In Britain, things fell apart but can the centre hold?

Alan Philps on what we can reasonably take away from the Brexit vote

People protest outside Westminster against the result of the Brexit referendum. Sean Dempsey / EPA
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Britain does not have many firm friends among European leaders but one of the few is the Dutch prime minister, Mark Rutte. His analysis of the decline of the country since last week’s vote to leave the European Union is bracing: “England has collapsed politically, monetarily, constitutionally and economically.”

It is hard to argue with Mr Rutte’s verdict. Despite a perverse rise in some shares on the London stock market, the economic outlook is poor and the trajectory of the pound can only be downwards. International banks and firms headquartered in London are moving ahead with plans to shift activities across the Channel into continental Europe to retain access to the EU’s market of 500 million consumers.

As for politics, the shock of leaving the EU after 40 years is compared by some to the loss of empire (which played out over decades, not a single day of voting) or the fall of France to Nazi Germany in 1940. Today, instead of Churchill rallying the country, there is unprecedented confusion in the major parties.

After the resignation of prime minister David Cameron, who led the unsuccessful campaign to stay in the EU, the ruling Conservative party is choosing a new leader. There is no great haste. No one yet has a clue how the Leave campaign’s tempting promises of “taking back control” can be turned into reality.

At the same time the opposition Labour party is tearing itself apart, as its members of parliament try to oust their leader, Jeremy Corbyn. He was chosen only last year by a huge majority of the party’s members and its wider supporters but as an advocate of far left causes he is unelectable as prime minister. Labour MPs fear a wipeout at the next election. So the country has neither government nor credible opposition.

Constitutionally, the scene is also bleak. While the English voters (except for Londoners) backed the Leave campaign, Scots voted overwhelmingly to remain within the EU. Nicola Sturgeon, the first minister of Scotland, has seized on this to raise the prospect of a new referendum on Scottish independence. If successful, this would break the 300-year union between England and Scotland.

When faced with chaos on so many fronts the obvious question is why, when Eurosceptics have been clamouring to leave the EU for decades, there is not an exit plan that can be smoothly presented to Britain’s soon to be ex-partners in the EU? Well, there isn’t one.

The truth is that none of the leaders of the Leave campaign thought they would win. Its frontmen, the former London mayor Boris Johnson and the Eurosceptic ideologue Michael Gove, were visibly shocked when the result was announced. Ashen-faced, they looked like men who had woken up after betting the house on a losing horse.

This is not surprising: both are newspaper columnists, whose stock in trade is strong opinions quickly forgotten. They had no plan. The normally jovial Mr Johnson, the clown prince of the Conservative party who has a knack of putting a smile on the faces of voters, was reduced to mumbling.

When he wrote his weekly column in the Daily Telegraph on Sunday, the hardline Leave camp smelled treachery. Between the lines it was clear that Mr Johnson was actually a wardrobe remainer, and the referendum campaign he fronted had been a jolly adventure.

The doubts harboured by the Eurosceptic press barons about Mr Johnson – who has been known to be cavalier with the truth – hardened into open distrust. They tried to force Mr Gove on to him as a political commissar, but Mr Johnson is a lone wolf. When this plan failed, Mr Gove announced he would run himself – a bizarre development given that he had forsworn any ambition to be prime minister – and Mr Johnson withdrew from the race. Having created chaos across the land during the referendum campaign, he has left others to clean up the mess.

The other leading challenger for leadership of the Conservative party is Theresa May, a Eurosceptic politician whose experience of government convinced her that staying in the EU was the best option. In her pitch for the leadership she contrasted her record of competence with the frivolity of Mr Johnson, saying “government is not a game”.

The referendum has exposed the fatal weakness in both main parties: The conservatives are split between the in and out camps. Labour is heading for destruction. It has lost all but one of its seats in Scotland and is losing the confidence of voters in the former industrial heartlands of the north-east of England and Wales.

Aware of their lost connection with voters, the major parties have given their members the power to choose the leader – that tends to favour crowd-pleasers. This is not a British only phenomenon. All over the developed world the victims of globalisation who have lost well-paid and secure jobs are in revolt. In the US they turn to Donald Trump, who blames the Mexicans and Chinese. In Europe, the anger is directed to the institutions of the EU.

Logically, there is a strong case for Britain to have a new pro-European centre party, made up of moderate Conservatives and the Blairite wing of Labour. To the left would be the Eurosceptic opponents of the neoliberal world order – including Mr Corbyn – and to the right the anti-immigrant, anti-EU nativists.

This is much talked of in political circles, but it runs up against a harsh rule of British politics: the first past the post voting system tends to strangle new parties at birth.

For the moment the disoriented remains of British establishment are hoping to delay any decision on leaving the EU for years – perhaps until 2020. Perhaps by then the EU will be in such turmoil, with populism on the rise from France to Poland, that Britain can get better terms than currently on offer. That is what Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, calls wishful thinking.

Alan Philps is a commentator on global affairs

On Twitter @aphilps