Today should have marked a new dawn. The government had committed to a deadline for the UK’s withdrawal from the EU to take effect at 23.00 GMT last night. But today we have woken to a dawn worse than our darkest imaginings.
It seemed so recently that we had successfully traversed an abyss. Thanks to an unlikely combination of Labour and the SNP, we appeared headed towards altogether calmer times. That irritating Brexit withdrawal clock had stopped ticking. A truce of sorts had been agreed with the EU. But instead we teeter on the edge of an altogether greater precipice.
A recap is necessary on how we came to this appalling state of affairs. Its origins can perhaps be traced back to early 2018, when it became clear the premiership of Theresa May could not survive. A senior Cabinet departure, coupled with the resignation of a key EU negotiation adviser, brought matters to a head.
Across the country, people had grown weary of the lack of progress, the David Davis vs Michel Barnier, gritted-teeth press conferences and the impasse on negotiations. At home, the Brexit vs Remainer political duels ground on as media pundits warned of an approaching Brexit disaster. Every day seemed to bring fresh news of setback, failure and alarm. TV viewers began switching off in their millions when the nightly news came on.
Talk that the government was prepared to pay a higher EU exit bill added to the febrile, sulphurous mood. A BBC TV Question Time broadcast saw scuffles among the audience and angry members being removed. There could be no clearer
indication of how reasoned debate and argument in Britain had morphed into anger and hate.
The government, deeply split, was facing defeat on one of the amendments to the Withdrawal Bill. A long-forecast Tory leadership challenge finally emerged to break the deadlock. It forced the resignation of the Prime Minister. In a hesitant, faltering performance that had come to characterise her premiership, she announced her departure, with immediate effect, to waiting cameras outside Number 10.
An election now loomed and a change of government appeared certain. But matters were little better on the Labour benches. Party leader Jeremy Corbyn had been rushed to hospital with breathing difficulties after collapsing in the crush after a mass Labour rally. His recovery was expected to take weeks – and even then a return to full health was not assured.
A rushed leadership election resulted in Sir Keir Starmer, Shadow Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, emerge as the party’s new leader, narrowly defeating John McDonnell. His campaign manager Emily Thornberry was appointed Shadow Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs.
News now erupted fast. The eve of the election brought a critical intervention. The SNP, after a heated emergency conference, agreed to go into coalition with Labour. Many MPs and MSPs baulked at this. But a rallying call from Nicola Sturgeon won the day: “We must beat the hated Tories!”
After a markedly low turn-out, the coalition won with a narrow majority. The first act of new Prime Minister Starmer was to suspend Brexit negotiations. An amendment, supported by anti-Brexit Tory MPs, was rushed through Parliament
altering the terms of Article 50. And after lengthy telephone conversations with chief EU negotiator Michael Barnier, the fateful ticking clock was stopped.
Then came a new surprise. The Prime Minister proposed a fresh basis for negotiations. Under these, the UK would join the European Free Trade Association and seek arrangements to stay in the Single Market.
Business cheered and in Belgravia and Notting Hill, Remainers celebrated with garden parties and Prosecco. The country has come to its senses. Voters had simply not realised what a complex issue it all was. Parliament, where issues could be debated in detail and at length, had a right and duty to set aside the referendum and to act as it did. As Remainers saw it, they were the true upholders of democracy.
And in any event, across much of the country there was relief that at last we could move on past the gridlock that Brexit had become. Many felt it was time to concede, to throw in the towel and let other pressing issues come to the fore. How we had grown utterly weary of it all!
But it later emerged there was a price to pay. Mr Barnier and his EU negotiators insisted that the Thatcher rebate was to be cancelled, and the UK’s annual contributions to the EU budget adjusted upwards – and backdated to June 2016.
Brexiteers were furious. In their eyes, a combination of weak political leadership and the determination of a minority to halt Brexit had thwarted the will of the people in the referendum. Parliament had failed in its duty to enact the clear preference of the people of Britain, now betrayed by a privileged and out-of-touch elite. They had allowed the UK, once a world power and the sixth largest economy in the world, to kneel and surrender before the unelected bureaucrats of Brussels.
Britain was now profoundly divided and, to a degree, that echoed the great reform battles and the crises that befell the Gladstone and Earl of Rosebery administrations just before the turn of the last century. Only this time the public mood was further soured by a stagnating economy, low growth in household incomes, massive government debt, steepening decline on the world stage and a sense of national failure: a toxic cocktail.
Hate and anger boiled over.
And so we come to the mass demonstration that took place outside parliament yesterday. Thousands travelled to London by rail bus and car, demanding another referendum – ironically, one that Remainers, previously in favour of a second vote that they thought would reverse the first one – now vehemently opposed.
I watched, along with the world’s press and TV stations, as the huge, angry crowd gathered. Westminster was besieged. Armed police threw a cordon round Parliament. Early in the afternoon, I saw a section of the crowd try to break through. Metal poles and crush barriers were hurled at police. No-one seems sure how the gunfire started or who fired the first shot. But, what we do know is seven people were killed. Around 12 are believed to be wounded, several critically.
It seems to have been a terrible accident that resulted in unintended fatalities. Fearing further violence, massive police reinforcements have been rushed to the scene and the government has moved to take emergency powers.
What happens now? What of further demonstrations, the threat to civil peace, the future of parliament – and indeed of the UK? As we awake this morning, with Commons business suspended and the Houses of Parliament surrounded by a ring of armed police and steel, no-one is sure how this explosive stand-off will be resolved.
But one thing seems clear this morning. One abyss may have been overcome. But now a far more dangerous one yawns in front of us. So much for UK Freedom Day.