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What the West should know about Xi Jinping, China’s most powerful leader since Mao

In the two years since he took China's most important job, Xi Jinping has strengthened his grip on the state.

In the two years since he took China’s most important job, Xi Jinping has become the most powerful national leader in the world. He has assumed seven top positions spanning the Communist Party, the state, the economy and the military. He has also displayed an activism that contrasts sharply with his predecessor Hu Jintao, and has promulgated a tough ideological line.

At home, his big anti-corruption and frugality campaign is attempting to strengthen the 87-million-strong Communist Party by bringing the cadres closer to the people. Abroad, Xi has forged a foreign policy to dispense hundreds of billions of dollars to countries from Asia to Latin America while confronting Asian neighbours and seeking geopolitical parity with the United States.

Projecting a folksy image domestically as “Xi Dada” (Uncle Xi), he appears popular, as a leader with ambitions that match China’s economic weight, the strongest chief of the world’s most populous nation since Mao Zedong. Like the Great Helmsman, Xi knows how to play to perfection the front-line role in his country’s political system – Leninism with Chinese characteristics. (Though paramount leader after winning the power struggle that followed Mao’s death in 1976, Deng Xiaoping preferred to operate through others.) With his tenure stretching to 2022, Xi does not have to worry about elections or obstructive legislatures; what matters is controlling and strengthening the monopoly movement that has ruled the People’s Republic of China (PRC) since 1949. After taking over the Party leadership at the end of 2012, he swiftly pursued the centralisation of authority and set up four top-level national bodies under his chairmanship to add to the usual top three posts of Party general secretary, state president and chair of the Central Military Commission. He has no rivals and has ensured control of a vital power base by reshuffling top commanders of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to promote generals close to him.

Xi has also put his name to an ambitious seven-year programme of economic reform. The growth rate has fallen below the government target but it is projected to be 6.8 per cent this year, strong by global standards. Inflation is low; deflation, boosted by excess capacity, is the big problem. Foreign currency reserves, feeding off the PRC’s position as the world’s biggest exporter, stand at $4trn, as much as the next seven biggest reserve holders combined. (Although this is an enviable position, China is in a “dollar trap”: it cannot sell much of its US assets for fear of provoking a wider sell-off of the greenback, reducing the value of its remaining holdings.)

Internationally, Xi has displayed ever-increasing confidence, discarding Deng’s advice for China to “hide its brilliance and bide its time”. For him, the time has come. The PRC’s huge aid programme includes the “One Belt, One Road” plan, to pay for infrastructure, transport routes and energy generation plants along the maritime passage from China to the Gulf, and also across central Asia to Russia and Germany beyond. China has offered large sums to governments in Latin America to gain influence, buy in to companies and promote infrastructure projects that would provide work for PRC firms. Its firms have been investing in Europe, North America and Australia as well as the old natural-resources-hunting ground of Africa. The Beijing government has created the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and had the satisfaction of more than 50 countries, led by the UK, joining despite warnings from Washington not to do so – a telling sign of how strong is the ­desire to get on with China.

Xi’s body language at the summit in Beijing of the 21-nation Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation (Apec) organisation towards the end of 2014 told a clear story. Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, and Barack Obama were both put at a disadvantage by the staging of meetings with him by being made to appear like supplicants, Abe receiving only the most distant of handshakes and no small talk. Xi, who is broad-shouldered and nearly six foot tall, trumped the feline figure of Vladimir Putin, who committed the overeager faux pas of putting a shawl around the shoulder of the Chinese leader’s wife: it was swiftly removed. Xi looked, and acted, like an emperor.

Both Obama and David Cameron will have occasion to savour the Xi style when he visits the US and UK this autumn. Britain has already felt the impact of the tougher Xi approach over Hong Kong with the refusal late last year to allow a Commons select committee to visit the former colony and, in January, the snubbing of the Foreign Office minister Hugo Swire by the two most senior Hong Kong officials. But the Cameron government has accepted such ­rebuffs in the hope that Xi’s visit will result in contracts for British companies.

