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Jemima Khan meets Nick Clegg: “I’m not a punchbag – I have feelings”

The NS guest editor Jemima Khan talks to the Liberal Democrat leader about life on the far side of power and what it’s like to be a cut-out.

Nick Clegg and I smile genially at each other across the table of a standard-class train carriage. He is on his way to his constituency in Sheffield to talk about manufacturing. Pale-faced, pale-eyed and so tired he appears taxidermied, he looks like he could do with a holiday, except he's just had one – skiing in Davos with his children as the Libyan crisis escalated (for which he was lambasted).

Nick Clegg is the Tim Henman of politics: a decent man for whom Cleggmania represented the peak of his career, his Henman Hill moment. Then he became the Deputy Prime Minister and, shortly after, an effigy.

The carefree, cloud-cuckoo days of opposition, when he had a platform and little criticism, are long gone. At last year's Liberal Democrat spring conference, a fresh-looking and ebullient Clegg had gesticulated and boomed: "We see the same old broken promises. No wonder people feel let down." A year on, he was less combative, more ambivalent. His many critics pointed to his own broken promises and let-down voters.

Clegg concedes that it has been a "very sharp transition". "Of course it has had a dramatic effect on how I'm perceived, the kind of dilemmas I have to face," he says. "I don't even pretend we can occupy the Lib Dem holier-than-thou, hands-entirely-clean-and-entirely-empty-type stance. No, we are getting our hands dirty, and inevitably and totally understandably we are being accused of being just like any other politicians."

His point – and it seems a fair one – is that the British public voted, no one party won and that coalition government, by definition, is a compromise. "A whole lot of things are happening that would just never in a month of Sundays have happened without the Lib Dems there," he says. The morning of our meeting, he claims to have "squeezed out of [George] Osborne" a promise of a green investment bank, not simply a fund. "We've done more on liberty and privacy," he adds, "in the past ten months than Labour did in the past 13 years."

All this has done little to dilute the vitriol of his opponents. John Prescott has likened him to Jedward, the risible and tuneless twins from The X Factor. Ed Miliband has called him "a tragic figure", one too toxic to share a platform with ahead of the referendum on the Alternative Vote. Clegg insists that none of this bothers him. "I see it exactly for what it is. [Ed] is a perfectly nice guy but he has a problem, which is that he's not in control of his own party, so he constantly has to keep his troops happy and he thinks that ranting and raving at me is the way to do it."

Since joining the government, and in particular since his U-turn on university tuition fees, Clegg has had dog mess posted through his door and been spat at in the street. It must upset him. "No, well look, I'm a human being, I'm not a punchbag – I've of course got feelings."

He pauses. "Actually, the curious thing is that the more you become a subject of admiration or loathing, the more you're examined under a microscope, the distance seems to open up between who you really are and the portrayals that people impose on you . . . I increasingly see these images of me, cardboard cut-outs that get ever more outlandish . . . One thing I've very quickly learned is that if you wake up every morning worrying about what's in the press, you would go completely and utterly potty."

After ten months in government, he has a guardedness that did not exist in the days when he told Piers Morgan he'd had roughly 30 lovers. These days he is tightly managed. I have already had a pre-interview briefing with one adviser, and now Clegg's version of Andy Coulson, who is sitting to his right, is busy taking written notes of our interview, as well as recording it. When Clegg gets sidetracked, he prompts him, head down, pen poised over notebook, deadpan: "You were talking about what you've achieved . . ."

Everyone seems painfully aware that my task as interviewer is to catch him out, to get him to say the wrong thing. Clegg's task, like all politicians, is to rattle off rhetoric, to be evasive and as uncontroversial as possible, and to fill up the tape with unquotable patter.

All of which makes interviewing him excruciating. He continues: "What we've achieved so far . . . I think just having a government with two parties in it is already such a big new thing. I know it has been born in a blaze of controversy because of the difficult economic decisions we've had to take . . . but if we're lucky, people will look back on it in 20 or 30 years' time as quite a normal thing in British politics that politicians can actually agree with each other from time to time.

“That in itself is quite big and radical. In the week or two leading up to the general election, every single newspaper was screaming from the headlines: 'A hung parliament will be a disaster, coalition politics will be a disaster. Nothing will get done.' And the extraordinary thing is that now we're being accused of almost exactly the reverse – of doing too much."

