You break it, you own it. That’s the rule at Pottery Barn, an American high-end furniture chain store that has yet to cross the Atlantic. As far as the Brexit brigade is concerned, the idea hasn’t yet made the journey either.
In the fortnight since Britain voted to leave the European Union, the pound has fallen to a record low. The resulting bounce in the FTSE 100, trumpeted by the Leave side, is largely reflective of companies that hold their assets in currencies other than sterling. More worryingly, output in the construction industry fell at the fastest rate since 2009. In private discussions, at both the Treasury and the Bank of England, the question is not if there will be a recession, but how severe it will be when it comes.
So, where are the Brexiteers? There is plenty of smashed crockery on the floor and there will surely be more – yet the main players are edging away from the scene, eyes to the floor, mumbling their way past the cashiers and hoping someone else will pay for it. This “best of luck with it all, chaps” attitude was epitomised by the Tory MEP Daniel Hannan, who tweeted on 25 June: “After campaigning solidly since December, I’m going to take a month off Twitter.” (He has since deleted the tweet, but returned to the social network six days later to suggest that the result was a victory for “the working classes against the smirking classes”.)
In the days since the vote for Brexit, two of the biggest beasts involved in the Leave campaigns, Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage, have also stepped back from front-line politics. They leave behind little clarity on a range of urgent questions, such as the status of EU nationals already living in the UK; the willingness of voters to accept freedom of movement as the price of access to the single market; and exactly when Article 50 will be triggered, if it will be triggered at all. It is unclear even who will conduct trade negotiations on the UK’s behalf, because, in four decades of EU membership, the country has had little need for such bureaucrats and so it has retained few. (We might have to recruit staff from New Zealand.)
Nor have those ultimately responsible for the situation Britain finds itself in – the pro-Remain Tories, led by David Cameron and George Osborne, who agreed to the referendum to appease their own backbenchers – been any keener to own the outcome. Osborne was ridiculed for not emerging to make a speech or statement until Monday, 27 June. It brought to mind his old nickname: the Submarine.
Did it have to be like this? David Cameron hoped to be a second Harold Wilson: win a referendum to keep Britain in the EU and then retire in glory. His would-be successors hope to be another Harold Macmillan. Macmillan took power after Suez, a catastrophe that changed the direction of British foreign policy for a half-century. In the words of his biographer Anthony Sampson, Macmillan set about creating the impression that the crisis “had been a kind of victory, and that nothing much had happened”.
That was Johnson’s aim in his brief tilt at the Tory leadership. In his £250,000-a-year Telegraph column on 27 June, he set out his plan for a post-Brexit deal: Britain should stay in the single market, British workers should enjoy visa-free travel within the EU – but free movement to the UK from the European mainland should be restricted. To return to Pottery Barn for a moment, what Boris Johnson appeared to want was for the smashed bowl to reassemble itself and for him then to take it home for free. One civil servant derided his demands as “science fiction”.
Johnson’s creative writing assignment won him few friends, even within the ranks of those who had voted Leave. It contributed to Michael Gove’s decision to withdraw his support and launch his own campaign for the top job, bringing Johnson’s long-nurtured hopes of reaching Downing Street to an abrupt end. Not that retirement – at least for now – has led to much soul-searching on the part of the former mayor of London. On 4 July the Telegraph published another column by him, along with the front-page headline “Boris demands post-Brexit plan”. The counter-suggestion that Johnson, as Leave’s most popular advocate, was the one who ought to have had a plan, was too gauche for Westminster’s Brexit backers.
Not to be outdone, Farage, the other leading architect of the Leave vote, announced his resignation as leader of the UK Independence Party that same day. “During the referendum campaign I said I wanted my country back,” he declared, “[and] now I want my life back.” (Incidentally, the European Parliament also wants his £83,000-a-year salary – plus lavish expenses – back but he shows no sign of standing down as an MEP.)
The contest to replace Farage has turned into the polar opposite of a beauty contest. Ukip’s main donor, Arron Banks, who once described the party’s only MP, Douglas Carswell, as “borderline autistic with mental illness wrapped in”, has expressed interest in becoming leader. So has Farage’s former aide Raheem Kassam, who edits the London outpost of Breitbart, a right-wing website that makes Fox News seem like a cool blast of sanity.
That’s if Farage does not rise again. He has form as far as temporary resignations go. He stepped down as leader in 2009, only to take the reins again after Ukip’s disappointing showing in the 2010 general election. Five years later, after Ukip racked up four million votes but secured just one seat in parliament, he resigned again, having failed to win Thanet South. That resignation lasted just four days, and he returned to take swift revenge on those of his opponents in Ukip who had foolishly believed it was now safe to speak ill of the (politically) dead.
This time, Farage has assured allies, it’s for real. In part, that is because he has guaranteed that the top job will not go to one of his internal enemies. Carswell, perhaps his most bitter rival, will not stand. And, thanks to the Farageist majority on Ukip’s ruling executive council, Suzanne Evans, Carswell’s preferred candidate, is serving a six-month suspension for “disloyalty”.
But although Farage has resigned as leader of Ukip, he is not quitting politics. Even after Brexit, Britons are cursed never to go more than a full day without hearing from Farage, appealing once more to his natural constituency: television and radio producers with airtime to fill. On 5 July he entered the fray again to condemn Theresa May, the front-runner for the Conservative leadership, for suggesting that the right of EU nationals to live and work in the UK could be up for grabs in negotiations over Britain’s new relationship with the EU.
Farage’s attempt to rebrand himself as a friend of EU nationals – less than a month after posing in front of a poster warning that Britain was at “breaking point”, the words emblazoned over a picture of Syrian refugees queuing to enter Slovenia – made for an unconvincing late-career choice. But he was not the only one. Tory Leavers such as Gove and Andrea Leadsom now seemed shocked to the core that anyone might try to reduce the number of immigrants in Britain.
Once again, an important debate was being subsumed into the internal drama of the Conservative leadership contest. And, of course, if Leadsom, Gove and their boosters in the right-wing press really wanted to guarantee the rights of European nationals – and the rights of British nationals on the European mainland – they had one clear option: to cast a vote for Remain on 23 June. Instead, they want British policymakers to be thrown into a battle to prevent a deep recession and a punitive exit deal that brings about prolonged misery for Britain, with precious little leverage on our part.
Then again, sabotaging the details of Brexit (if it’s to be carried out by anyone other than themselves) would be entirely in keeping with the Eurosceptics’ modus operandi so far. Who can doubt that if Leadsom, or Gove, does not win the Tory leadership contest, the package negotiated by the next prime minister will turn out mysteriously not to be what they wanted at all?
And surely Farage will continue to find a fruitful space to the right of the Conservative Party, criticising all the inevitable compromises of actual, practical politics. The joy of being an insurgent is that you never have to say: “OK, Mr Juncker, I’m willing to meet you halfway.”
It now seems entirely possible that we will never hear a detailed plan for Brexit from the group that did most to make it happen, but merely complaints about how their impossible vision has been betrayed. Already, the word is that factual reporting of the grim state of the financial markets is “talking Britain down”. It is this, the Brexiteers claim, that will induce another recession, not worldwide financial instability, or the reckless torching of the City of London’s chief appeal to investors.
On 23 June, Britain voted to “take back control”. Now we just need someone to take responsibility.