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EU exit a political earthquake, but the aftershocks are only beginning

EU exit a political earthquake, but the aftershocks are only beginning

🕔27.Jun 2016

Britain has suffered a political earthquake the like of which if it could be measured on the Richter scale would be pretty much off the scale. But the consequences of Brexit are only starting to become clear, writes Paul Dale in the first of two major opinion pieces from Chamberlain Files.

The decision to leave the European Union is certainly the biggest game-changing event to hit the United Kingdom in our lives – and in common with all earthquakes there will be aftershocks.

The immediate consequences are clear enough.

Cameron is going and Corbyn may follow him. The Conservative party will elect a new leader who will become Prime Minister. Will it be Boris? If he gets on the ballot paper he is highly likely to win given his popularity among the 130,000 Tory members who have to choose the leader.

There is talk that Conservative MPs, who nominate the two leadership contenders, may punish Boris and refuse to put him forward, favouring Home Secretary Theresa May instead. This would lead to open warfare in the party.

Whoever does become prime minister faces the unenviable task of unpicking Britain’s membership of the EU and, crucially, negotiating new trading agreements and border controls, not to mention dealing with a growing clamour for Scottish and, possibly Northern Irish, independence.

This is where it gets interesting and is, I suspect, the point at which the millions who were persuaded to join a nationalist, populist anti-EU bandwagon will wake up in the cold light of day and wonder after all whether they were wise to vote leave.

We have two years to negotiate a deal with the EU, two years incidentally when the world’s investors and markets will be watching like hawks to see whether a Britain riding alone prospers or falters. Don’t be fooled by the relatively small fall in the value of shares and the pound since June 23, these are early days in what is bound to be a bumpy ride.

Meanwhile, EU leaders appear to be split over whether the UK should be bounced into triggering the Article 50 exit process immediately, or given more time.

The ideal outcome of the negotiations is to protect Britain’s access to the European single market for goods and services. But, as the Leave campaign has always known, that happy state of affairs is only likely to be sanctioned by the EU member states in return for continued freedom of movement into and out of this country, as well as a continuing British financial contribution to the EU.

Inevitably, there will have to be compromises. Certainly the EU will wish to continue trading with Britain, the sixth largest economy in the world, but we will never be able to negotiate the Leavers’ dream ticket of free trade, protected borders and no financial contributions to Brussels.

We may be able to scale down the £350 million a week that the Leave campaign claims is paid to the EU, but the idea that we can somehow leave the European club and continue to enjoy all of the benefits of membership is ludicrous.

This then opens up a delayed and potentially catastrophic aftershock of Brexit.

Many of the people persuaded to vote to leave did so, I strongly suspect, with only the vaguest notion of why they were acting in such a way. A family friend who had never voted in her life, not at local elections or general elections, and certainly not at European elections, was determined to vote this time and did so, although she had to be taken to the polling station and told what to do. She did not, obviously, go to such lengths to express her support for the European Union.

The EU referendum turned out to be a sounding board for a trend that has been emerging for some time – an anti-politics, anti-establishment movement, allied to a deep contempt for officialdom and all things European, plus a dollop of xenophobia and out and out racism.

Add to that toxic cocktail a growing divide between north and south, relatively well-off families with good jobs and the unemployed with little hope of finding a well-paid job, pensioners who retired at the right time and have never been so well off, and school leavers who fear they will never have a decent job and are gazing ahead at decades of uncertainty, and it is easy to see how Britain fell for the lie that Brussels is to blame and so casually cut itself adrift from Europe.

A glance at the referendum results shows middle class professionals in the south were more likely to vote to remain while working class Labour constituencies across the Midlands and in the North East chose to leave. Both the Conservative and Labour parties have to face up to the fact that they are losing their natural supporters, and do something about it before it is too late and the country falls into the hands of Mr Farage’s successors, who may not be quite as avuncular as the UKIP leader.

The Daily Mail, hated by the left but so often on the money as far as middle England is concerned, noted that the leavers were a mix of disillusioned Tory and Labour voters and hailed the referendum result as “the day the quiet people of Britain rose up against an arrogant, out-of-touch political class and a contemptuous Brussels elite”.

Inevitably, G K Chesterton was quoted:

Smile at us, pay us, pass us; but do not quite forget, for we are the people of England who have never spoken yet.

A little way down the road, a year, two years perhaps, it will dawn on the Leavers that nothing much has changed in Britain. We will still have migration to fill the unskilled low-paid jobs that resident Britons don’t want and we will have a trading accommodation with Europe.

The simmering hatred unleashed by the Leave campaign will not go away. It will continue to fester. There may be another uprising. And this time events may not be decided through the ballot box.

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