So, the people have spoken. I don’t agree with what they said, and there are worrying signs that some of them voted to leave the EU without believing we would actually leave. but never mind. The deed is done and we have to get used to it sooner or later, so we might as well do it now.Petitions to have a second referendum are a way of making our dissatisfaction clear, but I seriously doubt there’s any stomach in the Commons, or the country at large, to go through all that again.
The result of the referendum leaves us in an awkward, transitional time. The news is still being digested and debated, the ripples from the decision still spreading out. Where do we go from here?
Well, we’re not going anywhere soon. The formal process for a member leaving the EU is provided by Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. There are other ways we could leave, but those would probably involve terms unfavourable to us. Until Article 50 is invoked, nothing is going to happen.
On Friday morning, David Cameron announced that he would be stepping down as Prime Minister and that it would be up to his successor to initiate Article 50 and cope with subsequent negotiations about the terms on which we leave the EU. Myself, I would have pulled the trigger on the exit process at eight o’clock on the morning after the referendum, handed the keys of Number 10 to Boris Johnson, and said, “Right, I’m off on the US lecture circuit; you sort the mess out. Enjoy.” But that’s me. Anyway, nothing is going to happen until we have a new Prime Minister, and that may not be until the Tory Party Conference in October.
So, conceivably, we’ll still be in the EU until the Autumn. For its part, the EU is urging us to shit or get off the pot; they’re eager to get this over as quickly as possible and make the process as punitive as possible, to discourage other members – and there are some who might be thinking about it – having referendums of their own. But it’s up to us to invoke Article 50; for all its bluster, the EU can’t do it for us. We can take our own sweet time.
And our own sweet time is, it seems, exactly what we are going to take. The message coming from the Leave camp yesterday – after all the scare stories and 24-hours-to-save-Britain urgency of the campaign – was “No rush.”
This raises an intriguing possibility. The lawyer and legal writer David Allen Green makes the case for saying that the longer we wait to invoke Article 50, the less likely it is to be invoked at all. There is a scenario in which we have voted to leave the EU, but never actually do.
I can actually see this flying. The issue at the bottom of this mess was not our membership of the EU but who controls the Tory Party. Many of the crazier Tory MPs absolutely despise Cameron and Osborne and despise the European Union. The rise of UKIP and anti-immigration feeling in the country led to a situation where Cameron was obliged to put an EU referendum on his most recent election manifesto, or face a leadership challenge which he would almost certainly have lost. It was a gamble with unimaginably high stakes. He thought – as I did – that we would not vote to leave the EU, and we were both wrong.
The Leave camp are in no hurry to initiate negotiations – judging by the looks on the faces of Boris Johnson and Michael Gove yesterday, the general funereal tone of their press statement and the fact that there is a sudden vacuum where they used to be, I think it’s only just beginning to dawn on them what they’ve done.
It’s easy to do stuff in hot blood which we wouldn’t do if we had a bit of time to think about it and consider the consequences, and in David Allen Green’s scenario the longer we wait to trigger Article 50 – three months, probably – the longer the eurosceptics will have to see the consequences, the effects on the pound and on Britain’s standing in world markets. Our credit rating – which George Osborne and Iain Duncan Smith et al virtually put the country to the sword to protect – has already been downgraded, and there’s a possibility that they might have to face a second Scottish independence referendum. This stuff concentrates minds.
The referendum was ‘advisory’ in nature – it has no force in law and the government is within its rights to ignore the result. In practical terms, this would be difficult to pull off and a Tory government which did that would take a beating at the next election. But it’s just conceivable that the eurosceptic wing of the party might try. They already have one of their goals – control of the party – and a deferred Article 50 might be a useful club to wave at the EU in any future negotiations. It could, in a certain light, under certain circumstances, look an attractive option. David Cameron gambled that he could survive; the eurosceptics might too.
In the meantime, after all the bluster about taking back control from unelected representatives in Brussels, we would wind up with an unelected Prime Minister, which is the kind of delicious irony that only the British could come up with.
And speaking, just briefly, of unelected representatives, a word on Nigel Farage. This puffed-up, self-important bullfrog of a man is not an MP. His party only has one MP at Westminster. It cannot, and never has been able to, deliver on the promises he made during the campaign. For all his bluster, for all his publicity stunts, he has no actual political power at all, and I’ve never understood why he’s afforded such weight.
However, by some occult conjunction of circumstance and opportunism, he and his party have actually altered the course of British history, and that is one of the many things I find so baffling and worrying about this whole sorry mess.
I could address what the referendum result means for the Labour party, but there seems no point. It’s going through a period of self-harm the like of which I’ve not seen outside a Clive Barker novel, and that’s going to continue whatever happens in the wider world. Personally, I thought Jeremy Corbyn – not the biggest fan of the EU – was at best a grudging participant in the Remain campaign. Whether that had any bearing at all on the final result, I can’t say. Whatever the Labour party is going to do, I hope they do it soon, because in the days and weeks and months ahead – whether we do actually leave the EU or not – we’re going to need a strong, effective Opposition.
So, here we are, on the White Cliffs, our toes dangling over the edge. Do we jump now? Do we wait? I’m angry and disappointed with the result of the referendum. I was angry and disappointed with the result of the last general election, but this is different. Deeper and more visceral. It’s going to take a while to process. Interesting times.