Of doing too much? Or of being too Tory? Clegg's dilemma is that, on the one hand, he is in danger of being seen as too close to David Cameron and the Conservatives, and losing credibility with his party and voters. On the other hand, he can't be too distant, because that would be damaging for the coalition and a gift for the opposition and the press, which is constantly looking for rifts.

Before the election, Clegg let it be known that he had turned down an invitation to dine with the Camerons at their home in Notting Hill. He wanted to maintain a distance. Perhaps wary of looking like he fits too easily into the port-swilling, waistcoat-wearing Bullingdon Club set, he is still keen to present Cameron as more working partner than friend.

“We don't regard each other as mates and actually I don't think it would be a particularly healthy thing if we tried to become personal mates," he says. "I don't think a coalition works unless you have a very careful balance between mutual respect and civility and also a certain hardness, as at the end of the day you are representing different views."

I've heard that they play tennis together. "No, no – well, er, I think we've played one game of tennis. Of course we meet from time to time but it's always basically to talk about what we're doing in government."

Who won?

“Ah no, that's a state secret," he jokes. (Cameron won.)

Earlier, at my pre-interview briefing, Clegg's adviser Richard Reeves, the former head of Demos, characterised being in the coalition as like being in a marriage – you both get to know instinctively which are the no-go areas.

Clegg concedes that there are "some areas where we flatly disagree" with the Tories, such as on Europe ("I think you can't make sense of this world unless you work together with other folk in the European neighbourhood") and taxation ("Our reflexes as Lib Dems are to try to give tax breaks to people on middle or lower incomes, whereas traditionally they are more interested in trickle-down economics"), but denies that there are "no-go areas". "Look, we're on completely opposite sides of the fence on the AV referendum."

He refuses to concede that signing the pledge to vote against an increase in university tuition fees before the election was a mistake. "That would be a cop-out. I did it. And I have a rather old-fashioned belief that you've got to stand by what you've done and take the consequences, good or bad." He insists that it was not one of his main manifesto priorities anyway. "I didn't even spend that much time campaigning on tuition fees."

Instead, he says, he spent "every single day and every single interview talking about the four things that were on the front page of the manifesto – namely the pupil premium, two and a half million quid for disadvantaged kids; changing the tax system, so you don't pay tax on your first £10,000; political reform; and sorting out the banks and rebalancing the economy."

That's all very well, but given that the Lib Dems are only ever likely to be in government as part of a coalition, how will he deal with pledges made in future election campaigns? Will there be pledges with caveats, depending on which party he clambers into bed with next? "I think that we need to be clearer about what are the really big, big priorities."

After his capitulation on tuition fees, there are many who now fear that nothing is sacred for the Lib Dems. He denies this. "If the Conservatives wanted to become as authoritarian as Blair and New Labour, I wouldn't have it – but it wouldn't happen, as it couldn't happen with us in [the coalition]."

Clegg is emphatic that he will not allow the Tories to disempower the Lib Dems' much-loved European Court of Human Rights. The problem with being in a coalition government is that it acts as a gag. There are times in the interview when Clegg looks so pained as to remind me of Colin Firth in the opening scenes of The King's Speech, particularly when issues of Rupert Murdoch and phone-hacking come up. I know what he'd have said if he were in opposition. The Lib Dems were always very critical of the Cameron-Murdoch cabal. Some Lib Dem MPs were victims of phone-hacking by the News of the World.

“My thoughts are," he begins haltingly, "that it has all come out much more into the open since the police investigation . . . and I think, you know, since those days it is becoming much more out there, and quite rightly. I've always said that the police have got to investigate and the CPS [Crown Prosecution Service] have got to take action. Look, I don't follow every twist and turn . . ." His press secretary looks up for the first time.

What of those, such as the Labour MPs Chris Bryant and Tom Watson, who believe that the Murdochs have too much power and influence over politicians? There's a long pause. "I think that the days when newspaper barons could basically click their fingers and governments would snap to attention have gone," he says.

Clegg is exceptionally loyal to David Cameron – I expect he is a loyal man by nature, not design – but there's a fine line between being loyal and sounding plain disingenuous. So, what does he think of the dinner party hosted over Christmas by News International's chief executive, Rebekah Brooks, at her Cotswolds home, attended by the Camerons and James Murdoch?

“I don't know anything about Oxfordshire dinner parties," he says. Of course he does. Everyone in politics knows about the get-together of Brooks, Cameron and Rupert Murdoch's son, and most agree that the timing of it was inappropriate, given that there was a criminal investigation under way over phone-hacking in the Murdoch empire, as well as ongoing negotiations with the regulatory authorities over the ownership of BSkyB.