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Confounding non-Chinese commentators who see the PRC as defined by its Confucian civilisation, Xi belongs to the other philosophical stream, of legalism, dating back to the First Emperor 2,200 years ago. This puts its faith in top-down autocratic rule, with the law frightening citizens into obedience. There is no room for retreat or compromise. The way in which reform is perceived to have brought down the USSR is held up as a terrible example of weakness.

Xi’s wide-ranging war on corruption is a perfect example of the legalist approach. Its cutting edge, the Communist Party’s Commission for Discipline Inspection, can hold people for as long as it wants without charge in a secret location before the Party rules on whether to expel them. Only then are they handed to the courts for sentencing.

In targeting high-profile “tigers” such as the maverick Politburo member Bo Xilai, who was sentenced to life in prison in 2013, and the former security chief Zhou Yongkang, who was given a life sentence on 11 June, Xi has shown that nobody is safe though powerful vested interests are bound to oppose him. (Besides being found guilty of corruption, Zhou was accused of divulging secret documents to his spiritual guru, who claims supernatural powers. A brief video of his sentencing showed a man who was once one of the PRC’s most powerful figures, his previously black hair turned white, evidently from having hair dye denied to him in detention.) Close associates of Hu Jintao and his immediate predecessor, Jiang Zemin, have been detained; the campaign has also swatted tens of thousands of less eminent “flies” and induced a widespread atmosphere of fear.

Not content with the Party’s 66-year-long monopoly of power, its Politburo ruled last month that all social, cultural and economic organisations must have a Communist cell, as is already the case in most companies. A legal programme launched last year aims to use the law to buttress central control; judges already had to swear an oath of loyalty to the Party. Liberals who, having given up on canvassing for democracy, ask merely that the constitution be respected, are denounced as foreign agents out to undermine the PRC. Anybody trying to operate outside the system is in danger. An anti-corruption campaigner who called for party and state officials to be required to declare their assets has been jailed for disturbing public order; his real sin was to have operated on his own.

After being abolished officially in 2002, class warfare has reappeared as a mantra in state media, along with Mao’s “mass line” – to ensure conformity under the leadership – and denunciations of “western values”. Repression of dissent, officially equated with subversion, has increased; Liu Xiaobo, the 2010 Nobel Peace Prizewinner, remains in jail, where he is serving an 11-year sentence for having circulated an online petition in favour of democracy.

Beijing has also toughened its hold on Tibet, where more than 100 Buddhist monks and nuns have burned themselves to death in the past five years to protest against Chinese rule, and on the huge western territory of Xinjiang, where the state faces increasingly violent action by Muslim Uighurs who oppose the Chinese rule imposed by military force around 1950. Mass immigration by Han Chinese, who get most of the benefits of the cash being poured in by the central government, is changing the population balance in both territories.

Xi’s persona as a strong leader with populist characteristics is nurtured by events such as his 2013 visit to a neighbourhood restaurant for a lunch of vegetables, steamed buns and pig-innard soup. His liking for football is reported in the Chinese media, along with his desire for the People’s Republic to improve on dismal performances and become a World Cup challenger. In 2013 he was photographed on a dockside in a downpour holding his own umbrella and with his trousers legs rolled up, like a holidaymaker caught in the rain at Blackpool – though the snap disappeared from mainland websites after Hong Kong democracy protesters took the umbrella as their symbol.

His wife, Peng Liyuan, has become China’s most prominent first lady since Madam Mao – Jiang Qing, who led the extremist Gang of Four during the Cultural Revolution and subsequently died in jail – if a good deal less scary. The handbags Peng carries on foreign visits quickly sell out on e-commerce sites. She was a well-known folk singer with a big voice before she stopped performing when her husband rose to the Politburo Standing Committee (she sang in the PLA entertainment corps and holds a rank equivalent to major general). A schmaltzy ballad, “Xi Dada Loves Peng Mama”, even went viral last winter, with tens of millions of internet downloads in China.

