It is just over a week since the Brexit referendum. The leader of the Leave campaign, Boris Johnson, has fled the field. I’d like to think his decision not to stand for the Tory leadership was driven by shame for what he has done, but it was more likely a simple act of political realism and self interest. In the post vote, post Boris, world, some things are now becoming clear but much remains hard to predict.
It seems the Conservative MPs are going to close ranks, elect a ‘safe’ leader in Theresa May, accept ‘the will of the people’ as far as leaving the EU is concerned and avoid an early General Election which would put their own jobs at risk. Worryingly, the irreconcilable objectives of the Brexiteers (control immigration, avoid paying into the EU whilst staying in the single market) look like being resolved by abandoning the single market, hoping that increased trade with the rest of the world can compensate for lost trade with Europe. The EU’s refusal to have any dialogue with the UK about the terms for exit before the UK commits itself irrevocably to leaving by triggering Article 50 seems to have made it very likely that the UK will be irreversibly on course for exit before the 48% of people who didn’t want to leave (and perhaps a few more who now regret their Leave vote) will get an opportunity to try to change the policy in a General Election.
What is less clear is what the opposition is going to do, with Jeremy Corbyn still apparently determined to try to hang on. Many of us are still hoping that there is a chance to avoid an exit. I loved this letter to the FT, speaking out on behalf of “the 48%”. I agree that we need an effective opposition arguing the case for the half of the country that views the exit vote as a national disaster of historic proportions. The Conservatives seem to have decided that the survival of their party and their own political careers require them to implement an exit, whatever the cost for the country. Perhaps Corbyn will go quietly and a new Labour leader will rally the MPs in the House to speak out for “the 48%”, for Leave voters who now realise they were lied to, and for common sense. I only wish I could be more hopeful that this will happen.
Meanwhile, don’t give up. Let the MPs who want to fight know they have mass public support. Let the rest of the EU know how many people in the UK feel European and want to stay that way. And let the non British born people living in and contributing to our country feel welcome and valued, not rejected, hated or unwanted.
Sad, angry and fearful for the future of the UK and for Europe. That is how I felt when I woke up on Friday morning to the news that the Leave campaign had won the Brexit referendum. The sadness and the fear remain but, somewhat to my surprise, my feeling of anger has only grown over the last 24 hours. I’ve never posted anything political here before, but I am so angry that I feel I need to speak out.
How did we get here? The root of the problem is the deep divisions about Europe in the Conservative Party. The party has been held together by a series of leaders who managed to paper over the cracks. The rise of UKIP made this more and more difficult. Prior to the last election, David Cameron made a disasterous short term political decision to offer a referendum to the Eurosceptics in his party. He had tried the same trick over Scotland and that almost ended in disaster (indeed it still may). Whether he thought he would be saved by the Liberals, or was confident he would win the referendum is hard to say. Whatever the case, it was a stunning case of gambling the future of the country for short term political expediency. Well, the gamble has failed. He has ended his own career and possibly also destroyed his party. In fact, I have come to the conclusion that the destruction of the Conservative Party as we know it is what needs to happen next if we are to avoid Cameron’s reckless gamble destroying the country too.
I know people will say that the people of the UK have spoken and we must respect their decision and leave the EU. But this was never an issue that should have been decided by a referendum with a simple yes/no answer. Everybody had a good idea about what voting Remain would mean. Nobody knew what a vote for Leave would actually mean. For some, it would be more money for the NHS. For others, it would be reductions in immigration. For many, it was a desire for the UK to “take back control” – people were fed up with being “told what do by faceless, unelected eurocrats”. OK, these are all valid and legitimate goals. But the simple truth is that there isn’t any chance these are all going to happen. Unlike after a General Election, there isn’t a leader or party that can be held to account to deliver on the promises made during the campaign. There has never been an overall plan of action set out by the Leave campaign. It has no overall leader with a complete vision of where to take the country. Instead we have single issue politicians like Farage and political opportunists like Boris who will say whatever he thinks will get himself into number 10. Whether you agree with Farage on his single issue or not, anyone who would trust the future of the country to him needs their head examining.
So what should happen now? Whatever happens, we should have a General Election before anything is done to enact leaving the EU. Let us see who would be Prime Minister and have a chance to vote for them. Let us hear the whole plan of the party or parties that want to go ahead and leave the EU. The implications of leaving are so significant and intertwined with other issues that it can’t be just “grafted on” as an optional extra. You can’t just choose your party of government and then add or subtract EU membership to taste.
The second thing that needs to happen is the breakup of the Conservative Party. I have voted for them in every election, so I say this with great sadness. But the truth is that what we now need is a proper centrist party to vote for, free of both left and right wing extremists. In 1981, the ‘Gang of Four’ broke away from the Labour Party to form a new centrist political party, the SDP. Sadly, this came to nothing in the end. But 35 years later, it is time to try again, this time starting with a break away group of pro EU Conservative MPs. Perhaps the current political crisis and the disarray in the Labour Party under Corbyn even makes it possible for them to be joined by a break away group of moderate Labour MPs. Now that would be a party I would vote for and I think would give the country an option which might beat “none of the above” as the party of choice.