Daniel Hannan, the brains behind Brexit: what’s next for Britain?
“The stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt,” said Bertrand Russell of the populist wave of the 1930s. If Britain’s agonised liberal elite think of any of the Brexiters as cocksure, the name Daniel Hannan would surely top the list. The Conservative MEP is the high priest of Eurosceptics — a stiff Shakespeare-obsessive for whom self-doubt would appear to come as naturally as a double-backflip.
Flip through one of Hannan’s many eloquent books, and you will find a dreamy blueprint for Brexit. In this world the clouds of negotiations clear, parliamentary supremacy shines, and we “stride into the sunlight”.
“I’d probably been planning for [Brexit] longer than almost anyone,” he tells me at one point over lunch. Later he adds: “I just think there is so much irrational pessimism in the world.”
Some politicians are Marmite. Hannan is acupuncture — you either believe in him or you don’t, in which case it all feels needlessly painful. The liberal New Statesman magazine has a regular column, “What is Daniel Hannan demonstrably wrong about this week?”; it is still to run short of material. Even some on his own side are wary of his obsessiveness. Senior figures in Vote Leave, the official Out campaign in June’s referendum, scornfully labelled him “the world’s greatest debater”, and left him out of the big televised showdowns. “We tried to keep him away from important decisions,” said one.
And yet Hannan, 45, was unquestionably central to the biggest decision of all. When he started as a student activist in the early 1990s, leaving the EU was a fringe movement; he helped turn it into mainstream Conservative thinking. “He persuaded the Conservative party person by person,” says a friend. “His genius is persuading people, without them realising they’re being persuaded.” I’m not sure how they don’t realise: I’ve met suited men with cropped hair and name badges who are less evangelical.
Almost before sitting down, Hannan is detailing his methods. “Politics is didactic,” he starts. I quickly order a glass of wine. “Not for me, I’ve got a very busy day,” he says. The European Parliament will not wreck itself.
Brussels is the belly of Hannan’s beast, home to the tens of thousands of bureaucrats and politicians who run the European Union. But he actually quite likes the place. “First of all, the food is very good,” he says, before moving on to the “very affordable” housing — and an obligatory moan about the weather. “There is 30 per cent more rainfall here than in London, which is a lot if you think about it. Awful lot.”
We are in a chic neighbourhood dotted with Art Deco and Art Nouveau façades, a couple of miles from the EU institutions. Hannan and his family used to live nearby; his daughters attended one of the European Schools free for EU employees. “I’ve tried to stop using Brussels as a shorthand for what I don’t like about the EU. It’s a slur against this really rather handsome and good-tempered town,” he says. Later he confesses the only English thing he really missed was the countryside.
The restaurant consists of eight simple tables, tiled floors and walls, and two huge windows overlooking a quiet crossroads. It’s perfect, I think, before Hannan points out the old meat hooks near the ceiling. “It used to be a butcher’s, as you can see.” A non-meat-eater, I belatedly recognise the type of continental restaurant where the first six letters of végétarien are silent.
“The first two of the main courses are steak,” says Hannan, translating the menu. “Then breast of duck . . . veal sweetbread . . . normal veal with mushrooms . . .
“I’ve absolutely no idea where Culoiseau is,” he continues, raising my spirits momentarily, “but I’d imagine La Poularde de Culoiseau is some kind of chicken.”
Sod it: as Sarah Palin put it, if God had not intended for us to eat animals, how come he made them out of meat? I swallow hard, and order the only bloodless thing on the menu — a poached egg with mushrooms — followed by something random I can pronounce. To my slight horror, it turns out to be veal sweetbread. Hannan goes for the poached egg and the duck.
Like all ardent patriots, Hannan grew up abroad — he is possibly the most famous Peruvian immigrant in London since Paddington. His mother was a diplomat, his father an expat farmer threatened with expropriation. The experience pushed him towards conservatism, even before he started at a British public school. It was Enoch Powell who first inspired Hannan to question Brussels, and the Maastricht treaty that convinced him Britain needed to leave. As a history student at Oxford, he wrote furiously against the Exchange Rate Mechanism. When the Conservative party signed up to it, he concluded the experts didn’t always know best. “Nobody likes a smart alec,” he sighs. “Which is why it’s always better for your career to be wrong and in company rather than right and on your own.”
