Theresa May’s lukewarm remain stance leaves her uniquely well positioned to offer the Tories a unity candidate
When Nigel Farage made his first speech to his supporters, after the news of the Leave campaign’s stunning victory in last week’s EU referendum, he looked like a man both overjoyed and thrilled. He believed, he said, that this victory would mark not only Britain’s “independence day”, but the beginning of a movement of nations all over the continent to free themselves from the “shackles” of the EU. He added that, once they had done so, we would once again have a proud Europe of “sovereign nation states, trading with each other and co-operating with each other”; he forgot, of course, to add the third element, which was the tendency of Europe’s “proud sovereign states” to end up knocking the lights out of one another, leaving millions dead and nations devastated, twice in half a century.
This utter indifference to history, though – played out in the very week when we mark the centenary of the battle of the Somme – is just one of the many unlovely characteristics of the Brexit campaign which triumphed last Friday morning “We hope to see a Europe where every man will think as much of being a European as of belonging to their native land,” said Britain’s great war leader Winston Churchill, in 1948. “We hope wherever they go in this wide domain, they will truly feel, here I am at home.” Yet it was the great achievement of the Leave campaign to persuade many disaffected millions of English voters, mainly outside the big cities, that it would be an act of patriotism to strike a blow against these hopes of a more peaceful Europe with which Britain emerged from the Second World War; and when I heard that the Leave campaign had been successful, I thought that as Farage predicted, their victory would send a clarion call to the anti-EU nationalist right across Europe.
If a week is a long time in politics, though, these last seven days have felt like several lifetimes; and one of the first surprises of the week was the speed with which it became clear that, so far from uttering a clarion call, what the Leave campaign had emitted was in fact a vast explosion of wind, followed by a profound, unsavoury silence. Within hours, it became apparent that they had no plan and no policies, and that none of them was prepared to stand by their major campaign pledges on immigration and public spending; then later in the week, it emerged that the Tory leaders of the Brexit campaign had not even taken the elementary step of agreeing which of them should stand for election as Tory leader and Prime Minister, in the event of a Brexit victory.
And there can be no doubt that this abject disarray of the UK’s Leave Campaign, in the days following the result, is good news for those who care about the future of the European Union. It exposes the shallow demagoguery of the Leave campaign more thoroughly than any counter-arguments ever could. Already, as I write, the Conservative Party – the Great Survivor of UK politics – is moving away from the most divisive figure in the Leave camp, Boris Johnson, and focussing on a likely leadership run-off between Theresa May, a lukewarm Remain supporter, and Michael Gove, the Leave campaign colleague who, yesterday morning, knifed Boris Johnson so firmly in the back that one wonders whether any of his Tory colleagues will ever trust him again.
Despite the stark divisions in the Tory Party, in other words, it is already possible to imagine the party regrouping fairly quickly around a push for an EFTA-style free trade arrangement with Europe, made acceptable to Leave voters by a few minor concessions on immigration controls. May has already staked out this territory as her own, and if Gove deviates from it much, he will rapidly lose the business backing on which Tory leaders depend. And the likelihood of Gove or May emerging as Prime Minister also poses a slightly lower threat to the increasingly fragile union with Scotland than a Johnson premiership would have done.
If the Tory Party is about to save its own skin, though, there is no disguising the two other salient facts about the Westminster political scene, that could make any imminent snap general election a dramatic moment in UK political history. The first is the sheer chaos which has engulfed the Labour Party; whatever the outcome of the ugly and chaotic power-struggle currently being staged by the Blairites majority among Westminster MPs, we can be sure that even if it survives, this profoundly divided Labour Party will have no chance of forming the next UK government.
And that leaves only the ominous figure of Farage, the only front-line politician to seem truly happy about last Friday morning’s result. At the last UK general election, in 2015, Farage’s Ukip won 12.9 per cent of the vote and just one member of parliament; next time, with either the Remain-supporting May or the strange retro intellectual Gove leading the Tories, they could begin to reap huge further windfalls of support from those disaffected former Labour supporters who voted Leave last week, smashing through the high barriers to election created by the first past the post system, and perhaps win the seats to which these levels of support would entitle them in a proportional system.
They could, in other words, easily overtake the SNP to become the third party in the Commons; and, if the Labour omnishambles continues, even begin to threaten Labour’s position as the main opposition party. The time for laughing at Farage, and for humouring him in endless television appearances where his combination of fact-free bombast and unpleasant views seem barely contested, is therefore long gone. For if he has been severely let down this week by the incompetence of his Tory Brexit allies, he is still the only real winner in last week’s vote; the man who claims to speak for those voices in England that have been ignored and silenced for far too long, and to whom millions now look as their champion, in the continuing, shameful absence of any better offer.