28th June 2016
–By Keith Nieland-
THE HOUSE OF CARDS HAS COLLAPSED, BEEN SHREDDED AND BURNT TO A CINDER
If the events of the last 4 days had been written in a House of Cards script it would have been described as far-fetched, ludicrous and beyond belief. However, the unbelievable has now become the everyday. The new norm is chaos. Where we go from here is anybody’s guess. The dice have been thrown high in the air and nobody knows where they may land. Half the voting population are filled with despair while the other half rejoice. I voted Remain and worked on the campaign so I feel pretty sore at the referendum outcome.
I begin by seeking your permission to mix my metaphors. In the early hours of Friday morning Nigel Farage strode on to College Green looking as proud as a peacock with the smile of the cat that got the cream. His moment had arrived. His political dream had been realised. Most politicians act magnanimously at such times and hold out an olive branch to their opponents. Would Farage do so? We quickly got our answer. This was a victory for “decent and honest people” he trumpeted. It follows that those who did not agree with his world view are neither decent nor honest. If he wanted to be more damaging it would be difficult to know what he could have said. There are no bridges or compromises in the world of Farage. He was in full flow now and decided to sow the seeds of discontent across Europe by calling for a Brexit in other countries. You could almost hear President Putin cheering him on from the Kremlin where a divided and weakened Europe would be most welcome.
As Farage shuffled off stage on walked David Cameron. His career had been destroyed. He would no longer be remembered as the Prime Minister who had led the country with some success through the difficult post-recession period and had passed much liberal social legislation often in defiance of his own MPs. He would not be remembered as the PM who had won a general election against all the odds. Instead his legacy would be the loss of a bitter and divisive referendum. In losing his legacy he left behind a poisoned chalice for his successor. He casually mentioned he would not be popping across to Brussels and pressing the exit button but instead would leave that pleasure to his successor. What he was saying was that responsibility for the potential breakup of the UK, a possible crisis over Northern Ireland’s border with the Republic of Ireland, negotiating the exit, developing an exit plan, the uncertainty, the economic damage would all fall on his successor.
The stage was then left clear for Boris Johnson and Michael Gove. We heard first from Gisela Stuart and I waited to hear how she would break the good news about the extra £350m a week for the NHS to the Labour Party’s leadership. I was sadly disappointed.
Johnson and Gove looked like the kids who had stolen the sweets and got away with it. There were a few of the successful (if empty and meaningless) slogans from the campaign but then Johnson suddenly became Mayor of London again. The ever changing BoJo was welcoming of immigrants, the UK was outward looking and internationalist, the drawbridge was not being raised. Well I have news for him. What a lot of people thought they were voting for was deportation of immigrants, end of free movement, an Australian points system, raising of the drawbridge, more money for the NHS, glorious isolation and return to the wonderful days of the past (whenever that was!)
I waited for BoJo to give some inkling of the Leave Plan. What was the economic model to be? Were we to be Norway, Switzerland or Canada? Would we seek access to the single market? What about the free movement of labour? How would we protect 45% of our exports? What was the plan for developing new trade agreements with the rest of the world? No answer was forthcoming.
I will leave it to others to comment on the turmoil within the Labour Party partly because events are changing rapidly as I write. All I would say is that if Corbyn’s effort during the Remain campaign was the best he could do then the party would be doomed in a general election. Remember, he went on holiday during the campaign and his leaked diary shows day after day when he did no campaigning at all. He sounded ambivalent and often disinterested if not uninterested.
Unless the country has strong and unifying leadership I, personally, fear for the future. The referendum let some nasty genies out of the bottle. Cheered on by Farage, racism has become mainstream. Social media, and indeed parts of the mainstream media, are full of stories of people who look like immigrants being insulted in the street, their buildings covered in graffiti and being told to “go home”. I never thought I would see the day when the Prime Minister and then the Mayor of London would have to go on public platforms and assure foreign workers they were safe in this country. We need Cameron to clearly state that such behaviour is unacceptable and will be met by the full force of the law. We must not take another shuffle towards the Germany of the 1930s.
My view is that the Brexit movement will now break into two: the pragmatists and the purists.
The pragmatists will seek to maintain much of what is good about our relationship with Europe. This might mean signing up to free movement of labour as part of accessing the single market, still looking to the continent as our closest friends, allies and trading partners. They will seek the less disruptive outcome and will want to avoid another independence referendum in Scotland or troubles in Northern Ireland over closing the border to a full EU member country.
This will not be good enough for the purists. They will pursue a free trade model and will not want close links with Europe including free movement of labour. They will recruit to their side those who want a more aggressive stance on immigration. Monday’s Daily Mail was full of good advice from readers on closing the borders, shutting the Channel Tunnel, searching every vehicle which enters, troops at the ports, etc. This is where Nigel Farage will alight, as it were. The pragmatists will be branded the new elite ignoring the wishes of the people. Populism will move on to new territory and this time Gove and BoJo will not be aboard.
In these early days there is already evidence of this split emerging with BoJo talking the language of compromise with no haste to exit etc. There will be purists in the House of Commons ready to preach betrayal of what voters asked for.
So the future is as uncertain as it has been since the Cuban missile crisis. The Leave campaign will split into pragmatists and purists and our future will mostly be in the hands of these two new wings of the Tory Party. The Labour Party needs to play as big a role as it can shaping a new future but this is impossible with Jeremy Corbyn who would not be able to lead an army of ants into a jam factory!