EU Referendum: One Week On – 30 June 2016
In a BBC interview this afternoon, following the launch of his party leadership challenge, Michael Gove declared: “This has been a fast-moving week in politics”.
He can say that again.
It is exactly seven days since the polls closed on the EU referendum campaign. For many, 10pm last Thursday was a welcome end to an exhausting struggle between ‘in’ and ‘out’: ‘Remain’ vs ‘Leave’. Enclosed in long, black, ballot boxes, dotted around the UK and Gibraltar, 33,577,342 ballot papers would dictate the future of the country’s relationship with the European Union.
Initially it seemed likely that Britain would, after all, vote to retain its place at the table in Brussels. Nigel Farage – who, though not part of the officially-recognised Vote Leave group, can nevertheless claim more credit than most for the anti-EU fight – seemed to accept defeat. “My view, right now:” said the Ukip leader in the early hours of Friday morning, “I think that Remain might just nick it”. That tallied with a final YouGov prediction, based on a polling-day survey, that put Leave four percentage points behind their rivals.
In actual fact, and not for the first time, the polls were proved wrong. Although nail-bitingly tight, by 4:30am it became apparent that the reverse was going to be true. Leave had clinched victory, with an ultimate 51.9 per cent of the vote.
What’s followed has been politics at its most sensational. The nightly news has become essential listening, not least out of fear of missing key storylines and plot twists in the Westminster soap opera.
Yet to describe the state of our politics as such is to diminish it. Make no mistake: this is no game. Delicately cupped in the trembling hands of a remarkably small number of people lies the future — for generations of Britons, and indeed of Britain itself.
At 8am on Friday morning, the great oak lectern – a icon of David Cameron’s premiership – was hauled through the 10 Downing Street door. Soon afterwards, with his wife Samantha by his side, the Prime Minister announced his resignation. His voice trembled towards the end of his speech, as he read the closing lines of his address: “I love this country and I feel honoured to have served it and I will do everything I can in future to help this great country succeed.”.
“The British people have made a very clear decision to take a different path [to that which I advocated] and as such I think the country requires fresh leadership to take it in this direction.
I will do everything I can as Prime Minister to steady the ship over the coming weeks and months, but I do not think it would be right for me to try to be the captain that steers our country to its next destination.
This is not a decision I’ve taken lightly but I do believe it’s in the national interest to have a period of stability and then the new leadership required.”
— Prime Minister David Cameron,
resignation speech, Downing Street, 24 June 2016
Cameron’s time was up. Despite his repeated claims that a vote for Brexit would not unseat him, the campaign’s convoluted, mud-slinging nature would have rendered a full second-term unviable. Choosing to stay in office, until a new Conservative Party leader is crowned in the autumn, was wise however. In these uncertain times, there is little room for unnecessary political instability.
Besides, in the background, enormous economic instability had already become starkly apparent.
Throughout the night, as Leave looked set to just tip the balance, the value of the pound had tumbled, ultimately reaching a 30-year-low. Mark Carney, the Governor of the Bank of England, sought to reassure the currency markets, pledging £250bn to banks in emergency support. But a week on, the graphs are still volatile, reacting in real time to every development in the sprawling post-Brexit fallout story.
By the end of the morning, in Edinburgh, the third key speech of the day had been made.
It was no surprise that Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister of Scotland, seized on an overwhelmingly keen Remain vote (62 per cent) to set out the case for a “highly likely” second campaign for independence of the UK. “If [Scottish] parliament judges that a second referendum is the best, or only, way to protect our place in Europe, it must have the option to hold one within that [two-year] timescale.”
At Broadcasting House in London, the usual Thursday-night recording of Dead Ringers had been postponed to Friday afternoon in order to reflect the night’s events. Satirising Sturgeon’s speech, with thick Scottish accent, Debra Stephenson said: “This is a very big mistake. Voting to go it alone, outside the safety net of a larger union — total folly! That’s why we’re going to use this calamitous vote to press ahead with a second Scottish referendum vote, so we can free ourselves of the strait-jacket of a larger union, and thrive as an independent country.”