“Well, I'm assuming that they weren't sitting there talking about News International issues," says Clegg. "Look, you're putting me in a very awkward spot. If you've got an issue with it, speak to Dave. I don't hang out in Oxfordshire at dinner parties. It's not my world. It's never going to be my world."

He looks pained. I feel sorry for him and I can't help telling him so. I was married to a politician and I remember the constant self-censorship and, in my case, the gaffes. I get the impression that Nick Clegg is an honest, straightforward man in a dishonest, unstraightforward world, in which nobody can say what they really think.

An interruption offers some blessed relief. A beaming middle-aged woman who has spotted Clegg on the train passes a note to his aide. It reads: "I couldn't resist such a unique opportunity to say, 'Stick With It!' The vast majority of us think the coalition are doing the right thing. We know it's tough but it's very necessary. All the best."

The press secretary looks triumphant. Clegg looks momentarily less beleaguered. He thanks the woman graciously and just as I am wondering if it was a set-up, Clegg jokes that it was. He often gets support from the public, he says, but the difference is that these days people whisper their congratulations, "as if it's a guilty secret saying anything nice about Nick Clegg". He should watch those slips into the third person – an early sign that a person is losing touch with reality.

Clegg was a strong opponent of the war in Iraq and for that he earned many supporters. His backing of the "surge" and British forces' continued presence in Afghan­istan is therefore surprising. There are rumours, which he denies, that he wanted to call for an immediate withdrawal of troops but that the former Lib Dem leader Paddy Ashdown, an ex-marine, persuaded him not to.

“In a sense," Clegg says, "we have brought our ambition to a much more realistic level. We've now got an exit date, which we didn't have before, and a much better set of weapons on the ground. And crucially you've got the British government saying to [President Hamid] Karzai – who I had dinner with recently – this cannot be won militarily. Once you're in that far and you've had that many people die and be maimed, I think it would be morally questionable to cut and run overnight."

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the real reason we continue to pour money into a war with no clear goals – and continue to line the roads of Wootton Bassett – is so that those in power will be able to keep on claiming that "they did not die in vain".

“Look, it's never perfect. It's not a neat world," says Clegg. He is above all a pragmatist for whom coalition, foreign policy and life are a balancing act. He accepts that there are moral problems with supporting Karzai's government, which has no authority outside the Afghan capital, Kabul, and which, according to the Transparency International corruption index, was last year the second most corrupt in the world. "Exactly – that's where it gets messy and imperfect."

Clegg is pleased to have "got more balance into the debate on Israel in the party". While he is "undimmed" in his criticism of Israel's illegal settlement activity and his "absolute horror of what is a humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza", he stresses that "Israel has legitimate security issues in a region where there is a threat to its existence".

He denies that there is a fundamental incompatibility between the west's rhetoric about democracy and our need for oil. "Do we have vital economic self-interest to keep lights on? Yes. Do I think that should be won at the cost of always being on the side of people who want to express themselves and want democracy? No."

He refuses to be drawn on whether he thinks it was bad timing for Cameron to tour the Middle East on a "UK trade mission"- a euphemism for peddling arms to despots – at a time when there are widespread protests in favour of democracy in the region. He will say, though, that the business of selling arms represents "a horrendous dilemma".

That we have sold arms to repressive regimes – tear gas grenades to Bahrain, armoured personnel carriers to Saudi Arabia, crowd-control ammunition to Libya – is "of course wrong", he agrees. "That's why we've suspended scores and scores of export licences. What guarantee do you have when you export product X to country Y, who seem totally hunky-dory, totally peaceful, and what happens when the country goes belly up? What we're doing is pragmatic rather than pure."

Even the language Clegg uses is moderate and qualified, interspersed with phrases such as "kind of" and "on the other hand" as well as rhetorical questions and unfinished sentences. He's unhyperbolic and ambiguous in a way that must be alien to most Tories. Whereas Cameron strikes me as a man with almost no self-doubt, Clegg seems more self-questioning and less bombastic. I suspect that he is as accom­modating and good at compromise in his marriage as he has been politically.