 

***

Xi, 62, has radiated a sense of entitlement from his youth, somebody who knew him in those days told me. The son of a first-generation Communist leader, he was sent to live in a cave and look after pigs when his father was purged in the Cultural Revolution. He then worked his way up through provincial posts, including senior positions in two high-growth provinces, Fujian and Zhejiang, before being put in charge of Shanghai in 2007. That same year he was elevated to the country’s top political body, the Politburo Standing Committee, marking him as the man to succeed Hu Jintao at the following congress, in 2012.

He stands at the top of the “princelings” group of offspring of first-generation Communist chiefs, though the leadership factions apparent before Xi became general secretary appear to have dissipated. Other Standing Committee members seem to have accepted his power play. Premier Li Keqiang, the leading member of the “Youth League faction” of Hu protégés, lines up loyally, but knows that if the economy falters seriously he will be the fall guy. Any ambitious younger politician aiming to join the Standing Committee at the next congress in 2017, and so position himself in line for the post-Xi leadership, is likely to hunker down in the leader’s tent.

For all his power, Xi confronts a long string of challenges; indeed, he has indicated that he feels he needs great authority because of the scale of problems facing the regime. China has major economic imbalances. The leadership has to manage slowing growth, deflation, excess industrial capacity and a mountain of debt incurred by local governments for projects unlikely ever to provide a decent return on ­capital. To ensure sustainable growth, it needs to reduce the dependence on exports and fixed asset investment and to increase domestic consumption – but the rate of consumption growth remains weak. Prices have fallen on the property market, into which many Chinese poured their savings. The recent stock-market boom has run ahead of itself and international investors showed what they thought early this month by declining to include in the benchmark global MSCI Emerging Market Index stocks that are listed on the mainland, rather than in Hong Kong. For all its adaptation of inventions from abroad, China is not good at original innovation. It also faces competition from lower-cost producers and needs to move up the value-added chain of manufacturing.

The second generation of the urban middle class, which holds the key to the PRC’s future in many ways, and which has never known anything but strong growth, is more questioning than its parents. Social media has introduced conversations that are outside the range of the official channels, and too numerous for the censors to keep track. Chinese citizens make more than 100 million trips abroad each year and see the liberties democracy can bring.

There is a grave environmental crisis in air quality (life expectancy in polluted northern cities is five and a half years lower than in the cleaner south), water and soil (one survey showed that 10 per cent of arable land was unsafe to grow crops on). Food safety is a constant concern. Differences in regional and personal wealth have soared. As the scale of the current anti-corruption campaign shows, graft is deeply embedded. Public trust in officialdom is low. The hukou registration system that ties people to their place of ordinary residence deprives migrant workers of rights to welfare, education or property, and prevents them from launching businesses in the cities, where they are treated as second-class citizens.

Low fertility, the one-child policy and the cost of raising children in a system without adequate maternity facilities have all caused the birth rate to fall just as more old people are living longer. The result is a demographic time bomb in a nation without a proper pension system and sparse state care for the elderly. Confucianism is fraying, and despite the new, Mao-tinged ideological campaign the “ism” that most marks out China today is materialism. The government wants people to spend more and thus boost growth, but the inadequate welfare system obliges Chinese citizens to save a lot.

Abroad, some of the rulers with whom Beijing has formed close relationships have come unstuck – as in Sri Lanka and Venezuela. The PRC’s project to build a highway and railway from the Arabian Sea through Pakistan to China’s westernmost territory of Xinjiang has problems with both topography and the Taliban. There are serious doubts about the transcontintental railway proposal for Latin America. Moscow may resent China’s push into central Asia and Beijing’s expansive sovereignty claims in the South and East China Seas have drawn Japan, the Philippines and other countries closer to the strategic umbrella of the United States. Tokyo has launched its own aid programme in response to Beijing’s initiatives. America has critical allies in the region; Beijing’s only formal alliance is with North Korea. Despite its military spending, the People’s Republic lags behind US military power in east Asia.

