So many divisions, so little leadership
Britain has woken up a crueller, colder, poorer and weaker country. Voters have chosen to leave the European Union and the Prime Minister David Cameron has said that he will resign, although not straight away. The immediate task is to stabilise markets that are tanking and ensure that a political crisis does not morph into a full-blown economic and banking one.
The pound has fallen to a 30-year low, setting a record intraday swing of more than 10 per cent between high and low points; the FTSE slumped 8.7 per cent before rebounding slightly; and banks were hammered, with Deutsche Bank down 17 per cent, Royal Bank of Scotland down 34 per cent and Lloyds down 30 per cent. As Mark Carney, the Governor of the Bank of England, outlined in an impressively delivered statement this morning, our banks are in a much healthier condition than when the financial crisis struck in 2008. His offer of £250bn support, and reassurance that contingency plans are in place, will help calm very frayed nerves.
Mr Cameron’s resignation is understandable, and the dignity with which he spoke, his voice cracking slightly, was commendable. Having lost the support of a majority of his grassroots members, with a fragile Commons majority and dozens of MPs devoted to his demise, it was always going to be impossible for him to continue leading his party. The question for the Tories is whether anyone rises to challenge Boris Johnson. Somebody ought to. Whatever happens, it is likely that Mr Johnson will give the leader’s speech at Tory party conference later in the year.
In recent years, Westminster has shown itself adept at cross-party cooperation in the national interest: the Coalition government of 2010 to 2015, for all its faults, worked pretty well. What we now need is, ironically, the British establishment at its best: civil servants deploying their extensive contingency plans to good use, and the various parties coming together to ensure that Britain’s economy is secure, while a sensible renegotiation of Britain’s relationship with the EU begins later this year.
In that context, another party leader had a terrible morning today. Jeremy Corbyn’s lamentable leadership of the Labour Party – if it can even be called such a thing – reached a new nadir, when he claimed that the vote to leave the European Union was a verdict against austerity, and that Article 50 should be revoked immediately. This compounded one ideologically charged error with an astonishing immature misjudgement. Anyone with serious pretensions to power in Britain – not that Mr Corbyn necessarily qualifies for that – should be ashamed of such an assertion, knowing that in fact we should delay invocation until short-term restabilisation has taken place.
Nigel Farage spoke in the early hours of today knowing that, together with Tony Blair, he is now the most consequential politician of the post-Thatcher era. This was his victory. His reference to winning without a bullet being fired showed a flash of menace that would have rightly terrified much of Britain. There was a whiff of demagoguery amid the democratic fervour of this morning, and the vision of our country that many among the Leave camp articulated over recent weeks was not a sunny or optimistic one.
It is hard to overstate just how divided Britain is today. In each of the following categories, the former voted strongly to remain and the latter voted strongly to leave: young versus old; rich versus poor; London versus England; highly educated versus not highly educated; ethnic minorities versus white British. To heal the wounds of our battered country will require a calibre of leadership that is the envy of the world. On the basis of the past few weeks, the reasons to be hopeful are, alas, in short supply.