Brexit was 2016’s biggest challenge for after dinner speakers and panellists at corporate events. Time after time we were asked to predict the outcome of the June referendum. Time after time, most of us delivered the conventional view that voters are sensible people who tend, in the privacy of the polling booth, to vote for caution and economic safety – so were highly unlikely to choose Leave, with all the uncertainties that would follow a victory for the likes of Nigel Farage.
It was a case I made several times at corporate conferences, backed up not only by opinion polls but by forecasts from everyone from the Treasury and the IMF downwards to the effect the leaving would lead swiftly to a sharp downturn, rising unemployment and a painful uptick in inflation.
Of course doubts crept in. Early in the campaign I was unsure which way to vote myself, and I could see the Leave side had the punchiest arguments, even if mendacious. Though I never once declared in a speech that I thought Leave might win – and indeed never actually thought so – I did once channel my inner Boris and deliver a tub-thumping speech in Leave’s favour.
It was for a British corporate audience in Amsterdam, and the other panellists were strongly for Remain – one of them was the federalist Belgian MEP Guy Verhofstadt, now leading the Brexit negotiation for the European parliament. Just to annoy him I emphasised the Flemish origin of my own surname and addressed him as ‘Cousin Guy’ throughout. That audience, on a show of hands, were pro-Remain by about 490 to 10, so I felt safe, despite my speech, to go on predicting a Remain win.
But 17 million voted Leave – and the sky didn’t fall in. That creates an even bigger challenge for conference speakers – not so much because audiences might remember what you predicted earlier, but because no one wants to come across as excessively pessimistic, and we must all now hope for a benign long-term outcome of Brexit.
For my part, I’m still predicting medium term turmoil once negotiations start in earnest and it becomes clear that little or nothing can be agreed within a two-year timeframe. Beyond that, however, I’ll let natural optimism rule my head. My speaking message for 2017 and beyond is ‘It’ll be alright in the end – and anyway, we’ll never know what the counterfactual might have been, so let’s just get it done and strive for a prosperous future. Amen.’