As for soft power, the idea that Chinese civilisational values will spread to match those of the west looks good only on paper. Since 1949 the Communist Party has presided over extensive destruction of Chinese traditional culture. Apart from the Forbidden City and a few temples, Beijing is now a city of modern towers and ring roads, of shopping malls and mobile phones.

There are far more signs of western influence in China than of Sinicisation in cities of the west; the latest film in the Avengers franchise did far better at the box office in the PRC this month than a popular cartoon biopic of Deng Xiaoping. Despite the success of Chinese enterprises such as the internet giant Alibaba, the US remains well ahead in innovation and China usually adapts novelties from elsewhere rather than invents things itself. When it comes to politics, demonstrators in Ukraine or the Middle East call for western democracy but nobody marches to demand a Chinese political system. While universities in China are told to repel foreign values, any Chinese parents who can afford it send their children to be educated abroad. Xi’s own daughter went to Harvard (under a pseudonym).

***

The greatest problem facing the Chinese leadership is simple. What is the Communist Party of China for and where does it derive its legitimacy? That raises some very knotty issues.

Is this movement that has never run in a national election – let alone won one – the deliverer of material progress, extending Deng Xiaoping’s insight that going for growth was the path both to restoring the PRC’s global status and to giving the Party a source of popular legitimacy? If so, what will happen if growth drops more sharply than Xi and Premier Li Keqiang plan and if the aspirations of the second generation of the middle class reach beyond money? What impact will the anti-corruption campaign have on the Party’s patronage networks and its poorly paid cadres, who live by rent-seeking?

Does the Party still have an ideological message as Xi’s invocations of Marxism and Maoism would suggest? If so, how does that chime with a rapidly evolving but still materialist society whose leaders cannot bring themselves to deal with the reality of China’s past? Mao is officially seen as “70 per cent good, 30 per cent bad”, but his record is still shrouded in myth. The story told at the grandiose National Museum in Tiananmen Square of how the Party saved China and is leading it towards “rejuvenation” is far from reality. Can a regime that cannot confront its own past command credibility?

For all the rampant growth and the praise some commentators heap on China’s supposedly meritocratic system rooted in thousands of years of history, its ruling class has a spotty record. The country’s economic success, which may be the most important global event since the end of the cold war, was buoyed by a combination of low wages, cheap credit and strong demand for exports. None of those factors now applies. The vast stimulus programme launched at the end of 2008 to counter the world financial crisis restored growth but led to wholesale misallocation of capital into wasteful projects that earn scant returns, the vast debt problem affecting companies as well as local governments, and also created soaring excess capacity in sectors such as steel production. In 2007, the then prime minister, Wen Jiabao, called the economy unstable, unbalanced, uncoordinated and ultimately unsustainable, a situation that was exacerbated by a £400bn expansion of credit and stimulus spending the following year.

The seven-year reform programme laid out in a Party plenum document at the end of 2013 was the response to that. It was limited to the economy; political change is unthinkable. Yet there is still a core problem. The plan aims to use market mechanisms to buttress the state and build “national champions” in a modernised system, but there is no mention of the main driver of growth and jobs: the private sector. If they are to be effective, China’s economic reforms must involve structural liberalisation, which has inevitable political implications and will reduce state power.

If he faces a choice between economic modernisation and party control, Xi is likely to choose protecting the second – in line with his condemnation of the Gorbachev experiment in the Soviet Union – as he steps forward as the strongman who defends the PRC’s Leninist form of bureaucratic state capitalism. But that in turn would cramp the development and modernisation necessary to perpetuate the Communist Party’s claim to rule. Such contradictions will shape China in the coming decade and, given the country’s global impact, will weigh heavily on the world.

Jonathan Fenby’s most recent book is “Will China Dominate the 21st Century?” (Polity). He is also the author of “Tiger Head, Snake Tails: China Today, How It Got There and Why It Has to Change” (Simon & Schuster) and “The Penguin History of Modern China”

This article first appeared in the 19 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Mini Mao

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The biggest blunder of them all

It was a catastrophic error of judgement that produced the referendum – and now the British political class is paying the price.

