So we have a new prime minister. (This sentence is in tribute to Andrea Leadsom, who began her withdrawal statement with the words ‘So this morning I have written a letter …’, thus confirming her unsuitability for the job.) Under fresh leadership, we are now headed for the door marked Exit. This, fittingly, is the name of an organisation that promotes voluntary euthanasia.
The new leader is a disappointment for the Brexiters. Winning the referendum was not enough: they believed they had the mandate for a coup d’état. But their two main geniuses, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, succeeded in assassinating each other. A third, Iain Duncan Smith, shredded his leadership credentials 15 years ago. We were left with Andrea, who stayed true to the principal theme of the Leave campaign by lying about her CV and lying about what she had said to a journalist.
It remains a worry that 25% of Conservative MPs thought that Andrea Leadsom was the best person to lead their country, which even exceeds the 17% of Labour MPs who think that Jeremy Corbyn is the best person to lead their party. This may mean that the Labour Parliamentary Party is relatively more sane than the Tories, or it may mean that about 20% of any group of human beings is barmy. (If so, it is strange how that 20% never includes oneself.)
I heard the referendum result in the delightful French port of Sète. Like many other people, I went to bed on the Thursday night in a cheerful frame of mind, and woke on Friday to be given the news by CNN. (I should mention that, on that Thursday evening, BBC World devoted almost nil coverage to the referendum. There was no hard news to report, admittedly, but CNN covered little else, and did it very well.)
At no point had I believed that such a result was possible. Neither had anyone else, mostly French, whom I spoke to at the Frontignan Literary Festival that day. The Leave campaign was right about one thing, and arguably one thing only, which was that people like me were out of touch with the country. Only 1.9% out of touch, but that was enough.
The leading Leavers, or perhaps one should now call them the dear Departed, insist that the new Government should implement Brexit as the nation intended. What did the nation intend? I’ve no idea, and I’m not sure the Departed do either. I agree that Brexit means Brexit, but what does Brexit mean?
During the course of the campaign, it became clear that it would prove difficult, or indeed impossible (time will tell), to both control immigration and maintain full access to the single market. A choice would need to be made between the two. This was never explained by the Departed. For one thing, it would have clouded their cuckoo land with reality. For another, they disagreed amongst themselves about the choice. Boris Johnson has now gone for the single market. Michael Gove has chosen control of immigration.
People of a certain age will remember when politicians and civil servants attempted to foresee the consequences of alternative courses of action. We now live in a time (and this is almost universal, not specific to the referendum) when it is fashionable to take decisions on the hoof, without thinking them through, and to sort problems out later. This is where that approach gets you, and David Cameron is just as guilty as the Departed.
Since at least a reasonable minority of Brexiters would have chosen to stay in the single market, plus all of the Remainers, it could be argued that there is a clear majority in the country for being in the single market. The more rabid Brexiters will not see it that way, of course. Many will not be content until the last immigrant has been driven from our shores. These are the people who are most dismayed at May. Look at her inability to control immigration, they say.
This is a point worth examining. As Home Secretary, Theresa May was responsible for delivering David Cameron’s promise to reduce annual immigration to the ‘tens of thousands’. Ridiculous though the promise was, it is striking how far Theresa May was from achieving it, even in those areas of immigration over which she had some control. Since no one seems to doubt her integrity or her competence, one can only think that she concluded it was against the country’s interests to go any further than she did.
In which case, it is still against the country’s interests. Every statement since made by business people, universities and public sector leaders confirms it. How, then, can the Government now give priority to controlling immigration over all else, when it appears to be neither desirable, nor attainable, nor what most people in the country want?
We will be driven back to making the single market our Brexit priority and, above all, to attempting to ensure our continued pre-eminence in financial services. We will be driven back to being supplicants for the charity of the EU – a role in which we were unsuccessful even when we were members. We will be driven back to accepting whatever fig leaves on immigration the EU will grant us, which will be scant given the understandable desire of its leaders to make an example of us and show that exit doesn’t pay. ‘The deserters won’t be welcomed with open arms,’ as Jean-Claude Juncker put it in an interview with Le Monde in May. ‘The UK will have to accept being considered a third party, who we won’t be bending over backwards for.’
In short, we will be driven back to the ‘Norwegian solution’, although it will be called anything but that. Instead, it will be hailed as a triumph for British diplomacy, like the renegotiation earlier this year.
The ‘Norwegian solution’ seems to consist of paying a great deal more than before for rather less than before, and of having no input into decisions that affect us for the worse (as increasingly they will), while continuing to have no control over free movement. I hope to be proved wrong, but at present I see little prospect of avoiding a version of this outcome.
In one of his many scurrilous songs, My Home Town, Tom Lehrer reflects on what has become of the town’s sweetheart since he left the place: ‘Now there’s a charge for what she used to give for free.’
Know the feeling, Tom.