Friday, 1 July 2016

The Westminster assassins

I’m going to take a deep breath, count to ten, and try very hard to pretend that the people who are running the country are grown-ups. I’m going to resist all Shakespearean allusions and attempt to negotiate a path through the wreckage that now passes for the British political scene.

So here’s what matters above all. We need a new prime minister, and whoever it turns out to be – it may even be someone who has been neither accused of, nor the victim of, rank treachery -- will have two over-riding duties: to respect the result of the Brexit referendum and to get the best deal available for the UK’s new relationship with our former EU partners.

I am surprised at the number of my friends – who, like me, were dismayed by the referendum result – who still think that there may be some way to undo what they regard as a disastrous outcome. Constitutionally, they are right – the referendum has no standing in law, and MPs are under no legal obligation to take any notice of it.

But, guys, come on. Seventeen million people voted for Britain to leave the EU, and even if some of them were woefully misinformed, or ignorant, or bigots, or thought they were just sticking two fingers up to David Cameron, a vote is a vote. There is nothing in the theory of modern democracy that says only the choices of well-informed voters with university degrees will count. Yes, the result will damage the UK’s future prospects – that’s our view, anyway – but a vote has been cast and to ignore it or seek to wriggle out of the consequences would simply fuel the anti-elite rhetoric of UKIP and even less salubrious political groupings. Is that really what you want?

So the task ahead is to minimise the damage done and get the best deal possible out of Brussels. And, given that at this time of grave national crisis, the country’s main opposition party has collapsed into a writhing heap of irrelevance, the task will fall either to Theresa May or to Michael Gove. (Yes, I know there used to be someone called Boris Johnson, but he has vanished in a cloud of convoluted rhetoric and the most abject display of political cowardice since David Miliband ducked out of challenging Gordon Brown.) 

May and Gove have history. Two years ago, they were involved in an ugly Whitehall clash over who was doing a better job of combatting Islamist extremism; the prime minister had to bang their heads together and make them both sit on the naughty step. Gove is the more ideological of the two and is not afraid of making enemies; May is tough and pragmatic, a loner who ploughs her own furrow and gets on with the job.

Her supporters say she is just the person the country needs to go head to head with Angela Merkel (who, like her, is the uncharismatic daughter of a clergyman) and with other EU leaders to negotiate a new deal for the UK. Her critics argue that she was against Brexit all along and so can’t be trusted to abide by the spirit of the referendum result.

Gove has demonstrated a ruthless streak that his owlish demeanour has kept largely hidden from public view. Having previously complained that there were too many old Etonians at the top of the Tory party, he has now reduced their number by two (Cameron and Johnson), so no one will be able to accuse of him of lack of steel. And his high-profile campaigning for a Leave vote (remember ‘People in this country have had enough of experts’?) will undoubtedly endear him to many of the 150,000 Conservative party activists in whose hands our future now lies.

With the Labour party thrashing about in what may turn out to be its death throes, there is no point in calling for a general election. After all, when Gordon Brown wrenched the keys to Number 10 from Tony Blair’s hands in 2007, there wasn’t even a leadership election – and I cannot believe that even Jeremy Corbyn’s most fanatical supporters would argue that he is the right man to lead the UK’s post-Brexit negotiations.

Labour MPs have proved themselves, yet again, to be the world’s most incompetent political assassins. They assumed, wrongly, that their leader would draw the obvious conclusions once he had overwhelmingly lost a vote of confidence among his own MPs. But Jeremy Corbyn has shown himself to be less decent, less honourable, and more arrogant than his acolytes would have us believe. He would rather cling to the purity of his ideological vision than step down for the good of his party. As a result, Britain is left with a lame-duck prime minister and no functioning opposition as it faces its gravest political crisis since the Suez debacle 60 years ago. No wonder so many voters have so little respect for professional politicians.

Like all crises, this one will eventually pass. But not before the economy has stuttered to a stand-still, the value of the pound has fallen further (you’ll soon notice it if you’ve booked a holiday in France or Spain this summer) and investors have started looking elsewhere. It won’t be long before real people start losing real jobs. As Theresa May put it: ‘Some [politicians] need to be told that what the government does isn’t a game.’

The best we can hope for, once the dust has settled, is a deal that takes us out of the EU while retaining a close relationship with it: perhaps with less than total access to the single market in return for less than total freedom of movement for EU nationals coming to the UK. Theresa May will never be a heroine for those on the liberal left, but even they might conclude that, given what’s on offer, she may be the least bad potential prime minister we’re likely to get.


Michael said...


Once again an excellent post, thank you.
The only thing I know about game theory is the basic proposition “every move evokes a response”.

I agree with you that there should be no general election now.
But what happens if the referendum decision results in the UK going into a recession, and particularly if that recession escalates towards slump?
In that situation I think there would be a strong case for a prime minister to call a general election on an manifesto commitment to reverse the decision to leave the EU.
What do you and others think?

