The five things you need to know on Friday June 24, 2016…
1) A NEW DAWN
Nearly 20 years after a triumphant Tony Blair overlooked the Thames to declare ‘a new dawn has broken, has it not?’, Britain has woken up to an entirely different sunrise. Using the EU referendum like a deafening alarm clock, the voters have startled their rulers with a nerve-shredding jolt. The markets are threatening freefall, the pound has plunged and all our party leaders - apart from one - are in shock.
For the Leave vote, as narrow as it was, is a genuinely generational shift in British politics and the UK’s role in the world. Bigger than any general election, even bigger than that famous Blair landslide that ushered in 13 years of Labour rule, or Thatcher’s own era-defining election successes, the referendum has pivoted us away from the European Union and into an uncertain direction. Even those who wanted Brexit are struggling to work out just what it will look like.
The very existence of the United Kingdom of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland is now in question. Scots may well use their own Remain result to inevitably prepare their own independence referendum. Sinn Fein has come out to call for a referendum on Irish reunification, as it seems Ulster’s two communities voted differently.
There are many reasons for the Leave victory and it would be folly to presume which was foremost. Was this a howl of pain from those neglected for years by Westminster? Was it a cry for help from those left behind by globalisation? Was it a rebel yell for freedom from Brussels? Was it a protest at the Tory Government's austerity? It was probably all four.
But I suspect that another key driver was English (and Welsh) national pride. Having seen the Scots come close to a breakaway, and the new politics they won as a result, voters seemed to be telling London that EU migrants have had all the rights and it was time for some of their own. From Sunderland to Sheffield, from Swansea to Southampton, they voted in unprecedented numbers.
And ultimately, all the ‘experts’ in the City, the polling firms, the betting markets - and yes the media - had missed the rumble in the tectonic plates of our political system. In the end it may have come down to this: force the British working classes (and ‘‘Middle Britain’) to make a straight, binary choice between their country and the EU and they will pick their home turf every time. David Cameron may argue that wasn’t the choice on the ballot paper, but many voters may well have felt that was the choice on offer. And they finally had a reason to vote for something for the first time in decades.
Nigel Farage, who along with Boris Johnson should take most credit for the result, famously said ‘I want my country back’. And after an extraordinary night, it seems 17 million Britons agreed with him. For the other 16 million who didn’t agree, it may be a long, long time before they get their own country back, if ever.
A new dawn has indeed broken. We wait to see whether our nation has too.
The drama in Downing Street was extraordinary and D-exit is now a reality. Cameron bowed to the inevitable and announced his resignation outside the famous big, black front door. "I think the country requires fresh leadership," he said.
After listing his achievements of six years in office, not least stabilising the economy and gay marriage, he said he would step down in three months. A Tory leadership contest will now start, with the winner unveiled at the party conference in October. His voice cracking, tears in his eyes, he said "I love this country and I feel honoured to have served it". It was hard not to be moved by that.
Within minutes of the polls closing on Thursday night, Tory MPs backing Leave published their letter insisting they wanted the PM to stay whatever happened. But having rolled the dice (his own phrase), and seen his luck run out, Cameron knew he looked instantly like a caretaker premier. So do ministers like George Osborne and Philip Hammond.
The City and the Bank of England wanted him to not to carry out his threat to ‘straight away’ trigger the Article 50, the legal move that would formally start our exit from the EU. Soon after Cameron's statement, Bank Governor Mark Carney was 'Project Fear' made flesh as he announced £250bn in liquidity loans for British banks hit by market turbulence.
The risk of political as well as financial contagion is also real. Today, the far right in France and Holland have both called for similar exit referendums of their own.
But maybe history's verdict will be that this: the ‘essay crisis Prime Minister’, the man who somehow got his work done just in time and scraped the right results, finally flunked the test. Cramming his flop of a ‘renegotiation’ into a few months failed to give him the support he needed from his own MPs, let alone the voters. Having nearly lost Scotland in a referendum, he’s lost the UK in another sense, almost by accident, today.
For many of those who voted to Remain in the EU, this was a test that should never have been set in the first place. The referendum was an act of political panic forced on the nation by a Tory leader scared of Farage’s rise in the polls in 2013, and spooked by his own backbench diehard Eurosceptics.
Yet Cameron always felt he would win the referendum. He didn’t really see it as a risk. That argument looked ridiculous during the campaign, when he tried to scare voters by setting out the risks of an Out vote - from ISIS to Putin, from recession to rows of headstones in European battlefield cemeteries. He suggested time and again that a Leave vote would be like playing Russian roulette with people’s jobs and futures.
But in calling the referendum in the first place, it was Cameron himself who loaded the bullets into the revolver. Self-harm is what he warned of and political self-harm is what he got.
Boris Johnson is now the overwhelming favourite to succeed Cameron. When Johnson announced in February that he was backing Brexit, Johnson took as much of a gamble as Cameron had in calling the referendum in the first place. And given his popularity among the Tory grass roots, he will now surely get his reward.
Having won over Labour voters as Mayor of a Labour city like London, his reach among 'white van man' and his X-factor celebrity status may make him unstoppable as the choice of Tory MPs and then party members. George Osborne is dead man walking. Stephen Crabb could carry the moderniser torch, Theresa May may want to have a shot, but still lacks the Parliamentary numbers for a serious challenge at present.
3) BLAME THROWERS
The hangover from last night is felt almost as keenly among Labour MPs as Tories who stayed loyal to Cameron. And Jeremy Corbyn is firmly in the firing line for many in the PLP.
The Labour leader appeared on the BBC early, complete with his ‘lines to take’. And some around him aren’t actually that depressed by Brexit. Diane Abbott called it “a roar of defiance against Westminster”. John McDonnell claimed he had listened to the people as much as he could but needed to do more.
Of course, Corbyn himself is a beneficiary of direct democracy and a campaign against the ‘elites’ in his own party. His landslide last year and the tension with his own MPs will have to be resolved one way or another. The Shadow Cabinet meets at 10am and it could be bloody. But given the party’s membership make-up, it’s difficult to see how he can be ousted against his will.
I’ve quoted MPs who felt Corbyn is to blame for the Brexit vote because of his failure to understand Labour voters’ fears on migration. The great irony is Corbyn has historically been anti-EU and is in tune with Labour voters in a way that ‘moderates’ have not been, at least on the issue of Brexit.
And even once he became leader it was obvious he wasn’t keen. Yet while Corbyn objected in the abstract to the EU’s lack of democracy, Labour voters had more concrete fears about migrants taking their jobs through free movement, something their leader failed repeatedly to take seriously, critics say.
Corbyn says that he is now the only party leader in touch with the voters. As a 'reluctant Remainer' he certainly didn't have a typical approach to Labour's pro-EU policy stance. He may argue that Blair and Brown brought this all on themselves by neglecting Mrs Duffys for years. That isn't how many of his MPs see it.
The blame game has begun. And it will continue for months, maybe years. Unless, as one Labour MP told me last night, there’s a snap election that wipes out 60 more Labour seats. If that happens, they will be rid of Corbyn, but could also see their party reduced to a rump that may not get back into power until 2025 at the earliest.
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR…
4) KIP, KIP FORAY
Farage was the one with the morning glory today, jubilantly telling his supporters he was off for a drink. Yet the darker side of the UKIP leader was laid bare even in his moment of victory, as he said that the UK’s ‘Independence Day’ was achieved “without a single bullet being fired”. Just days after the shooting dead of Jo Cox, Labour MP, refugee advocate and passionate Remain campaigner, that seemed crass at best.
Farage has been outside Parliament, the place where he has just one MP (and Douglas Carswell last night attacked UKIP’s infamous migrant poster). But Farage knows that while a majority of Parliamentarians didn’t want Brexit, a majority of the people did. He garnered millions of votes in the general election and last night he can claim rights to a big chunk of those 17 million Leavers, in both Labour and Tory areas.
The former City financier and public schoolboy successfully projected himself as the ally of the working man, just as billionaire Donald Trump has in the US, Farage knows the referendum would never have taken place without him.
The official Vote Leave campaign felt that Farage was as much a hindrance as a help, deterring floating voters worried about being tagged as racists over migration. The question now is how much more damage he can to both big parties. For the Tory party, an historic Corn Laws-style split is less likely. Some Conservatives think that UKIP has lost its raison d’être now Brexit has moved from fantasy to reality.
But given that UKIP has made gains in Scotland, in Wales, and now radically built on all those second places it got against Labour, don’t write them off. Migration may still be a huge issue for Labour voters, even as we cut our links to the EU. And if Farage can say only his party will deliver on the promise of Brexit, who knows how many Parliamentary seats it can take, either in a snap election or in 2020.
Green party MP Caroline Lucas this morning looked physically sick as the Leave result came in. She said the voters had been “sold snake oil” by the Leave camp. “I fear people already hurting most…they are going to find that leaving the EU is going to make that even worse”. Will the poorest suffer most if we endure a recession? And will they revolt again if the promises to curb migration fail to materialise.
5) THE STATE OF THE UNION
One of Labour’s most controversial press statements last night was a claim that the SNP was to blame, not Labour, for the Brexit direction of travel.
“The SNP, the dominant party which ran huge campaigns for the independence referendum, UK election and Scottish elections, has run a lacklustre campaign with minimal ground activity,” one Labour source said. “Sturgeon had more to say about criticising the Remain camp than making the positive case for Europe and she was nowhere to be seen until the dying days of the campaign.”
That verdict prompted a hollow laugh among SNP supporters on Twitter and Facebook, many of whom said it neatly summed up Corbyn’s own campaign. Nicola Sturgeon has been cautious about saying the Leave vote in Scotland will automatically trigger a new independence referendum, though Alex Salmond is not so reticent.
But the suspicion among Labour and the Tories alike remains that the SNP ran a ‘just good enough’ campaign in Scotland, designed to get enough votes to prove Scots were Remainers but not enough to defeat a Leave vote in the UK overall. A conspiracy theory gone mad? Maybe, but then there was the #usepens meme started north of the border, don’t forget.
And it’s not just Scotland. Soon after dawn, Northern Ireland’s Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness called for a referendum on Irish ‘reunification’. Ulster will have the only UK land border with the EU after Brexit and it is divided among those who wanted to stay and wanted to go. The Irish government says the vote has ‘very significant implications’. That’s perhaps the understatement of a very long night.
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