Hannan is still a relative loner. His version of Brexit — wooing Remainers, staying within the European Free Trade Association, criticising Donald Trump — contrasts sharply with the nativism of Nigel Farage. His latest book, What Next, sets out his agenda for Brexit Britain — including free trade, tax cuts, low regulation, localism and direct democracy. These Singapore-style reforms are “by far the most important” part of Brexit, he claims; they bear some resemblance to what Theresa May has threatened, if Britain is unable to secure a favourable deal with the EU.
What changes would he have made to the prime minister’s long-awaited Brexit speech, delivered earlier this month? “I don’t think I would have changed it at all,” he says.
The eggs arrive, swimming in gravy, mushrooms and, I should have guessed, bacon. Our waitress smiles proudly.
The emerging history of the referendum is that David Cameron could easily have won, with luck and a better campaign. For Hannan, that presents an opportunity. “An awful lot of people were quite close to that middle point, and it was quite a marginal decision which way they went. That’s why I don’t think it’s true there’s this unbridgeable gap or schism. It is possible to construct a relationship with the rest of the EU that will satisfy the vast majority.”
His confidence is piercing. Has he never doubted his ideas? “I always had a bottom line. Had the PM come back with a deal that set the precedent that we could bring powers back, I’d have been happy with that.”
It was easy for the Leave campaign to criticise Cameron, I suggest — you’ve never had to hold power. Only a few Hannan ideas have been put to the test. One was a proposal for elected sheriffs — now in place as police and crime commissioners. Turnout at the last elections averaged 27 per cent, making it the only office to provoke more apathy than the European Parliament.
“Yeaaah,” says Hannan, cautiously. “What is it Prospero says, ‘This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine?’ ” He blames “the implementation”, including the “terrible name”. “Focus groups said sheriffs sounded too American. Which is the most depressing comment on our lack of interest in our history. I mean, where the hell do they think the Americans got the name from?”
It is a rare flash of Hannan’s humour. Soon he is serious again, defending his record. He was bearish on the euro, bullish on the British economy after the Brexit vote, and opposed to rescuing the banks in 2008. “I would argue that what we are seeing throughout Europe and throughout the west — Trump, Bernie Sanders, Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders, Syriza, Podemos — are all delayed reactions to the bank bailouts, the delegitimisation of the market system,” he says.
I’m not sure I follow, but by now I am more engaged trying to cut through the fat of the sweetbread. Hannan, in contrast, remains focused.
“I was reading a report by some German economists about how financial crises are different from a normal economic downturn . . . They studied every financial crisis from 1870 in 20 different countries — France, US, Switzerland, you know — they said they always saw a massive bump in populist politics, on the left and on the right. There’s always a move towards a fairly authoritarian mood, which doesn’t happen in a normal recession.
La Canne en Ville
22 Rue de la Réforme, Brussels
Poached egg x 2 €28
Duck breast €28
Veal sweetbreads €31
Glass of white wine €3.50
Water x 2 €9
Mint tea €4.50
Speculoos ice cream €8.50
“The relatively good news is that it has an end. I would say we’re seeing that end already, the glimmerings of it, in Greece. Greece began the cycle before anybody else, and Tsipras is now breaking records for unpopularity.”
Hannan’s chips and beans are untouched. The remains of his duck are large enough to fly away.
How will Trump’s presidency unfold, I ask. “The US, you could argue, was precisely designed to contain the ambitions of a Caligulan leader. The founders had someone very like him in mind.”
Well, the founders didn’t have in mind that the US would be a nuclear-armed superpower. “No. But other than their foreign policy, there are quite delineated powers . . . Put it like this, if he were to behave unconstitutionally, or if he were to show utter unfitness in office, there is a majority for impeachment in both chambers. If there’s one thing that will exert any restraint, it will be that.”
Later I ask how opponents of Trump and Le Pen might speed up their defeat.
“The populists always fail in their own terms,” Hannan begins. Aha, so Brexit — “Let me be more specific, the protectionists always fail. They always end up delivering the sharpest fall in living standards to the people who are their biggest supporters.”