Michael said...


Once again an excellent post, thank you.
The only thing I know about game theory is the basic proposition “every move evokes a response”.

I agree with you that there can be no general election now.
But what happens if the referendum decision results in the UK going into a recession, and particularly if that recession escalates towards slump?
In that situation I think there would be a strong case for a prime minister to call a general election on an manifesto commitment to reverse the decision to leave the EU.
What do you and others think?

Anonymous said...

Dear Robin, don't think you are being very fair on Boris re pulling out of the leadership bid: stabbed in the back by Gove and losing supporters, advised by supporters that he could not win I think his action was that of a sane person. You could justifiably criticise him for many other things, his BREXIT campaigning, personal life etc. but surely not for seeing sense re a doomed and sabotaged leadership bid.

G R Joseph said...

Hi Robin,
this is my first comment on your blog; I have been following you since you set it up and thank you for your interesting take on the happenings in the land. I don't accept your views on many of the subjects but it's good to read them and you certainly articulate them in a great way. I'm sure that we will make it in the world if we leave the EU with all of it's political implications and I'd rather be ruled by our own politicians than ones that have nothing to do with our country; it's an astonishing result- to leave and now the reality is beginning to come home. I do hope there will be sensible and decent withdrawal settlement and it will all work out. We had a vote to join, now there's been a vote to leave, so we have to sort matters, job done, surely.
All the best in your blog.
G R Joseph

Anonymous said...

Hi, what the Brexit vote said was that we wanted to go somewhere else, but didn't specify where. Democracy is not a thing which started and ended on 23 June 2016. The democratic process has a right to have an input on where we're going. Given that it would be another historic decision for this country, that would have to be one of the three following: another referendum; a vote of MPs following a general election in which their views on the renegotiated deal were made clear; or a vote of current MPs. In any of these cases, it would be quite legitimate to conclude that the deal on offer is inferior to the status quo. There's nothing anti-democratic about that. As I say, democracy didn't start and end on just the one day, it's an on-going process.

Anonymous said...

We have a PM who has resigned, so until a new one has been elected and has chosen their cabinet we really have no government. We have no opposition. Brexit won the referendum but don't wish to move forward (or is it backward?) on leaving the EU for at least 6 months. Unlike businesses they have no annual plan, no five year plan - no future plans at all. In the meantime, the City of London, which they have seemingly been so proud of and worked so hard to strengthen and enlarge, which houses global companies which do have annual and longer-term plans, has not got the faintest idea where its future lies and the companies which comprise the City will almost certainly be fast-making contingency plans to save themselves - or at least their shareholders.
I have never seen such a bloody mess in all my life and if this bunch of morons thinks I will ever put my faith in them and vote for them in the future they are out of the very tiny, blinkered minds. It seems ironic to say the least that today we're remembering those thousands and thousands of our ancestors who gave up their lives for peace in Europe.

Graham McHutchon said...

Robin as ever thoughtfully argued. I however disagree with you about whether the referendum should be final. When a jury finds a defendant guilty on the evidence placed before the court, but that evidence is then shown to be false or unsubstantiated, a retrial is ordered. From what I have read here in the US (where I am for 6 months)the British people were woefully let down by not being presented with evidence that would stand up in court. They were also misled by large sections of the media which failed to scrutinise and challenge what was being said. So I would ask that our politicians do what we elected them to do and save our nation from the catastrophe that lies ahead.

Unknown said...

Dear Robin,

Thanks as always for your newsletter. Sorry you don't agree that Parliament should have the final say, even in a referendum. How about this scenario, which surely very few Brexiteers anticipated:

1. The UK exits the EU.
2. Scotland exits the UK.
3. The UK vanishes, having turned into England-and-Wales plus the Gaelic countries (which incidentally could well unite into the Republic of Ireland and Scotland, including a very happy Northern Ireland).
4. So does the UK seat on the UN Security Council (not to mention G7, G8, G20 .....).

The decision should be made by the wise people we elected to Parliament because we thought they were good at thinking strategically. The referendum result is only one of many things that our MPs will need to include in their thinking.

With best wishes, Richard Hudson

Richard Hudson (

Julian Bray said...

I did vote leave, after all a referendum is only advisory, but Europe needs shaking up. Until we ie the UK 'push the button' on Article 50 (there is NO time limit) we can just remain as we are ie IN. But what I would like to see is our domestic MPs putting Europe to one side, and getting on with the business OF THE UK!. They are all being paid, but precious little work by Westminster is being processed. BREXIT is the excuse.

We cannot even get the moribund Ministry of Defence to extract the digit, to let the F17 appear at the Farnborough Air Shoe in two weeks time. PATHETIC! As for your post, Robin, brilliant as ever, but then I am a long term fan, and its time we had you back in your traditional late night radio slot, or perhaps just a short commentary on the days events