The people have spoken, and the people’s will must be respected. But that need not mean that the UK has declared war on the European Union.
The priority now surely must be to take stock, reflect, and then plan for a new future. Whatever the weather may say, summer is upon us, and July and August will offer at least the opportunity of a respite from the aftershocks resulting from Thursday’s political earthquake.
David Cameron’s great mistake was to regard political decision-making as an exercise only in crisis management. Whoever succeeds him – and whoever takes over from Jeremy Corbyn as Leader of the Opposition (I do not expect him to last much longer) – would be well advised to take a longer view.
And incidentally, how depressing is it to have to acknowledge that Nigel Farage is now Britain’s most successful politician since Margaret Thatcher, if judged by their ability to change the country to more closely reflect their own ideological preferences?
The EU is bad at a lot of things, but there is one thing it is good at – fudging its way out of a crisis. Eurozone meltdown? Bend the rules, do whatever it takes to keep the show on the road. Migration crisis? Fudge, mudge, and compromise – crisis not solved, but crisis somehow now a bit more manageable.
The German Chancellor Angela Merkel, without whom nothing much can happen in the EU, does not want the UK to turn its back. She accepts that nothing is going to happen in a hurry. It is quite possible to imagine a scenario in which politicians and diplomats spend the next few weeks quietly exploring options: a Norway-style relationship, not in the EU but still close to it? An associate membership of some kind, a made-to-measure relationship which benefits both parties in this unhappy marriage? Like living in separate apartments but still in the same house.
Boris Johnson, who as things stand looks likely to be the next prime minister of what, for now, we can still call the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, shows every sign of suffering from shell shock. He is not an ideological Brexiteer, and has demonstrated a talent for political flexibility that would impress even a circus contortionist.
What any new leader will have to show, however, is that a new arrangement with the EU will deliver something less than total freedom of movement into the UK for all citizens of the EU’s 27 remaining members. There is no point in denying that fears over ‘uncontrolled’ immigration did more than any other factor to boost the pro-Leave vote. I do not underestimate how difficult it will be to negotiate a new agreement on freedom of movement, but given the very real concerns of more exit referendums being called in other EU countries, it is by no means impossible that some kind of deal could be done.
In return for at least some access to the single market, for example, the UK could perhaps agree that any EU citizen who can show they have a firm job offer will automatically be entitled to residence – an arrangement that, if agreed, would help to meet voters’ objections, albeit largely unfounded, that EU ‘scroungers’ are milking the benefits system. It would also help to ensure that the NHS and other employers who depend on EU immigrants to fill job vacancies will not be left facing a chronic labour shortage crisis.
A huge responsibility now falls on the Labour party. It was disaffected, ignored, alienated Labour voters in what used to be the party’s heartlands who swung it for Brexit, and it will be up to Labour’s new leader to re-engage with them, convince them that their needs and anxieties have been noticed and encourage them to return to the fold.
Labour needs to find its own version of the hugely impressive Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson: authentic, working class, and able to connect with the voters patronised by Nigel Farage as ‘ordinary, decent people’. One name that comes to mind is Jess Phillips, MP for Birmingham Yardley, who made a name for herself by telling Diane Abbott to ‘fuck off’ during a row over the lack of women in Jeremy Corbyn’s top team. Asked how Abbott had responded, she said: ‘She fucked off.’
She also, as it happens, was as much a success on the BBC comedy show Have I Got News For You, as Boris Johnson has been. And she has a steel core, telling an interviewer last March: ‘I am utterly ambitious. I’m ambitious for the sake of being so, too. Not enough people are, and I think if you’re in any job, you should damn well believe you should get to the top.’
As one of the 48% who voted to Remain, I am still deeply disappointed and disheartened at the result. But I believe the focus now must be to make the best of it, to find new leaders who can act in the public interest and persuade UK voters that a new deal, once negotiated, will be better than what went before. Then, and only then, might it be time for another referendum.
So this is the Lustig timetable for a brighter future: first, a new Labour leader, and then a general election, a new deal and a new referendum. There’s still a chance that the United Kingdom will remain united.