I pop down the stairs to the loo. When I return Hannan is staring gleefully at a Twitter ruckus on his iPhone. He puts his phone to one side, revealing its Union Flag case.
In his book he calls for parliament to vote each year on how many migrants to allow into the UK. How many would he favour, I ask. “I’m in favour of a more liberal policy when it comes to high-skilled workers. I’d also take students out of [the numbers].”
So how many? “There is going to be some reduction anyway, because the whole remittance value of zlotys from a British income is not what it was . . . The only two changes I’d make is a requirement that you had a job before you came . . . And I would take complete control back on benefits: I’d have a moratorium before you start paying.” So you think parliament should vote on a number, but you don’t have one in mind? “It would vary year by year, but no.”
He moves on to refugees, which he sees as being a huge issue for “the next 50 years”. In 2015 he spent time at an Italian hostel for migrants who had arrived via Africa. “Every country in the world has got to find some way of determining how to regulate an almost unlimited flow of people who will come in claiming refugee status. These are not people coming from Syria.”
Does this mean pulling out of the 1951 refugee convention that commits the UK to allowing people to claim for asylum? He is open to persuasion on this but wonders if we shouldn’t “just be honest about the fact that it’s arbitrary and say we will give the home secretary discretion over admitting 15,000 people a year or whatever. It’s going to be terribly unfair to number 15,001 but every system will be unfair to somebody. This is at least one where it’s rational.”
The waitress offers pudding. Hannan wants mint tea, but I need sustenance.
We’ve been here nearly two hours, and Hannan has dispatched his tie, undone two shirt buttons, pulled out his chair. Yet his manner remains formal. When I ask if there’s another side to him — away from determined argument — he cites how he recently tested his “strong conviction that lime is almost always superior to lemon in any sweet or savoury situation”.
“On Sunday afternoon I performed a controlled experiment — I got exactly the same [lemon drizzle] cake mix, and I did a blind tasting . . . sure enough, lime won, three votes to one!” Perhaps direct democracy will save us after all.
By now I am finding Hannan’s obstinacy strangely provocative. How do we hold you accountable if Brexit doesn’t work, I ask. “I’m not sure how you’d define ‘doesn’t work’.” If £350m a week isn’t available for public services? “It is perfectly legitimate to cite the gross figure in politics . . . That’s the normal way . . . ” Not really, I say, during the campaign you also said that Britain had created more jobs than the rest of the EU put together. That was a net figure including Germany (lots of jobs created) and Greece (lots of jobs lost). “Overall people can look up the figures and decide whether they think it’s fair.”
Perhaps the question is, for people claiming to restore trust in democracy, didn’t the Leave campaign just damage it massively? “Find me any referendum in the world where people haven’t tried to fight tactically as well . . . Both sides did that.”
Dessert arrives — a mountain of Chantilly cream, a monument to the common agricultural policy. Using a long spoon, I confirm the absence of bacon.
I turn to Hannan’s future. He started in Brussels convinced that Tony Blair would try to take the UK into the euro. “I was assuming things would come to a head much earlier than they actually did . . . I wish I’d done other things in retrospect.”
His inclination now is to make up for lost time and he is considering leaving politics when his term expires in 2019. “I could teach, I could write, I could go into business, I could go back to journalism,” he suggests. In his early years as a MEP he wrote leaders for the Daily Telegraph, where he cut a tweedy figure and was known as a young fogey with adamantine right-wing views.
Wouldn’t he miss it all? The Twitter spats with left-wingers? The media appearances? “I really wouldn’t!” he protests, possibly too much. “When you make a film, you need lots of different people with different skillsets — the producer, the director . . . ” he reflects. “I’m happier as a scriptwriter than an actor.”
The exhausting maelstrom of the referendum has exacted a price. “There’s a brilliant, brilliant Emily Dickinson poem about how common to be somebody. You know, I’d like to be nobody, how common to be somebody.” He pauses. “I think of that — often.”
For the moment Hannan is somebody, and a driver has pulled up outside to ferry him back to euroland. “Do you need a lift?” he asks. “That’s very kind,” I say, but perhaps, like him, what I really need is a break.
The writer is an FT political correspondent
Illustration by James Ferguson