On June 23 the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union.
Fair enough, it wasn’t by a huge majority, but it was still a majority; and had it been a general election result the party with the 17,410,742 votes would have been ecstatic, formed a government and set about implementing its election manifesto.
Meanwhile, the party with the 16,141,241 votes would have acknowledged the legitimacy of the result, even though it would still be licking its wounds and working out what went wrong.
But what we discovered on the morning of June 24 was that the key figures and parties in both the Leave and Remain camps hadn’t prepared for Leave.
Both sides assumed Remain would carry the day and that life would continue on much as before. The shock on David Cameron’s face said it all: the shock that a majority (underpinned by a majority of Conservative voters) had defied his judgement, the shock that Farage and Johnson had bested him and the shock of realising that, in the absence of a Plan B, he would be writing his resignation letter within hours.
The leaders of Labour, SNP, Lib-Dems, Ukip, DUP, Sinn Fein, UUP, SDLP, Greens et al were just as bad. None of them had prepared for a Leave win, either. Indeed, in an interview with me a couple of weeks before the referendum, Farage predicted a ‘comfortable’ win for Remain and was already laying the blame on the tactics of Johnson and Gove.
And matters became worse, much worse, when Cameron was replaced by Theresa May (who was well aware that there had been no Plan B in place), who immediately covered her tracks and prepared for an even bigger mess by appointing Johnson, Davies and Fox to her Cabinet.
So, here we are, almost five months later and no-one seems to have a clue what happens next. I voted leave on June 23. I don’t regret that vote and would do the same thing again. I knew precisely what I was doing: voting to leave the EU for reasons I set out in numerous columns. While I was aware that Cameron was both a congenital Europhile and an uninspiring leader I had assumed that he would have prepared his government and the broader machinery of administration for either eventuality.
This is his mess. But, as I said above, it’s also May’s mess. She backed him against Gove and Johnson (hoping to replace him a couple of years later), yet backed him fully aware that neither Cameron nor the Cabinet, of which she was a member, had a Plan B. In other words, she was the worst possible successor.
She doesn’t want to leave the EU. As Mrs Thatcher would have said of her, “She’s frit.” May is an old-fashioned, mainstream, safe pair of hands. She doesn’t like risks. She doesn’t take risks. She doesn’t want to take the United Kingdom out of the EU comfort blanket because that means huge risks, huge challenges and huge political and parliamentary confrontations.
That’s why she didn’t seek a mandate when she became Prime Minister, because that would have required her nailing her colours to the mast; and her colours are not the same colours as those of most grassroots Conservatives. When the United Kingdom needed a leader to address the constitutional challenges we now face, we ended up with a hand-me-down careerist who didn’t support the winning side, didn’t prepare for losing and doesn’t want to implement the will of the electorate.
I’m also getting mightily fed up with those Remainers who insist that ‘people who voted Leave didn’t really know what they were voting for.’
Hmm. I’m pretty sure that quite a few of those who voted Remain did so because it was either the easy, stick-with-the-status-quo option, or because they had bought into the nonsense that the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse would lay waste to a country that dared to withdraw from the EU. There were lies told by both sides - as I noted throughout the campaign - and senior figures on both sides knew they were lies. Politicians and parties lie: get over it. Increasing numbers of people lie to or mislead pollsters: get over it. Voters, for all sorts of reasons, make unexpected decisions: get over it. The result is what it is, however it was reached.
A few days after the referendum I tweeted that my real concern was that we would never be allowed to leave the EU. The post-referendum debate would be less to do with a ‘hard’ versus ‘soft’ Brexit and more to do with hatching a strategy that would, to all intents and purposes, keep us in the EU.
And that’s because we have a political, governing, administrative, business, community, judicial, financial, academic elite which has known nothing other than the EU.
And like all elites they will always prefer ‘what they know’ to taking risks and embracing new realities. Fine and dandy, apart from the fact that they are on the losing side this time.
What happens next? Well, when you have a Prime Minister who doesn’t actually want to do what the electorate has demanded, all bets are off.
I’m still not convinced that we will leave the EU. But of one thing I am certain: attempting to overturn the referendum result would wreck the political/electoral status quo of the United Kingdom. Mind you, that wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing.