Stop Crying Your Heart Out: Thoughts Following Brexit

27/06/2016 16:45 | Updated 27 June 2016

It is now the morning after the morning after the morning after the night before. Like a partygoer after a particularly heavy session we're perhaps only now recovering from the three-day hangover of Brexit. After a turbulent few days, several arguments with friends and family, a number of advisory notes to clients and contacts, I feel like it is time to sit back and marshal my thoughts properly.

I was a Remainer. I still am. I would love a way to open up that keeps us in the European Union, or at least very close to it. I am worried about the economic consequences of exit - less in the long-term, but certainly in this extended period of negotiation with our jilted friends across the Channel. I am worried about the uncertainty, about the deals that may be held back, the investments that may not be made, the jobs that may not be created. I am also worried about how Britain is perceived, my foreigners living here, by people all around the globe - and by ourselves. We should all worry about these things.

But at the same time we have to roll our sleeves up. This is where we now are. In the long-term this could be good for us. It could and should reshape our politics. It could rebalance our economy in much more radical ways than have been possible so far. It is a statement of fact that British exports are already cheaper now than they were last Thursday - and as a result some share prices rose on Friday. Every cloud, eh? So who knows how this will play out in the medium to long-term? And in the short-term, with luck, people will hold their nerve. We must all be determined and focused.

We will never be focused, though, if we don't acknowledge this new landscape. My fellow Remainers need to get over their outrage quickly, and accept that the result is the result. It is legitimate to be disappointed, it is fair enough to be angry about the campaigns, both of them, it is right to criticize David Cameron for putting us through this stupid process in the first place - but challenging the actual result, questioning the motivations or intelligence of those who voted to Leave, these are not acceptable. We should ask ourselves this: if the result had been 52% to Remain would we have hailed the victory and moved on quickly? The answer is yes, so the reverse has to be true. Stop whining. This is democracy.

I despair at all that whining. Yes, some porkies were told in the campaign, but our side also made claims that were exaggerated at the very least. Who knows whether the number of people scared into voting Remain exceeds the number misled into voting to Leave? This isn't the point, anyway. The one solid fact is that 17.4 million of our fellow citizens voted out, and they won. No petition, even one with 3 million signatories, no vote in Parliament can change that fact; and it would be fundamentally undemocratic and dangerous to fly in the face of the view expressed last Thursday. We shouldn't. We have to deal with it.

And, anyway, the anger and disdain of the 'metropolitan elite' is exactly the wrong response. ‎Remain lost because many, many, people feel disenfranchised, patronised and ignored. So what are some proposing now? To circumvent and talk down to the Leavers again! Daft and damaging; instead, we must listen to the 65% of people in this country who did not vote to stay in the EU. If we want anything to change we have to understand why, really, Leave won, avoiding lazy stereotypes about racists and UKIPers. After all, this is their country too; arguably, given they got a majority, it is more their country than ours. But we need to avoid divisions like that. We need to pull together, not be driven apart.

This challenge is biggest for Labour. What a shambles they are in! The referendum has shown again that the Party is now utterly divorced from its core supporters, other than in London. So Labour's failings in the campaign were not down to a lacklustre performance from Jeremy Corbyn - though refusing to appear alongside Cameron was typically petty and student-politcky - but due to years of neglect. Labour has been led in recent years from the right and from the left, but almost exclusively by middle class smartarses based in London and advised by the too-clever-by-half. Whatever happens in the current round of bloodletting, the Party needs a leader capable of reconnecting with its base.

Speaking of the too-clever-by-half, the campaign has been disastrous for many on the Remain side. The failure to learn from Better Together was shocking. The decision to entrust Stronger In to a group of New Labour insiders, given their inherent lack of feel for what voters actually want, was stupid. The advice that a strong turnout would be good for Remain was just wrong, and showed up how hard pollsters are finding it to talk to those who are hard to reach, engage only spasmodically with politics and respond well to populism: anyone feeling complacent about Clinton vs Trump should take note. The reputations of pollsters and political strategists have taken another battering.

More than anything, the result shows what people like me said all along, that a negative campaign would backfire. Perhaps I didn't anticipate the extent to which Leavers would regard all experts as liars and all interventions by foreign bodies as provocations, but it is definitely true that Remain never set out a positive vision, a reason to stay in, even a simple message, around which people could rally. There was passion there to be tapped into - look at the outpouring of grief since Thursday - but it wasn't fired by the campaign. For that the blame has to be laid at the door of David Cameron and those around him. The decision to hold the referendum, the useless and negative negotiation which could have sought positive reform or a future vision and didn't, and the direction of the campaign: all will ultimately be associated with Cameron's leadership. It is an unfortunate epitaph for a fundamentally decent man.

‎All of that is to look backwards. As I've said already, we need to roll our sleeves up and look forward. There are some pressing issues to deal with right now, starting with the negotiations with Europe. For one thing we don't have enough trade negotiators: we handed this skillset over to Brussels years ago. There is real concern - expressed too quietly during the campaign - that we will be disadvantaged as a result in our negotiations with the EU, let alone with all the other countries we now need to agree deals with. This is a difficult problem to solve; maybe, seriously, we could borrow some, at least at first?

The negotiations with Brussels will be delicate. I have described the EU as jilted, and that is surely how it will behave, at times angry and dismissive, and at times loving and desperate. We need to tread a delicate path, pursuing a way out but also supporting reform of the EU itself. Who knows what will happen there? The threat of Brexit means that the Union is facing a real and existential crisis, and may in response finally reform itself sufficiently to satisfy its critics, including in this country. And then, who is to say that after a second referendum or a new General Election we won't want to stay in after all?

Nicola Sturgeon will be hoping so. She is caught in a cleft stick, having to moot the possibility of a new independence referendum because she said she would, but anxious about whether she could win it or whether she even wants to win it, with the oil price where it is and with no resolution of the currency question. The way out would be for Britain to remain, or at least to negotiate such a good deal that there is no need for Scotland to leave. She will be proceeding cautiously over the months ahead.

The same is true in Ireland. Perhaps the most difficult of the issues within these islands now is the status of the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. Would it remain open to facilitate trade and the flow of people - and so then would we check passports between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK? Or would it be reinstated, undermining the economy on both sides and jeopardising the peace process? There is no satisfactory answer to these questions. Finding a way through will be hard.

Perhaps the most pressing challenge, the one that needs immediate attention, the one that Cameron should focus on in his last days in office, is what this vote has said about Britain and our relationship with the world. Foreign citizens living here are already worried, both about their status and also about the way Brits may be thinking about them. Outside the UK some have perceived the referendum result as us turning our backs, becoming inward-looking. Things were said during the campaign which bordered on xenophobic, Islamophobic or downright racist. Some may feel this was a victory for UKIP. As already discussed, many feel very angry and badly let down by the campaign, as well as the result. All in all, we need to work hard to reassure the people who are here already, and the world outside, that Britain remains tolerant, cosmopolitan, a player on the world stage, committed to aid and trade and cultural exchange. This can't happen soon enough. Over to you, David Cameron: time to lead on this.

The new leader of the Conservative Party, the new Prime Minister, will have to pick up all of these. Whoever it is must be a big figure, capable of healing wounds and uniting us, capable of leading complex and detailed negotiations particularly in Brussels, capable of dealing with Scotland and Ireland and many other issues besides. This, for me, is not Boris Johnson. He is now a divisive figure, reviled by many for the way he campaigned. He has not so far demonstrated that he is dedicated enough to master detail. He has never held senior ministerial office; being Mayor of London, where your biggest responsibility is for Transport for London, an organization which pretty much runs itself, is nowhere near the same. He is not hugely liked or trusted by his fellow MPs. Boris would at best be a flawed candidate.

So if Johnson is not the right person, with or without Michael Gove at his side, to lead the UK in this new world, who is? Well, whoever emerges from the pack, I hope they will be experienced, non-polarising, competent and calming. Boringly reassuring would be good. And I hope we rally round, grudgingly or not, this non-Boris. It is time to accept this new context and see what we can do to thrive in it. The sky has not fallen in and it won't unless we let it. Stop crying your heart out, and learn to live in the post-referendum world.