The leadership of Britain’s four main political parties, two-thirds of the House of Commons, three former Prime Ministers, the Institute of Fiscal Studies, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the Bank of England, Mark Carney, Christine Lagarde, Angela Merkel, J.K.Rowling, David Beckham, the Secretary General of NATO, Daniel Craig, Bob Geldof, Barack Obama – remember his visit? – and that invariable bringer of good fortune to a cause, Eddie Izzard. All advised the British people to remain in the European Union. They were assisted by, inter alia…
…a pre-purdah leaflet costing £9 million at the taxpayers’ expense, Treasury forecasts of economic doom for households (“almost certainly wrong” – FullFact), and a promised emergency budget in which the Chancellor would punish voters who had the temerity to support Leave by raising their taxes. To top all this, those who were still mulling doing so were advised by the Remain campaign – in its final message – that they would be unworthy of modern Britain.
No wonder the pollsters’ final surveys, with the exceptions of Opinium and TNS, suggested that Remain would win. Another rebuttal of Michael Gove’s suspicion of experts!
It is tempting to continue in the same exultant vein. After all, Remain tried to bully voters into doing its bidding. We wrote yesterday morning that one of the tales we tell each other is that the British don’t like bullies – and that we might be about to find out whether it’s true. Now we know.
Let this Conservative site be the first to admit that Tory voters were not in the forefront of resistance. Yes, very many were, as were a majority of Tory Party members, roughly two in five Conservative MPs, and a handful of Cabinet Ministers. But the men and women who led in pulling down the mighty from their thrones were Labour voters – or, rather, the kind of people who have traditionally voted Labour. In Sunderland, in Coventry, in Birmingham – all of which went for Leave – in the party’s north-eastern and north-western heartlands, in urban Yorkshire, throughout the industrial Midlands: in all of these rose up a democratic revolt unprecedented, unknown in modern times.
One element of Labour’s core vote is now the lawyers and TV grandees and public sector bigwigs who are clustered disproportionately in inner London. The other is parting company from it – the old working class, whose wages have come under downward pressure from immigration, and whose public services feel its effects. Jeremy Corbyn is a committed supporter of large-scale migration. But perhaps one could glimpse, in his lukewarm support for Remain, a dim recognition of its effects.
Labour’s leader will be blamed by Downing Street for this referendum’s loss. None the less, the man who will be blamed most, fairly or unfairly, is the man who had previously won every electoral gamble he had chanced. David Cameron is the thoroughbred who fell at the final fence. He won one general election, led a Coalition after another, has never been beaten at the polls, won two referendums…and has now lost this one. We do not for a moment blame him for calling it. It was a cause which we supported. It was one that most Conservative MPs agitated for. And for all its rancour and bile, it gave the British people a chance to speak.
But triumphalism would not only be unfair to one of the most successful Tory election winners of modern times. It would also be deeply wrong. Well over two in five of our fellow countrymen and women voted to Remain in the European Union. Scotland went one way, and England and the Wales the other – a perilous outcome for Unionists. And MP has been killed during the course of the campaign, brutally shot and stabbed to death.
This is why, on this extraordinary morning, we all need healing at the same time as some of us feel happiness – within the Conservative Party and outside it.
Yes, Britain has voted to leave the EU. The referendum result must be respected. In particular, the Government is now obliged to find an immigration policy which will actually control migration. But it is one thing to determine to leave in principle; quite another to discover how this should be done. The Commons must now take the lead: for example, it must now turn its mind to whether or not Britain should seek to quit the single market.
David Cameron has said that in the event of a vote for Brexit he would seek to implement the wishes of the British people. He will surely not wish to stay in post for very long. And he cannot practicably do so, given the defeat of his cause by the voters on an emphatic turnout. But there is no need for him to rush towards his own exit door. While the timetable for a leadership contest are drawn up, he must do his duty and stay on – shuffling his Cabinet; consulting on a way forward; not acting hastily over Article 50.
The journey on which we are now all embarked is an exciting one, but no supporter of Brexit should believe that the road will be easy. Its implications are vast. Our European partners are stunned. The EU’s institutions are trembling. The world is watching this country this morning. We cannot know where the adventure will end. How could we when we cannot know the future, cannot foretell what will happen next? Happiness is natural, and healing essential, but “the only wisdom we can hope to acquire/ Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless”.
9.30am update: The Prime Minister has taken our advice above, announcing his resignation – but also delaying it.