AAs dawn broke on Friday morning and I turned over in bed to grab my phone and Twitter, I thought immediately of G K Chesterton’s poem from 1915, about the secret people of England:

 

Smile at us, pay us, pass us; but do not quite forget.
For we are the people of England, that never have spoken yet.
There is many a fat farmer that drinks less cheerfully,
There is many a free French peasant who is richer and sadder than we.
There are no folk in the whole world so helpless or so wise.
There is hunger in our bellies, there is laughter in our eyes;
You laugh at us and love us, both mugs and eyes are wet:
Only you do not know us. For we have not spoken yet.

 

Well, they have spoken now. This was a quietly devastating revolt by the English heartlands – southern and western suburbs; the urban sprawls of the Midlands and the north; former mining areas and devastated ex-industrial towns – against London, Scotland, Northern Ireland and the so-called elites. Looking at the numbers, one sees that it was a revolt also by older voters against younger voters and by poorer against richer, better-educated voters. It was, of course, a great democratic moment. Apart from the hideous and probably unconnected murder of Jo Cox, it was accomplished peacefully, and by a majority of well over a million. That sets it aside from Chesterton’s vision, which moves on from benign, bucolic defiance to outright anti-Semitism and warnings of blood-drenched revolution. Well, that’s the beauty of modern democracy . . .

The decision by the British people to leave the European Union is this country’s single biggest democratic act in modern times – indeed, as far as I can make out, the biggest ever. But it is also one of the elite’s most significant blunders, provoked by the most senior politicians for the wrong reasons and then pursued in what (to use a crude but apposite phrase) is the biggest establishment cock-up in my lifetime.

We should not fall into the trap, though, of seeing this as a purely British story. It is also about the EU, now looking more fragile than at any other time since the 1950s, and about what is still our common European home. There are calls for national revolt against the EU coming from across the continent. Far too many of the continent’s leaders welcoming our decision were the wrong sort of people. Mostly, the congratulations are coming from far-right parties, whose most lurid and upsetting rhetoric has emerged from central and eastern Europe. If you think I’m exaggerating, go on to YouTube, type “Visegrad”, and spend ten minutes watching. If this vote presages a process of messy and angry dissolution, it’s a story that will have started here. But that is only the beginning. If Marine Le Pen wins the French presidential election, then a French exit from the EU looks very likely – and that really is the end of it all.

Hurrah, many people will say: but we should reflect that this will demand negotiation of many individual trade deals with the leaders of angry and fractured European nations, which will clearly be a lot harder than any single deal with the EU. And then, there are the darker forebodings about Europe, which has never managed to stay at peace with itself for long as a constellation of independent countries. Immigration pressures and the Russian threat are just a couple of possible sources of future conflict.

But there are better outcomes. For the UK the optimal one now is clearly “Norway-plus”: meaning, in essence, restrictions on the free movement of people but access to the single market. Unless the victorious team of Brexit Tories is bonkers, this is what they will try to negotiate. It would minimise the threat of all-out economic disruption, which has already begun, and answer the biggest complaint from Leave voters. To which the obvious retort is: “Why in a million years would they give us that?” Well, as leaders in France, Germany, the Netherlands and other countries contemplate their own populist insurgencies, they must know that a rethink of freedom to work across borders is their best card against the insurgent right. There is a slim, but not entirely negligible, chance that a much wider rethink across the EU will now be prompted by the British decision.

This is not something that will be decided here. Is it possible that leaders in Brussels will eventually react, once the anger has cooled, to take a different path: to listen much more acutely to the sounds of pain caused by the euro experiment; to do a proper deal for Greece; to reassert democratic accountability (much more Council of Ministers, much less Commission); and to reassess free movement? Writing it, I know that I sound like a deluded optimist, but the possibility deserves to be filed alongside all the grimmest alternatives.

Keeping all this cautiously in mind, let’s look at the British establishment cock-up. According to one of those involved, this all started at a pizza restaurant at Chicago O’Hare Airport at the time of a Nato conference in 2012, when David Cameron and his closest political allies decided that the only way of scuppering Ukip and the Euro-hostile right of the Conservative Party was to give the British people a referendum.