He smiles for the first time when he tells me that his Spanish wife, Miriam, has "got wonderfully strong opinions". It's clear for a start who chose the names for their three children, Antonio, Alberto and Miguel Clegg. They are being brought up as Roman Catholics, even though Clegg has said he is an atheist. The children are bilingual, speaking both Spanish and English fluently.

At one point, it was assumed that Miriam would be the one with the big career and he would be the thinker and take care of their children. After his eldest son was born, Clegg says: "Miriam was in a particularly intense period of her career and I was in a particularly relaxed period of mine . . . coming to the end of my time as an MEP, so I was very, very involved. I wasn't the primary parent – Miriam would get very annoyed if she were to read that – but I was very involved and you carry that on with you."

He has successfully managed to keep his family out of the spotlight, "to create a firewall" between his world and theirs, although he worries constantly that "what I am doing in my work impacts on them emotionally, because my nine-year-old is starting to sense things and I'm having to explain things. Like he asks, 'Why are the students angry with you, Papa?'"

Clegg refuses "to play politics" with his children, or to say whether or not they will go to a private school. While he's not "ideologically opposed to fee-paying schools existing", he is offended by the notion that it would be his decision alone, rather than one he would reach with Miriam. "I go: hang on a minute – what century are we living in?"

The same applies to what he might do in the future. He certainly does not want to be in politics all his life. "I think that's deeply unhealthy. I look at those people that got into politics when they were 16 and are still at it in their late sixties and think, 'My heavens above!'" Judging by the most recent opinion polls, he may not have the luxury of choice. Either way, he says, Miriam has made "masses of sacrifices putting up with me and politics" and this will be something they decide on together. He'd like to think, though, that he would go into education.

He is besotted by his "three lovely boys" and is most proud "by a long shot" of the family life he has created with Miriam. They manage to lead a relatively normal life, "not in a bunker in Westminster", and he tries to pick his children up from school and put them to bed at night at least two or three times a week.

He regrets that sometimes he doesn't always get the balance right, which makes him "quite miserable" and unable to do his job properly.Sometimes he has to tell them white lies if he is stuck in a meeting. At home, in the evenings, he likes to read novels and says he "cries regularly to music."

I receive a snapshot of his family life when, after the interview is over, I am invited to dine with other journalists at Chevening, the grace- and-favour house in Kent that Clegg shares with William Hague. Clegg arrives two hours late – he's been in protracted discussions over Libya – and looks corpse-like with exhaustion. The contrast with his vibrant, pretty wife, with her big bawdy laugh, could not be more stark. His children seem delightful – and delightfully normal.

Clegg has been accused of selling out, of providing a yellow fig leaf for the Tories' less attractive bits. But I expect that he would see opting out of the coalition or leaving politics altogether as the biggest cop-out of all. He is not consumed by politics – he has a fulfilling life away from Westminster – but he seems to have an old-fashioned sense of duty and believes that, without him there in the cabinet, the Tories would be up to far more of their old tricks. He might well be right – but will he be so easily forgiven by the voters?

“I have a faintly romantic belief that if over five years I just keep steadily trying to do the best I can, with all the difficult dilemmas we face, with not very much money, all those kinds of things . . . we will kind of come through. I think if people see that someone is trying to do the right thing and maybe they're not entirely succeeding, they kind of will go with you. And that's all you can do."

He suddenly looks very, very sad. A week later I glimpse him on television, on the front bench on Budget Day. Cameron sits to his left, looking ruddy and shiny, straight off the playing fields, ready for an interminable life of "Yeah, yeah, yeah" in the Commons. Clegg, by contrast, looks like he's in black and white – lost and out of place.

Later that evening, I get a text from his press secretary, offering me "a full copy of the note that lady passed on the train". He thought I might like it for my piece, "in case it needs some colour".

Jemima Khan is associate editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 11 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Jemima Khan guest edit

GARY WATERS
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After Brexit, should the Eurozone pursue full political union?

Is full political union of the eurozone the only way to stop the disintegration of Europe after Brexit?

The chaotic scenes in the Conservative and Labour Parties, widespread expressions of “Bregret”, confusion about what the future relationship between the European Union and United Kingdom will or should be, discussion of a second EU referendum or a “Brexit election” – all give the impression that the vote was somehow an accident. It is true there was a strong element of contingency to the outcome, which some have called “an establishment cock-up”. When in January 2013 he needlessly promised the referendum, David Cameron did not foresee that Boris Johnson would oppose him or that he would lose it. He could not have foreseen that a Labour leader would fail to mobilise the left-wing vote, and fail probably intentionally. The result was also determined by the unexpectedly brutal nature of the campaign, with wild claims on both sides, though those of some Leavers were by far the most egregious.

