I write this looking out on a sea of fresh green leaves under typically overcast summer skies, on my morning run I passed children setting up a makeshift game of cricket, some things about England remain timeless. Yet, I still feel I’m in a slightly different country to the one I went to bed in on Thursday night. Waking up at 3:30 am on Friday and turning on the television I can’t pretend I wasn’t extremely surprised, though perhaps not totally stunned, to see the Leave campaign heading for victory.
I’ve spent the week campaigning at home in Leamington and Warwickshire, the mood on the ground was pretty good all week, we had a fair bit of abuse from aggressive leavers, more than I’ve been used to in political campaigning, but the majority of people were positive. On Thursday lots of people proudly took an ‘I voted Remain’ sticker and many late undecided’s said they were plumping for Remain. Warwick & Leamington has been a bellwether seat in the last few general elections and although I guessed it was slightly more pro-Remain than some surrounding areas I didn’t realise quite how out of step it was with the rest of the Midlands. We voted 60-40 to remain on an 80% turnout, but were the only local authority in the West Midlands to vote Remain.
This referendum was decided in the cities of the Midlands and North, places like Wolverhampton and Walsall which both went Leave by huge margins. Looking back there were clues to Warwick district’s unusual leaning, Remain activists from nearby Coventry said things were pretty dire there, (it ended up 55% leave) and if a city of 300,000 was a no go area then things could hardly be going great for the Remain campaign. Yet, I suppose there was an assumption that a lot of people would grudgingly come round to the status quo option, that there were a lot of quiet Remainers, and many of the archetypal leave voters wouldn’t actually turn out and vote. But they did turn out in huge numbers, Walsall voted nearly 68% for leave on a 70% turnout, a huge increase on 55% and 60% turnouts in the two Walsall constituencies at the general election last year. Nationally turnout was 72%, the highest it’s been since 1992, that is an extraordinary level of democratic engagement, people who’ve never voted before or who haven’t voted in years felt that their vote mattered.
This re-engagement with democracy of the disenfranchised should be celebrated, even if both sides will admit they fought an at times negative and divisive campaign. Yet, what comes next is potentially far more difficult and disruptive to societal harmony than anything before in our modern history. Leave won a clear victory of over a million votes and that decision needs to be respected and implemented, but 48% of the country, including 75% of young people, and Scotland and Northern Ireland, voted to Remain, which means it is vital we move forwards in as consensual a way as possible. I’m a proud Conservative and Unionist and I do not want to see our island nation divided, the Union has been a force for good in and outside the British Isles.
To at least try to keep our country together we cannot become Fortress Great Britain, we need a country that remains open and outward looking, a free trading and liberal nation that still affords young people the opportunity to be citizens of the world. I know several people who voted leave for precisely that vision, but the majority of leave voters I spoke to in the last week in Warwick district said they were doing so to take back control and stop immigration and to give extra money to the NHS. These voters are going to be extremely angry and even more disengaged from the democratic process if those promises are not delivered on.
It is early days, but leading Leave figures are already hinting at an arrangement with the EU that closely mirrors the Norway model, allowing significant free movement and probably still paying some form of contribution to the EU. That may not come to pass, the negotiations are a two-way process after-all, but if it does they will need to explain to those who voted Leave why they have chosen that option. Economically it is probably our safest bet, the City of London may be sneered at, but it has been a vital contributor to the UK exchequer and the protections it enjoyed under the EU may no longer be able to save it from attacks from Frankfurt, Amsterdam and Paris, who all wish to overtake it as Europe’s financial centre. Some loss of jobs may be unavoidable, but it is in all our interests to ensure London remains as successful as possible going forwards.
In the short term a reduction in investment, a rise in unemployment, a slow-down in growth and possibly a contraction of the economy look likely, confidence being everything when it comes to economics. Jean Claude Juncker and Martin Schulz’s comments, trying to bully the UK into immediately starting exit talks, need to be ignored. They represent institutional interests, not the people of Europe, and are a good reminder why even those of us on the Remain side harbour deep misgivings about the EU itself. Angela Merkel’s views matter much more, and she was measured in her remarks on Friday, clearly saddened, but calling for calm and acknowledging negotiations will take some time. Other national government voices have been more mixed but under EU law it is clear that Article 50 can only be triggered by the member state concerned.
Negotiations can only begin when the UK has someone in charge with a mandate to undertake them. I was immensely saddened to watch David Cameron’s resignation yesterday morning, I’ve never been an ardent Cameroon, but he has been a great reforming leader of our party and our country. He took the party into the modern world, made it fit for government again and made me proud to be a Conservative again after years of feeling mildly embarrassed about it, though perhaps put that down to typical teenage awkwardness. That his career ends like this, barely 13 months after winning the first Conservative majority in 23 years, is shocking, but it should not cloud his achievements in office. He delivered on the promise of a referendum, which I supported, the fact people have voted to leave against his advice shows he was right to give the people of our country a direct say. In the manner of his going he showed all the decency and honour for which he has always been admired. His successor has big shoes to fill.
There has been much talk that only a Brexiteer can be the next leader of our country and our party. I disagree, the next leader should be the best person for the job, man or woman. When it comes to the exit negotiations the leave side need to be heavily involved, not least to share responsibility for what terms we achieve, but the Captain of the ship needs to be someone who can unite our party and our country at a very fractured time. The Conservative Party needs to continue to be a broad Church and any attempt to banish those of us who supported remain will doom the party to electoral oblivion, as Lord Ashcroft’s polling yesterday indicated, 42% of 2015 Conservative voters supported Remain.
I don’t know who I will support yet, but several possible candidates have already emerged. Boris Johnson is the obvious front runner and has his famous charisma to recommend him, but he has never held a great office of state, his record at City Hall is mixed and he will need to prove he can be a unifying figure after a divisive campaign. Stephen Crabb represents a fresh face and a party that stands for more than middle class southern England, essential at a time when the Union itself may be under threat, but he is relatively untested. Theresa May represents immense experience and a strong record of competent government, as well as having stayed out of the real nastiness of the last few weeks, an adult in a room of squabbling children, as one Tory member put it to me recently, but some feel she lacks the required charisma for modern politicians. Other candidates may yet emerge, it is vital that we at least take some time to carefully consider potential options and what direction they will take the party in. Some internal party trauma from the way David Cameron leaves office is unavoidable, but a coronation papering over cracks would solve nothing, a healthy contest is the only way the party can move forward.
Whoever succeeds needs to be ready to fight hard for British interests in what will be extremely difficult negotiations over our future relationship with Europe. They need to be able to speak to voters in all four corners of our island, to work out a solution for the Irish border issue, and above all to address the concerns of those affected by globalisation which were clearly expressed in Thursday’s vote. Britain cannot allow itself to go back on centuries of openness to the world, but those caught in the winds of change need to be listened to and brought on board HMS UK, too many of them feel left adrift at present. Britain itself also needs to decide precisely what its future direction will be, fifty years on from the end of Empire we are still struggling to define our precise role in the world, and the lack of debate on that issue in this year’s referendum campaign was one of the great missed opportunities of our time.