Before the vote that crashed the economy, David Cameron, the man responsible, said that in the event of a Leave vote, he would stay on to start the negotiation process. So a full hour after the official declaration of the result, he stepped into Downing Street and stood down as PM, leaving the negotiations to his unknown successor. Why?
We now know the answer to that question. He told US Secretary of State John Kerry that he resigned because, when it came to Brexit, “I don’t know how to do it.”
Old Etonians are not given to self-doubt. Self-pity, maybe, but doubt? What Cameron was saying, in effect, was, “It can’t be done”.
This is why, when we hear politicians on all sides saying, ‘forget about a second referendum,’ and ‘the vote can’t be ignored,’ we should take it with a pinch of salt. Even in the case of the impressive Theresa May, where we get a sort of ‘plan’ to implement Brexit, by establishing a department of state, headed by a Leave campaigner to oversee the process, we should be sceptical. For Cameron is right – no one knows how to do it.
Technically the process ought to be possible, providing we chuck several billions of pounds at the problem, most of it ending up in the pockets of lawyers and consultants. At the end of this long and complex process we could leave the EU – providing that we don’t mind leaving without any kind of ‘deal’ to facilitate trade. Basically that amounts to losing everything. It’s a pricy option, but it probably is do-able. The derided ‘experts’ see that way out as costing around 800,000 jobs.
The ‘options’ being bandied about by pro-Brexiters – variants on access to the single market without free movement of labour – are not going to happen, whatever soothing noises have been made by one French minister who will lose his job in next year’s elections. In any case, there are 26 other countries with a veto. Let’s face it – we have no options.
Therefore it comes down to a very simple choice.
Choice one. We may as well implement article 50, forget about negotiations, except around peripheral matters, like who picks up the health care bill for UK pensioners in Spain, and resign ourselves to chaos and uncertainty for years at the end of which Britain is smaller (probably literally so, with Scotland, possibly even Northern Ireland, gone), poorer, weaker. How long do we hang on to membership of the UN Security Council and other tokens of our former glory after that? But those are problems for another time.
Choice two. A bit politically awkward this. I suspect it was Boris’s option, before he got shafted by his ex-mate Mikey. But choice two is, as John Kerry put it, “to walk back from Brexit.”
Realistically, choice two is the only viable option. But it takes more political guts than most of our politicians have to say so openly.
May’s plan looks clever. Who might head The Department of Brexit? Gove? Johnson? Iain Duncan Smith? Chris Grayling?
My money would be on Johnson or Iain Duncan Smith. Johnson would string it out until everyone had forgotten about it. Duncan Smith would make a dog’s breakfast of it. Like IDS’s universal credit system, it would never happen.
All this assumes that we live in a one party state.
What if the opposition got its act together? I know what this ought to look like.
Talk of Labour pacts with Greens, Lib Dems, SNP and Plaid Cymru are all very well, but they won’t happen. The SNP has no interest in a UK-wide pact, and the English nationalism sparked by the Scottish referendum, and fanned into a bushfire by this one, won’t take kindly to a major political role for Nicola Sturgeon and her deputies. That’s simply where we are.
But a serious pact could – and ought – to be made now with the Lib Dems and the English and Welsh Greens. It would be to fight the next election on a pledge to have a new settlement based upon the restoration of local government and regional devolution (the slogan could be “Taking Back Control”), a new electoral system, a new role and composition for the second chamber, and investment in infrastructure alongside an industrial policy to rebalance the economy. Measures against climate change, including green energy and serious investment in flood defences, could produce a programme that could appeal to a wide section of the electorate, if it was dressed up with some catchy slogans.
But this can only happen if, as a starting point, Labour accepts the inevitable – that the voting system must change, and that Labour will probably never again be a single party government (nor would the Tories).
The Lib Dems would have to pledge – in blood, probably, given their previous broken promises – not to enter into a coalition to prop up the Tories.
There’d need to be deals on seats, too. But this might be easier than in the past, if UKIP is sniffing around Labour’s former northern heartlands.
This pact – let’s give it the working title, Unity for the Common Good – would need to be up and running by the end of this year, in the event of a snap election.
My hunch is that after a period of trying to get to grips with the challenge of Brexit, even a few Tories might breathe a sigh of relief to be let off the hook.
Alas, there’s a big obstacle in the way of it happening. The state of Labour.