Back in Harold Wilson’s era, a week in politics was a long time. These days, it is more like a weekend.
Since Friday morning and the peasants’ revolt that shocked the elites and sent Britain tumbling out of the EU, the Prime Minister has resigned, the markets have gone into a tailspin (then recovered), peevish Eurocrats have been fearfully rude (though not Angela Merkel), the Twitter generation has thrown a monumental tantrum, a dozen members of the Shadow Cabinet have resigned, and the hapless leader of the Labour Party has found he is facing a vote of no confidence.
Only Tim Farron (who he?) and Nigel Farage seem safe in their jobs – though you can never be sure with Ukip.
Oh yes, I forgot. Tory MPs are happily engaged in what they do best – plotting and scheming in a leadership election.
Meanwhile, normal people (and BBC reporters) are wandering around in a state of shock asking what happens next? At least no one can accuse British politics of being boring.
Of all these events, the most significant for jubilant, if somewhat shaken, supporters of Brexit is the battle for the Tory crown. The winner, who won’t be known until September in all likelihood, has the monumental responsibility of finalising the terms of our divorce from Brussels. Who gets the house and the family silver? (assuming there is any). Who gets to keep the car? What about the pensions and the child support payments?
The danger, as is rapidly becoming clear, is that the weevils will get to work on the Brexit vote. Leave campaigners promised an exit from the single market and its replacement by a free trade deal with the EU – a step that is vital to reclaiming control of our borders and ending free movement of EU citizens to the UK. But, according to Conservative MEP Dan Hannan, a leading light in Vote Leave, that is not quite what we have voted for.
In ill-tempered exchanges on Newsnight on Friday night, exasperated presenter Evan Davis accused Leave of misleading the public. He told Hannan: ‘I’m sorry we’ve just been through three months of agony on the issue of immigration. The public have been led to believe that what they have voted for is an end to free movement.’
Hannan claimed the Vote Leave offer was about removing ‘legal entitlements to live in other countries, to vote in other countries and to claim welfare and to have the same university tuition’.
To which Davis retorted: ‘Why didn’t you say this in the campaign? Why didn’t you say in the campaign that you were wanting a scheme where we have free movement of labour? ‘Come on, that’s completely at odds with what the public think they have just voted for.’
Hannan went on to say that setting total migration figures would always be a job of the Government of the day and claimed: ‘We never said there was going to be some radical decline…we want a measure of control.’
You can see where this is all leading. Britain may have voted for Brexit but that is not an end to the matter – only the beginning. The devil lies in the detail and only the next Prime Minister, to be chosen this summer by Tory MPs and party members, will be critical to executing the will of the people clearly expressed last Thursday.
Other key matters, such as the timetable for exit, protection of key industries such as the City, farming and fishing, and the composition of the teams of politicians and experts who will negotiate the divorce, all depend on who replaces David Cameron. Two camps seem to be emerging: Brexit-lite and the real thing. The danger is the eternal one in politics – that of betrayal, that of the sell-out.
Given the centrality of restoring immigration controls to the vote for Brexit (it was the driving force for change across the country and especially in the Labour heartlands), any attempt to dilute this commitment will be regarded with fury by the millions of people who voted for a complete break with EU interference in our affairs.
As they choose their favoured candidates, Tory MPs and activists – and the watching public – must guard against any stealthy attempts to subvert the will of the people.