John was ‘yesterday’s man with yesterday’s opinions’.

Former Conservative Party vice-chair Michael Fabricant said he was ‘disappointed’ at this ‘almost personal attack’.

Leading Brexit supporter Andrew Bridgen said Sir John’s attack was misdirected, insisting Mrs May had never promised there would be no ‘bumps’ along the way as was working hard for a ‘successful’ Brexit.  

Sir John said the referendum had been ‘one of the most divisive votes in British history’ that had ‘opened up divisions’ across society.

And he warned: ‘I have watched with growing concern as the British people have been led to expect a future that seems to be unreal and over-optimistic.

‘Obstacles are brushed aside as of no consequence, whilst opportunities are inflated beyond any reasonable expectation of delivery.’ 

Sir John said if those expectations failed to be met, those hurt most would be those least able to bear it.

And in remarks that may be aimed at the criticism his speech will generate, Sir John condemned those on the Brexit side ‘shouting down legitimate comment’.

The former Tory leader, who won a general election in 1992, said closing Parliament out of the Brexit negotiations altogether would leave ministers deaf to public concern.

And he warned it was crucial the public was aware of challenges ahead as.

Quoting Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson directly, but not naming him, Sir John said: ‘The hopes of those who favoured leaving the European Union are sky-high. We are told that countries ”are queuing up to do trade deals with us”. That ”our best days lie ahead”.

‘It all sounds very enticing. And – for the sake of our country – I hope the optimists are proved right. But I’m not sure they will be.

‘My own experience of international negotiations – and the national self-interest that accompanies them – makes me doubt the rosy confidence being offered to the British people.

‘Negotiations are all about ‘give’ and ‘take’. We know what the Brexiteers wish to take: yet we hear nothing about what our country may have to give in return.

‘If anyone genuinely believes that Europe will concede all we wish for – and exact no price for doing so – then they are extraordinarily naive.’ 

Sir John said Mrs May would need ‘goodwill’ on both sides to achieve a good deal for Britain.

But he warned that behind public diplomatic niceties, the atmosphere was already difficult – and warned of a ‘politically explosive’ start to negotiations if the EU stands by its demand for a £60billion divorce bill as a precursor to talks.

He said: ‘Behind the diplomatic civilities, the atmosphere is already sour. A little more charm, and a lot less cheap rhetoric, would do much to protect the UK’s interests.’

On the divorce bill he said: ‘Of course that is true: but when you leave any club, you are obliged to settle your debts, and that is what the European Union is going to expect the UK to do.

‘There are liabilities to be met: pension costs, legacy costs, contingent liabilities, a proportional share of work-in-progress. The EU will argue we have a legal obligation to pay these bills.’ 

And he warned: ‘So there is a choice to be made, a price to be paid; we cannot move to a radical enterprise economy without moving away from a welfare state.

‘Such a direction of policy, once understood by the public, would never command support. It would make all previous rows over social policy seem a minor distraction.’ 

Sir John said Brexit was undermining Europe and fuelling ‘populist’ parties on the continent that would cause even more damage.

He said the vote had ‘energised’ anti-EU, anti-immigrant nationalists’ ahead of elections in France, Germany and Holland.

Sir John said: ‘None of these populist groups is sympathetic to the broadly tolerant and liberal instincts of the British.

‘Nonetheless, their pitch is straightforward. If Britain – sober, stable, moderate, reliable Britain, with its ancient Parliament and anti-revolutionary history – can break free of a repressive bureaucracy in Brussels, why, then ”so can anyone”.

‘It is a potent appeal.’

Sir John added: ‘I caution everyone to be wary of this kind of populism. It seems to be a mixture of bigotry, prejudice and intolerance. It scapegoats minorities.

‘It is a poison in any political system – destroying civility and decency and understanding. Here in the UK we should give it short shrift, for it is not the people we are – nor the country we are.’

Sir John said Britain would be left dependant on the United States after Brexit and warned the UK was most useful as an ally inside the bloc.

He said the UK was ‘by far the junior partner’ because America ‘dwarfs the UK in economic and military power’. 

The ex-PM said: ‘Inevitably there will be disagreements: the US wish to contain China and engage Russia; we wish to contain Russia and engage China.

‘We seem likely to disagree also on refugees, free trade, the legality of Jewish settlements, and climate change.

‘How many disagreements can there be before even the closest of ties begin to fray?’

In any event, Sir John said, trade between Britain and US was already high and low cost.

He warned: ‘The Government must also replicate the 53 deals struck on our behalf by the European Union. So far, only 12 are in play.

‘There is a very, very long way to go, and the question arises: are 65 million Britons likely to get the same favourable outcome as 500 million Europeans?

‘I set out these difficulties, not because I don’t think deals can be done – some certainly can – but to be realistic about the timescale and complexity of the huge undertaking that lies ahead.

‘It is crucial to business and the public – that our expectations are consistent with what can be delivered. It matters to the Government, too: Ministers must not over-promise.’

Senior Conservative Mr Fabricant told MailOnline: ‘I am disappointed that a former Prime Minister has chosen to embark on this almost personal attack.

‘He is resurrecting tired old arguments which were all made during the long referendum campaign, which failed to convince then and have since been proven wrong.

‘This is all based in the past and is blinkered to the bright opportunities for our future.

‘The bitterness of those who reject the will of the people is not an edifying sight.’ 

Tory Andrew Bridgen said: ‘I think it is always dangerous when politicians claim that when they lose an election, it is the people who have got it wrong.

‘I don’t think Theresa May has ever said there won’t be bumps along the road as we leave the European Union.

‘Theresa May has made clear we are going to work hard to deliver the most successful Brexit that we can.’ 

John Longworth, co-chairman of the Leave Means Leave campaign, said: ‘No deal is better than a bad deal with the EU – Britain must walk away from the table and revert back to WTO rules if the EU is unwilling to do a deal.

‘Britain is in a strong negotiating position – the EU needs access to to the London capital markets for its own growth.

‘Instead of carping from the sidelines and damaging Britain, Sir John Major should heed his own advice. After the 1997 election he said ”when the curtain falls, it is time to get off the stage”.’ 

Chuka Umunna MP, leading supporter of Open Britain, said: ‘Sir John is right to question how likely that is but it is there is no chance at all of it being delivered if our European partners across the negotiating table continue to be demonised.

‘It is vital that Parliament is given a meaningful vote on the final agreement, with the power to send the Government back to the negotiating table if the deal they come back with is not good enough for Britain.’

Liberal Democrat Leader Tim Farron said: ‘The Conservatives should listen to the likes of John Major and Heseltine instead of sneering at them.

‘These are people with huge experience of negotiating with Europe, while the Brexiteers have no clear strategy.

‘There is nothing patriotic about shutting down debate on the risks of a hard Brexit for our country’s prosperity and security.’

A No 10 source said: ‘The Government is determined to make a success of our departure from the European Union and to move beyond the language of leave and remain to unite our country.

‘The Prime Minister set out her 12 negotiating objectives for Brexit in January. We have a clear plan to get the best deal for the United Kingdom and are going to get on with the job of delivering it.’

February 27th, 2017: Daily Mail