It is time, however, for those who wanted the UK to remain in the EU at least for now, of whom I was one, to accept reality. Britain did not decide to leave the EU in a fit of pique or absence of mind. Its departure reflects the deeper pattern of British history in Europe over the past few hundred years. It would certainly have left the EU at a later date, if the EU had not collapsed first.

The relationship between Britain and Europe can be summed up in two simple geopolitical propositions. First, that the EU was designed to deal with the German problem and the European Question, or, if one prefers, the German Question and the European problem, for they are two sides of the same coin. Second, the EU was not designed to deal with the British problem. Nobody claimed after 1945 that the UK had been such a danger to European peace that it required a supranational structure to embed and contain it. Nor did anyone argue that the UK, unlike most of the rest of continental Europe, had been so weak in the face of a threat from others that it needed the protection of a supranational body.

Britain and mainland Europe have thus been on quite separate paths for a long time. The central geopolitical fact on the continent was German power or potential power: demographic, economic and military. In the period before German unification this led to a system of conditional sovereignty in central Europe, designed to prevent another state – usually France – from using its resources to achieve hegemony, and to stop the Germans from developing such ambitions for themselves. It was based on the diffusion, not concentration of power. Things changed after German unification in 1871, which eventually unbalanced the European and global system. With great difficulty, Germany was subdued and a system of conditional sovereignty was reimposed on central Europe, the difference being that this time it was to be extended to the whole western half of the continent, which was also in mortal peril from Soviet communism.

The European integration project was thus a project of “dual containment”, designed to “embed” Germany and deter ­Stalin. It was also a strategy of “dual mobilisation”, in that it sought to draw on the energies of not only the western Europeans but also the Germans to fight communism, and certainly to stop fighting each other. This supranational project was strongly supported by the Americans and by parts of the British establishment, including Winston Churchill. The vision of a complete political union has not been realised, but the European Union has embarked on important supranational projects such as the euro, the Schengen travel area and common foreign and security policies.

In Britain, things developed very differently. Europe was at all times critically important. The question of England’s relationship to the continent dominated policy and politics for hundreds of years, from France in the 15th century through to the Westminster crisis in both of Britain’s leading parties today, which is primarily the product of disagreements over Europe. The main strategic and ideological threats have come from Europe.

In the 16th and 17th centuries there was the threat to Protestantism and parliamentary liberties from Philip II and Louis XIV’s absolutism and from Counter-Reformation Catholicism. In the 19th century, there was the challenge of Napoleon, followed by the confrontation between British liberalism and tsarist autocracy. In the 20th century, Britain saw off Germany in the First World War, resisted Nazism in the Second World War, and made a substantial contribution to Western measures to deter the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

***

Like many European states, Britain responded to these challenges by pursuing a policy of maintaining the “balance of power” across the continent, through alliances and payment of subsidies, to ensure that no single actor would be able to threaten Europe’s security. In constitutional terms, however, the British response to the European problem was very different. Faced with the danger from Louis XIV during the War of the Spanish Succession, in which the long-standing enmity between England and Scotland threatened to undermine the war effort against a common foe, the two countries entered into a complete political union in 1707. The state debts were merged, there would henceforth be only one army and foreign policy, and the new polity would be anchored in a common parliamentary representation at Westminster. This link between debt, defence and what then passed for democracy proved to be so powerful that it served as the basis for the American union in the late 18th century.

On the continent, in short, Europe was the problem and the European Union was the solution. In Britain, Europe was also the problem, but the United Kingdom was the solution. For this reason, the British have never seen the need to sacrifice their sov­ereignty in a supranational project. They have therefore co-operated with Europe on a largely intergovernmental, and not a supranational, basis.

That said, the modern European order – understood as the totality of economic, political and military relationships – that developed after 1945 was primarily an ­Anglo-American order. It was built on the Allied victory during the Second World War, which enabled the re-establishment of democracy on the continent. It depended wholly on the protective carapace provided by Nato, in which the UK was the second most important actor after the US, and by far the most powerful European one.

Since 1973, the United Kingdom has been part of the European integration project, and even though the relationship has often been turbulent, the British contribution there has been substantial. London was the principal sponsor of the single market and eastward enlargement of the EU.

