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.