The brutal way of putting this is that Cameron decided to put party management and tactics ahead of grand strategy, grossly overrated his own negotiating skills, and has been badly bitten in the bottom accordingly. He has often looked like a chess player who plays the next move brilliantly yet fails to see three moves ahead. There is, however, a more generous explanation – which is simply that this referendum was inevitable; that it was more than time for restless British voters to reassess their membership of a union that has changed dramatically since we joined, both in extent and in depth.

***

At any rate, whatever his mixed motives, Cameron believed that he could negotiate a deal with his EU partners so good that he would win a subsequent referendum. A great deal of this was based on a second huge miscalculation – about his friend Angela Merkel.

As a result, the whole referendum process was fixed around the negotiation. In other words, the feeling was: “Give the plebs their plebiscite. It’s pretty safe. The Continentals will be scared enough to give us a great deal and, therefore, the people will vote for Nurse.” As soon as it became clear that Mrs Merkel was not prepared to countenance an end to the free movement of people, the plan began to fall apart. I vividly remember interviewing Cameron as the details of the negotiation became clear and thinking to myself, between his explanations: “This isn’t nearly enough.”

This mistake was followed by another – one that the Scottish National Party leader, Nicola Sturgeon, publicly warned against months ago. Those running the Remain campaign always believed in “Project Fear”; that a barrage of warnings by the Treasury, big business, banks and international organisations would simply terrify ordinary voters – pensioners and workers alike – and pulverise the arguments for leaving.

It had worked, after all, hadn’t it, in Scotland in 2014? A close confidant of the Prime Minister told me, when I questioned him about the wisdom of this: “On the contrary, we need more fear. Fear is the only thing that can win it for us . . . We need lots of fear. We need as much fear as we can get.”

But the Scottish parallel proved to be a delusion. First, this kind of “you will lose your pensions, you will lose your jobs” warning infuriated many Scottish voters in 2014, who stuck their fingers in their ears and moved over to the Yes campaign. Second, although in the end threats of doom may have swung things, Scotland was a country of five million people, suffering from a falling oil price and taking a decision about a union that had been around for three centuries. If, right at the end and by a narrow margin, Scots voted two years ago to stay inside the UK, that was not a close enough comparison for this referendum; there were far more people involved, a bigger country, a much looser and more recent union.

It was the specificity of the Project Fear warnings that did most damage: households £4,300 worse off, house prices falling by 18 per cent, and so forth. By being incredibly detailed, the Remain campaigners lost the ear of a dubious public. That meant that the much more frightening warnings by business leaders, talking about companies they knew and understood, didn’t get enough traction. Granted, we still don’t know; Project Fear may be vindicated yet. (The early falls on the money markets and stock markets tell us very little – they may be an overreaction to previous and recent complacency.)

But the most significant reason Project Fear failed was that it was confronted by a larger project of fear: the fear of uncontrolled and uncontrollable migration running, cumulatively, into the millions for many years ahead. Frank lies were told. Gross exaggeration ran riot. This was a fight between people who like living among migrants from Europe and employing them, on the one hand, and those competing against migrants (and failing) for jobs and wages. Neither David Cameron nor Theresa May seemed to have a plausible response to “uncontrolled immigration”. That may be because, inside the EU, there wasn’t one. Jeremy Corbyn responded with interesting ideas about wage rates and employment laws which did not address, at all, central fears about numbers and identity.

It is on this, above all issues, that “the plain people of England” spoke most compellingly against the elites, from Westminster politicians and Whitehall mandarins to London actresses, pop stars and media grandees. Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Nigel Farage were absolutely right to point out that immigration from eastern Europe – though it has hugely benefited people who employ drivers and domestic servants, and who want to pay less for their electrical or plumbing repairs – keeps down the wages of indigenous working-class people and, in many cases, makes it harder for them to find work in hotels, in restaurants, on farms and elsewhere. Aggregated economic statistics mean nothing compared to personal experience. If you’ve got nothing, you’ve got nothing to lose. (Well, in fact, you have got something, but it feels that way.) When George Osborne warned of an economic apocalypse, people with nothing who felt they had no opportunities just put their fingers in their ears and went “la-la-la”.

