Take a deep breath. The scent in your nostrils is the dusty burnt smell of scorched earth politics from the referendum. George Osborne has pre-launched the emergency budget he would advocate in the event of a Leave vote, to the fury of half of his own party’s backbenchers. Dozens have already publicly declared that they would vote against it.
Just as extraordinarily, the Leave camp have issued their manifesto should they win. These policies, none of which have been through any party’s policy machinery, amount to an entirely new direction for British governance. If successful, it would amount to a coup in plain sight.
The Conservatives look impossibly split, divided from top to bottom by policy and by personality. Things have been said on both sides that cannot be unsaid and the diehard Leavers’ ability to bear a grudge over years is exceeded only by that of the Prime Minister. Nominally the Conservative party will need to reunite on 24 June to re-form an administration. In practice it is very hard to see how that can happen whichever side wins – there are far too many hatreds that have been cemented.
Things look no happier in the red corner. The Parliamentary Labour party was already deeply unhappy before the referendum campaign started. The desultory way in which Jeremy Corbyn has fought the campaign and the lack of any meaningful attempt by the leadership to enlist Labour support for Remain has appalled rightwing Labour MPs who are pro-Europeans to their core.
Jeremy Corbyn has full control of the party apparatus for now and for as long as the membership continues to idolise him. Rightwing Labour MPs are going to express their alienation forcefully.
What does that mean for post-referendum politics? First, regardless of the result, the government is going to be highly unstable. A government with David Cameron and George Osborne at the helm will need to contend with dozens of nominal Parliamentary supporters willing to oppose any measure that they regard as insufficiently to their taste. A Leave-led government with Michael Gove and Boris Johnson as the main forces is going to have to contend with dozens of nominal Parliamentary supporters who fear punishment beatings and who are appalled by Leave’s lack of interest in free trade.
Secondly, Parliament will in reality (if not name) have five sizeable groupings: socialists; social liberals; liberal Conservatives; social Conservatives and the SNP. Some MPs will flit between the first and second groups and some will flit between the third and fourth groups. But the pre-referendum party coalitions have broken down.
These internal party faultlines have been present for decades, but have been capable of being managed until now. Just as the Scottish independence referendum did in Scotland in 2014, the EU referendum has transformed everything in UK politics. There is no going back.
We are standing at a fork in the road. Neither branch of the fork will lead us in the same political direction that we have been travelling down to date. Trotsky told us that war is the locomotive of history and it seems that referendums are the locomotive of politics. Whatever happens next week, politics is changing, perhaps irrevocably. Get used to it.