I myself visited the BH Radio Theatre that evening, in the audience for a live broadcast of Radio 4’s Any Questions?. The panel was evenly split between the pro-Leave Chris Grayling MP (Cons) and Steven Woolfe MEP (Ukip), and the pro-Remain MPs Emily Thornberry (Lab) and lifelong europhile Ken Clarke (Cons). Before the panel came out, one of the producers warmed us up by reading some of the interesting, but rejected, audience questions. “This one reads: ‘Is a referendum the best way to make such a momentous decision?’ I fear it’s a bit late to ask that now.”
We were told Harriet Harman, who had been due to appear on the panel, had pulled out of the recording at 1pm — Thornberry graciously stepping in to replace her at the eleventh-hour. Although Harman gave no reason for her sudden unavailability, I am in no doubt that she wanted to avoid any questions over the Labour leadership. Such questions would go on to become unavoidable by the end of the weekend.
I strolled through Westminster that night glimpsing, between gaps in the Downing Street gates, the huge media crowd assembled outside Number 10. I thought what a huge change it’ll be for the Camerons (that is, David, Samantha, and Nancy, Arthur, and Florence) when they finally move out. I hope that the children – whose father has, in the pursuit of public service, been absent for so much of their childhoods – can find some solace in knowing that Daddy will have more time for them from September onwards.
Sentimentality has no place in politics. It didn’t take long for pundits to begin speculating on David Cameron’s replacement. Until today the most likely candidates were Boris Johnson and Theresa May. What the former had in charisma, the latter made up for in efficiency and professionalism. Boris – for he is always referred to on first-name terms – had campaigned vocally for the Leave camp ever since using his Daily Telegraph column to announce his stance in mid-March (although, it was subsequently disclosed, he had written a mirrored pro-Remain version of the article). May, meanwhile, played a very different game; a publicly-declared Remainer, but conspicuous by her absence on the campaign trail. She was not even present at the local count, where Remain championed by a decent eight per cent lead.
May has spent years in the corridors of Parliament quietly garnering colleagues’ support and, like Boris, sidestepping any public questions over her leadership ambitions. For so long her response has been simply: “David is doing a very good job”.
But now Cameron has resigned said job, she is plainly in line to go ‘all the way’. This morning, she formally announced her leadership bid, summarising it as follows: “I’m Theresa May and I’m the best person to be Prime Minister.”. She did not miss an opportunity to attack her chief rival, Johnson. “The last time he did a deal with the Germans he came back with three nearly-new water cannon.” May wisely omitted any comment over whether her refusal in 2015, as Home Secretary, to grant City Hall the right to use them was in any way a pre-mediated crushing of Boris’s power.
The biggest blow of the day, though, came in the “blonde buffoon’s” decision not to stand. Clearly, this was the result of losing the support of his Brexit running-mate Michael Gove, who earlier in the morning made the shock announcement that, far than managing Boris’s leadership campaign, he himself would launch his own. It was fitting that Boris quoted from Julius Caesar: it is “a time not to fight against the tide of history but to take that tide at the flood and sail on to fortune”. His father was even less oblique: “‘Et tu, Brute?’ is my comment on that”, said Stanley Johnson on The World At One.
Can Gove go ‘all the way’? Likely not.
And it’ll be a long, uphill struggle for fellow Tory leadership challengers Stephen Crabb (the first to announce his ambitions), Liam Fox (who came third in the 2005 Tory leadership contest), and Andrea Leadsom (who was only made a Junior Minister thirteen months ago).
But beware of the curse of the frontrunner. May, too, has a long way to go yet before she wins the keys to Number 10. First she must make the backbenches’ shortlist of two, and then she’ll have to convince the entire party that she – a ‘Remain’ voter – is the right person to lead the UK’s departure from Europe.
More than that, whichever of the five does become the Conservative Party leader must convince the nation that they are the right choice for PM. Without doing so, another long and draining election campaign would materialise prematurely — which, frankly, would be a disaster for everyone.
It is now for the Labour Party to resolve its troubles – and for its leader to either win back the confidence of the majority of his MPs, or resign and be replaced swiftly – so that there is a strong government and equally strong opposition in place to take the UK forward in these unprecedented times.