There were people who saw what was happening and understood that disregarded Lower and Middle Britain was fed up to the back teeth and ready to revolt: some trade union leaders – whose job it was, after all, to represent them – and some Labour MPs.

***

The Labour leadership, however, seems to have got the message far too late and far too weakly, and that was a function of its own political philosophy. Labour leaders of the Jeremy Corbyn era don’t like to talk about immigration and have based much of their inner-city politics on the rights and causes of migrant communities already in the UK. The menacing noises about a leadership challenge grew louder by the hour and then turned into open revolt.

There is something tragicomic about this. The Corbyn revolution was about the overthrow of the last remnants of the Blairites, accused by party activists of not thinking enough or caring enough about ordinary Labour voters – of becoming too rich, too close to the elites, and infatuated by neoliberal, post-Thatcher economic solutions. The Corbyn movement began as an anti-elitist rebellion. But now, from their base among Londoners and students whose politics are a million miles away from the views of angry, white, non-metropolitan, working-class voters the Corbynistas, too, found themselves unable to get a hearing.

So, what is the result of all this? Wherever one looks, the British political class has come close to destroying itself. There is no source of authority. As Kenneth Clarke has noted, we have a hole, in effect, where a government should be.

The Remain faction of Tory MPs has no leader now. Many of them are bruised and livid against the triumphant Brexiteers. Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Iain Duncan Smith and the rest now have to deal with outraged Tories who accused them of lying, a panicky and angry City, big business leaders who feel betrayed, and an EU in a dark mood. All of this is taking place during the inevitable turmoil and struggle of a Conservative leadership campaign. It is no doubt hyperbole to say we have absolutely no government at the moment: there is still a prime minister, there is a cabinet, and there is a party with a paper majority in the Commons. But if “government” means a group of people with a mandate and a plan, and the parliamentary authority to carry it through – well, we certainly don’t have that.

What happens in Scotland and Northern Ireland now adds to the sense of crisis. Nicola Sturgeon has this problem: she would very much like to secure terms for Scotland staying inside the EU before the rest of the UK leaves. That would minimise disruption, give Scots a secure alternative haven and prepare perfectly for a successful referendum on independence. The problem is that the EU is unlikely to countenance this. First, Scotland may be a country but it is not a nation in EU terms, and therefore has no locus. At the very least, under current EU law, Scotland would need to be a customs union – which it isn’t.

The alternative is that Scotland leaves alongside the rest of the UK and then has to reapply, after an independence referendum. The problems here multiply: Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP may have lost momentum and because new applicants have to join the euro, and will be under great pressure to ­accept the Schengen Agreement, she would be going to the Scottish electorate offering an independent Scotland using the euro (not the world’s most popular currency at the moment, to put it gently) and requiring a hard border with England. This seems to me a hard sell to Scottish voters, especially long after the initial Brexit shock will have faded. What we don’t know is how enthusiastic the rest of the European Union would be about bringing in an independent Scotland briskly, to punish Westminster, and how threateningly Spain’s Catalan/Basque difficulties will loom.

In Northern Ireland, Sinn Fein is calling for an all-Ireland referendum. There is now a border problem there as well, for the first time since the 1998 peace agreement. Tory ministers dismiss this but the dynamics of Irish politics, too, have been dramatically changed by the Brexit vote.

The UK could, naturally, survive all of this completely intact. But the possibility, at least, of a relatively lonely England is something that the new and victorious Brexit Tories now have to confront.