To be sure, the United Kingdom stayed aloof from the crucial European projects: the euro, Schengen and any planned European army. It did so on two very cogent grounds. First, because involvement would have been incompatible with the independence of the UK, hard won over history with blood and treasure. Here, the conditional sovereignty of continental Europe clashed with the absolute sovereignty of the Westminster parliament.

Second, because the British government believed quite rightly that these federal projects required a political union. It was not, however, opposed to such an arrangement on the continent. It is true that London has long tried to keep the political bonds to Europe loose enough to enable continued UK membership without losing her sovereignty. But more recently, in an abandonment of the long-held principle of the balance of power, Chancellor Osborne, recognising the need to keep the eurozone stable, constantly pressed for closer fiscal and political integration across that area.

This gives the lie to the idea that Britain has been blocking progress in Europe. This is a firmly entrenched view in Brussels, expressed vehemently by the president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker. It was also expressed hilariously in the popular 1980s television series Yes Minister when Sir Humphrey told the minister, James Hacker, that Britain had only joined the European Economic Community to make a “pig’s breakfast of it from the inside”. The sad truth is that the EU does not need British help to do this. The continental Europeans have shown in the euro crisis, which has nothing to do with London, and in many other disasters, that they are quite capable of making a pig’s breakfast of it for themselves, unaided.

The problem, in other words, is not the United Kingdom, but the long-term weakness of continental Europe, which Brexit has brought home in the most painful way, and aggravated. Without the euro and migration crises, there would never have been a majority for Leave a fortnight ago, though there would probably have been a separation further down the line. The peoples of Europe sense this and so do the elites. They all know that whereas Grexit would be a judgement on Greece, Brexit was a judgement on the EU.

***

Unfortunately, the hope that the shock of Brexit will provoke profound reform in the European Union is based on a misunderstanding of the nature of national governments represented in the European Council and among Brussels elites. They need help but, like alcoholics, they also need to realise the utter wretchedness of their condition before they ask for it. Continental Europe, unfortunately, has much further to fall before it can rise again. At the moment, it is still in denial.

That should not stop Washington and London from trying to persuade the European Union, or at least the eurozone, to achieve a full political union on the model of Anglo-America. This could be an asymmetric union of “core Europe”, in which Germany took on the role played by England in the United Kingdom. Alternatively, it could be a more symmetric, larger union of the entire eurozone along American lines. Only by linking debt, defence and democracy as pioneered in the United States will Europe be able to stabilise the currency, deter Russia and address the democratic deficit against which electorates are rebelling. The alternative is either continued chaos, or a return to the nation state and the untethering of Germany from the continental order.

Whatever the solution in mainland Europe, the future attitude of the UK to the EU will determine the survival of this union, after Brexit even more than before it.

In this context, we urgently need to know the Brexit mainstream’s attitude to the ­European project. Farage, who resigned on 4 July as the leader of the UK Independence Party, may be containable but the full force of a new Brexit government will be a very different proposition. Theresa May hasn’t said much yet but, as a soft Remainer, she is unlikely to seek confrontation with the EU. In recent days, the once sulphurous Boris Johnson has been more conciliatory, even saying that the EU “was a noble idea for its time”, but he is no longer a candidate for the Tory leadership. Since the referendum result, Michael Gove has spoken of his hope that “we can build a new, stronger and more positive relationship with our European neighbours, based on free trade and friendly co-operation”. He has also, however, expressed a desire that Brexit should spark a “democratic liberation” of the continent. Gove now needs to explain what that means. If he has a Farage-style return to the national states and currencies in mind, the EU will resist him tooth and nail, and rightly so, as the European project is still the continent’s last, best hope on Earth. If, however, he means the establishment of a full parliamentary union of the eurozone to provide democratic legitimation for its decisions, then he is pointing the way out of the crisis. Of all people in British politics, Gove, a Scot who believes passionately in the UK, is perhaps best placed to make the argument for a multinational political union of the continent (without Britain). Yet he is unlikely to get the chance to do so, trailing as he is behind May and Andrea Leadsom, a hard Brexiteer, in the leadership contest.

***

Against this background, the big geopolitical question will be whether the UK and the EU, former partners hopeful of separating amicably, eventually become enemies. Right now, the two sides are at the ready but not in combat. Much will depend on who fires first, or is perceived to have done so. In this heated ­atmosphere, even a political sneeze could set off a massacre.

