The British people have spoken. The prime minister has resigned. Already, the consequences of what the voters said and why they said it have begun to reshape Britain’s future in profound and potentially dangerous ways. The country has embarked on a perilous journey in which our politics and our economy must be transformed. The vote to leave the EU will challenge not only the government and politicians but all of us whose opinions have been rejected.
Britain’s place in the world must now be rethought. That will demand the kind of debate about our alliances that we have not had since the Suez crisis forced a post-imperial reality on Britain. Once again, the country’s very idea of itself will have to be reimagined too. The deep strains on the nation’s fabric that are partly expressed as a pro-European Scotland, Northern Ireland – and London – and an anti-European England and Wales must be urgently addressed. And a new relationship with a Europe that is in no mood to be generous must be negotiated. As a gleeful Nigel Farage pointed out early on Friday, there are also already voices from the populist right in Denmark, France and the Netherlands arguing for their own definitive vote. And while the Bank of England successfully steadied the City after dramatic early falls in the value of shares and a tumbling pound, these things will take careful management if they are not to translate into a new crunch on the banks, a recession or even – as George Soros warned earlier in the week – a sudden inability to finance the balance of payments.
David Cameron – instantly, utterly and forever broken by his defeat on Thursday – grasped that he could not lead the country through the coming turmoil. In a graceful little speech in Downing Street he accepted failure and announced that his successor would be in place by the time of the party conference in October. No speech, however, could have salvaged his standing in the history books. Mr Cameron will go down as the man who gambled the country’s future as a way out of a party difficulty. His original folly was compounded by his refusal to stand firm against his internal enemies on the detailed plans for the plebiscite, despite the authority of last year’s newly won mandate. And then the campaign itself, on which he kept tight control, failed. Project Fear’s fundamental mistake was that it did not understand that far too many Britons, already living insecure and uncertain lives, felt they had little to lose. By focusing on the City and big business, the campaign had nothing to say about the victims of the myriad failures of so many local economies. Mr Cameron won the party leadership by outflanking his rival on Euroscepticism, and in his decade at the top he did nothing to promote a positive vision of the EU. He followed rather than led; and in this sour atmosphere he bet his shirt on the notoriously fickle vehicle of a referendum, and lost.