In usual circumstances, we would expect an early general election. There is a strong basic democratic case for one: otherwise, we get a prime minister, never chosen by the country, attempting to enact a manifesto no party has ever stood on in a general election. But we don’t really have the political parties to contest it, do we? Ukip is in chipper form. Like so many nationalist movements, it may survive achieving its goal. But the Conservatives are hopelessly divided. The outgoing Prime Minister believes the likely incoming Tory leader – a certain flaxen-haired fellow – is going to put a bomb under the British economy and has told outright untruths. He is trying hard to stop Boris but Boris may well be unstoppable. Another (former) prime minister, Sir John Major, tells us we cannot trust the National Health Service into the hands of Johnson, Gove and Duncan Smith. The amiable Alistair Burt, the MP for North-East Bedfordshire, has promised Brexit Tories that what is to come will make the Maastricht rebellion seem like a tea party.

No, on the whole, they don’t look like a party aching to face the electorate. You might expect the Labour leader to fight for an early election and try to rally the Commons to his side. But then Jeremy Corbyn faces his own rebellion.

At the moment, the coup against him seems to face insuperable hurdles. There isn’t a plausible alternative candidate so far. Above all, he retains the support of most Labour members, and it is they and trade unionists who will have the final say, whatever the Parliamentary Labour Party does.

If Corbyn sees off the plotters, what next? A united Labour opposition could go into a general election saying explicitly that it rejected the Brexit decision – that the vote was based on lies and scaremongering – and that, if elected, they would not implement Article 50: in effect, not leave the EU. That is what the Liberal Democrats are doing. For Labour, it would be a huge gamble. It would be a slap in the face for the majority who voted on 23 June and could lead to a different kind of revolt. But it would give the Labour Party a very clear purpose and agenda that could reach out into parts of Britain Corbyn has no chance of reaching just now.

Naturally, the politicians have noticed all this. So we are hearing a great deal of optimistic whistling from leading Conservatives, insisting that they can work together happily and cordially for the rest of this parliament – trying to persuade us that they’ve forgotten everything they said about each other during the referendum campaign, and that people who believe Brexit is an economic catastrophe will nevertheless roll up their sleeves and . . . er . . . make it happen.

Clearly, the best hope for the Conservatives is that such warnings turn out to be piffle and that we are soon enjoying an economic upswing, even as the EU continues to struggle. If Boris Johnson or another leader is indeed able to achieve “Norway-plus” then the Brexiteers are close to being home free. Yet there are signs already that the Boris camp is slightly panicky – as well it might be – about a rash of racist and xenophobic politics immediately after the results. He is right, of course, to call for inclusion and calm, though it is fatuous to suggest that immigration was not a critical issue in the campaign. If he wants to win long term, he has to get a different deal from Brussels, much better than the one that Cameron got – a long shot, but not impossible. For the Brexiteers, time is very short. They have to stay together, and yet there will be tensions: Rupert Murdoch is running Gove against Johnson, or, at any rate, would like to.

My guess is that parliamentary chaos and an overwhelming sense of drift at the centre of politics will nevertheless propel us into an election later this year or early next year. If so, that will mean that, tactically, the Brexiteers, who don’t want to trigger Article 50 just yet, must do so before the people are asked for their view again.

And, of course, if it turns out that George Osborne’s blood-curdling warnings about jobs and investment turn out to be even half accurate, then those same cheerful gentlemen will have many personal apologies to make to people who do lose their jobs, or see prices rise and their pensions fall. There is plenty of anger still to come.

That’s not so surprising: after all, this was a kind of revolution. It has been a very British revolution, accomplished through the ballot box and after a great deal of nonsense spoken on all sides. The plain people, of England, mainly, have spoken at last and their voice has blown over not just a constitutional link with the European continent but also almost the entire political class – and most of the pollsters – and oh, go on, then – us clever-Dick journalists as well.

Andrew Marr presents “The Andrew Marr Show” on BBC1. His Brexit thriller, “Head of State”, is published by Fourth Estate

Andrew Marr is a broadcaster and journalist. Formerly the BBC’s Political Editor, he presents the Andrew Marr Show on BBC1 on Sundays and Start the Week on Monday mornings on Radio 4.

This article first appeared in the 30 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit lies