It goes without saying that both sides will lose from a confrontation. Critical to avoiding that is an understanding of the actual balance of forces. These are much less unfavourable to the UK than Brussels hawks and many British pessimists imagine. The claim by the Dutch prime minister, Mark Rutte, that “England has collapsed, politically, monetarily, constitutionally and economically” is wide of the mark. It is true that London is dwarfed by the economic might of the eurozone and the rest of the EU, and that it faces a period of considerable short-to-medium-term economic pressure. It is also true that the UK faces grave threats to its integrity in Scotland and, to a certain extent, in Northern Ireland.

That said, once a new government is formed, a highly coherent actor – the United Kingdom – will be facing a fatally divided ­coalition, which is already showing cracks not merely between the Commission and the European Council, but within the Council itself. Moreover, once started, the struggle will be won not by those who can inflict the most, but by those who can endure the most. The UK has repeatedly demonstrated a capacity to defend her sovereignty against all comers. Her political fundamentals are strong. Mainland Europe, by contrast, has repeatedly demonstrated its propensity to fragment. Its political fundamentals (sadly) are weak.

The threat to the unity of the United Kingdom is greatly exaggerated. Wales remains fully committed, and voted Leave by a similar margin to England. In Northern Ireland the divisions are principally between the two faith communities, and only in the second instance between one of those communities and the British state. There is no chance whatsoever of the province leaving the UK.

It is true that in Scotland the vote for Brexit has created a material change of circumstances, entitling the Scottish National Party-led government to demand a fresh referendum on independence. That said, independence only ever made sense in the benign European environment before the 2008 crash, the onset of the migration crisis and the Russian threat. At that time, the Irish “tiger” economy served as a model. Since the euro crisis, this is no longer the case. Even as late as the failed 2014 referendum, there would still have been EU members on both sides of the border. Now all is utterly changed. If it left the UK now, Scotland would immediately have a “hard” border with England, the country with which it does most of its trade. It is currently a net beneficiary of the Union economically; it would lose that money with independence, but, as a rich state within the rest of the EU, it would be required to contribute more to Brussels. The oil price is low. A Scottish vote for independence would therefore pose a much greater risk than Brexit does to England and, indeed, to Scotland, if the Scots choose remain part of the UK. Given that Scotland joined the UK in order to guard against European dangers, how likely is she to throw in her lot with a European Union in possibly terminal crisis by leaving the most successful union project Europe has produced so far: the United Kingdom?

Moreover, once fully engaged against a hostile continent, the full apparatus of the Foreign Office would be turned to making a (bigger still) “pig’s breakfast” of the EU. It would find allies on the mainland, pouring salt into Europe’s self-inflicted wounds and inflicting new ones. London would revert to devising an old “balance of power” policy for the continent.

Besides, one should not assume that Britain will be sent, as President Barack Obama threatened, “to the back of the queue”; his administration has since rowed back rapidly on those threats. Britain may be more dependent on the single market than vice versa, but many sectors, such as Germany’s car manufacturing industry, would be destroyed by a trade war. The Irish government, which is obliged by EU law to erect a hard border with any non-member-state that is not part of Schengen, will feel sharper and quicker pain than the UK. Eastern European governments, which look to Britain as a bulwark against Russia, will want to bury the hatchet quickly. Spain has already indicated that it will block Scotland’s admission in order not to create a precedent for Catalonia. None of these states, which together make up a majority in the EU, is likely to pursue a prolonged vendetta against London. In short, though there is widespread dismay, sadness and anger at the British decision, it would be wrong to deduce from that a willingness to place a long-term bet on victory by the EU over the UK.

Naturally, with the exception of a few Brussels blowhards, there is hardly anybody in the EU who is insane enough to want to add a struggle with the UK to the Union’s many other problems, none of which has gone away, and all of which are likely to escalate. The worry is that, given its well-documented incompetence, the EU will “sleepwalk” into such a confrontation. This would turn the UK into a positive Russia on the western flank of Europe, destabilising it from the outside and sucking it dry of its most positive and dynamic elements, even more than the UK already does now. It does not have to be this way.

Today, almost everything is up in the air, most obviously in mainland Europe. The only fixed point we have is that the UK has reasserted its complete sovereignty by leaving the EU. Everything else will have to be ordered around that fact.

Brendan Simms’s latest book is “Britain’s Europe: a Thousand Years of Conflict and Co-operation” (Allen Lane)

This article first appeared in the 07 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit bunglers