The country has voted for change but the future is unclear. Leadership is needed writes Keiran Pedley
Last Thursday’s Brexit vote was truly an historic event in our country’s history. The consequences for British politics will take time to play out. Right now the country is tense. Since David Cameron’s resignation Friday morning there is a political vacuum at the heart of power and sense of uncertainty in the air. Only a fool would predict with any degree of certainty what happens next.
No turning back
However, it is probably best to conclude that we are indeed leaving the EU. That ‘out means out’. Some on the Remain side have sought to challenge the referendum result. David Lammy, MP for Tottenham, has suggested that parliament should overturn the result. A petition to rerun the referendum itself has cleared 3 million signatures and counting. Clearly for some accepting the result is proving difficult.
But they should accept it. EU leaders have and they are demanding a swift divorce. Almost 17.5 million voters backed leaving the EU last Thursday – a million plus more than backed Remain – at a turnout of 72% (eclipsing the 66% turnout at last year’s General Election). Remainers may justifiably be angry at some of the tactics used by the Leave campaign. However, voters have clearly delivered a message that they want change and that mandate has to be respected. Suggestions that Leave voters represent the ‘lizard brain of Britain’ are patronising and unhelpful. The voters have made their feelings known. All efforts now should be focused on what comes next rather than rerunning last Thursday’s referendum. We have to move on.
Enter Johnson (or May)?
How successfully we do so will depend on who becomes the next Prime Minister and the deal they can deliver. The early signs are that Boris Johnson is favourite. Having led the Leave side to victory and seemingly won the backing of Michael Gove he will take some stopping. However, the former Mayor of London does face significant challenges. He now needs to come up with a coherent vision of what Brexit looks like that satisfies Leave voters and wins over Tory MPs. If he doesn’t, Theresa May could yet emerge as an alternative unifying ‘safe pair of hands’. He may even end up challenged from his Right. The odds are in Johnson’s favour but he does have serious questions to answer on free movement and the common market – questions we can only assume he has been carefully considering during his period of silence this weekend.
Labour in meltdown
Meanwhile the Labour Party faces its own existential crisis. One of the striking features of the Brexit vote was how vast swathes of so-called Labour heartlands ignored the party line and voted Leave. Staunch Labour areas in Wales, Yorkshire and the North-East overwhelmingly backed Brexit. This trend was aptly demonstrated in Ed Miliband’s Doncaster where 69% voted Leave. The truth though is that this trend was seen all across the country in Labour areas.
Some Labour MPs now fear that the party could face a post-Brexit wipe-out in these areas much like the party experienced in Scotland last May. This has led to a concerted effort to remove Jeremy Corbyn as leader over the weekend, with a series of coordinated resignations designed to force him to resign. The plan being to replace him with a unifying figure that can carry the party into the General Election that is assumed to be coming soon. Time will tell if this coup attempt is successful. The loyalty of Corbyn’s support among party members will surely be crucial – though Labour MPs may hope to take the decision out of their hands. Depending on what happens next, Labour could end up in government or facing oblivion and we cannot be sure which.
Who will lead Britain?
In the meantime, the country faces a worrying vacuum in political leadership. One can only hope that it is filled soon. Whoever leads the UK out of Europe faces a daunting to-do list. Voters have clearly voted for changes in immigration policy but what changes and can they be delivered without leaving the single market and the economic challenges that would bring? More importantly, how does the next Prime Minister keep the UK together when Scotland and Northern Ireland voted Remain and Wales and England voted Leave? Moreover, how can we bring those voting Remain and Leave together when they have such different visions of the country’s future? Can we avoid descending further and further into the bitter and divisive politics that were such an unpleasant hallmark of the referendum campaign? These are tough questions without even considering the inevitable ‘unknown unknowns’ that governments so often face.
Perhaps these seemingly conflicting objectives are impossible to achieve. Choices will have to be made. In which case the next 2-3 years will be some of the most rancorous and turbulent in post war British political history. However, let’s close on a more optimistic note. This uncertainty won’t last forever and our country has faced major crises before and come through the other side. It is possible that the shock of last Thursday is bringing undue panic. That a recession can be avoided. We will do a deal with the EU. This country does have a future. It is possible that a unifying leader may yet emerge and lead the country through this difficult time. In short, Brexit doesn’t have to mean disaster.
Nevertheless, it would be foolish to ignore the scale of the challenge our country faces in the coming weeks, months and years – let’s hope that the current generation of political leaders is up to the task.
Keiran Pedley presents the Politicalbetting.com / Polling Matters show and tweets about politics at @keiranpedley