This is the great betrayal. Just about everyone feels betrayed from every possible perspective. As the pound plunges, sending oil and food prices up while wages stagnate, with shares and pension values falling, the country is seeing the consequences of being mortally betrayed – by the self-indulgent members of a government who brought this calamity down on all of us.
Some who voted leave will feel betrayed by the unfolding economic tremors after they were told to ignore the warnings of Project Fear. Recession threatens a huge loss of jobs; banks decamping; airport, rail and house-building projects suspended; airlines issuing profits warnings; credit card companies reporting a dive in spending; a quarter of Institute of Directors companies freezing recruitment.
I keep finding people already affected. Start at home, here in the half-crippled newspaper industry, as Martin Sorrel’s WPP warns of an immediate advertising chill. A publishing friend reports a company-wide stop on all prices and contracts. A thinktank tells of an EU grant suddenly halted, a council reports developers freezing building contracts. And all in less than a week. Alistair Darling rates the risk greater than he faced as chancellor in 2008.
I hear of children in primary schools anxious and weeping because they are foreign, have foreign parents, or fear for their foreign friends. Children taunting others that they will have to go, infected by messages unleashed in the noxious leave campaign. Children catch the mood.
The National Front banner in central Newcastle read, “Stop Immigration. Start Repatriation.” Cameron’s promise not to tolerate such intolerance will do no good, while London’s Sadiq Khan asked the police to be extra vigilant for an upsurge in race-hate crime. Racist graffiti and abuse was given new licence by Boris Johnson, who adopted Nigel Farage’s anti-migrant tactics. No surprise that the Vote Leave campaign’s homepage has wiped speeches and pledges, cleaning away their filthy footprints. Now they deny those promises were meant to be taken literally – the £350m a week on the NHS, and an end to EU immigration.
The Daily Mail, an architect of this disaster, got its betrayal in quick, with Monday’s front page: “Now a plot to block Brexit”. They turn their fire on those trying to find ways out of this crisis, who seek some compromise, a negotiation, a second referendum on the final exit terms. But they are right: to not pull out of the EU, pull up the drawbridge and get all our money back will be a betrayal of people who thought they were voting for those things.
What’s plain is that Boris Johnson and the rest never had a plan. It was derelict of the media – broadcasters in particular – not to force the leavers to define what leaving meant. Instead they got away with airy generalities, hiding multiple contradictions and dishonesties.
Brexit reaction and in-depth analysis on our dedicated page
This leaves Johnson wriggling. He finally posted his manifesto in his Daily Telegraph column on Monday – and that too was a betrayal of the truth. Famous for having his cake and eating it, he promises the impossible: “A new better relationship with the EU based on free trade and partnership”, “intensifying” cooperation on arts, sciences and universities, “improving the environment”. British people will still live and work in the EU and EU citizens here will also be “fully protected”. Business will have “access to the single market” and yet there will be an unspecified “substantial sum of money which we will no longer send to Brussels which could be used on priorities such as the NHS”. “One-nation Britain” will “take back democratic control of immigration policy”.
But as that’s not on offer, this weaselling fantasy is a betrayal of his leave voters. He had no plan because he never thought Brexit would win: it was a jolly jape to nearly win and tickle Tory party members into electing him. They probably will and now this sociopath with no concern for country, economy or citizens will be our prime minister.
The only hope is that he can be better than his character suggests, because more than 60 million livelihoods depend on it. It feels like a teeth-grinding betrayal to wish a Tory leader well, but Britain needs whoever becomes prime minister to strike a deal. The money matters less, but failure to change EU migration rules will hand Nigel Farage a golden chance to sweep up Labour and Tory votes by the seat-full – and turn the Tory party ever rightwards.
So far, the Germans and French have shown no sign they will allow Britain to at least control which EU migrants we let in. Staying in the single market means paying up and allowing free movement. But accepting those terms would be a denial of democracy. One hope is that EU leaders decide that giving us an undeserved concession on migration is less bad than the damage Brexit will do to other EU economies. The other hope is that enough people who voted leave take fright at a mighty recession and change their minds, deciding free movement is after all a price worth paying to avoid disaster.
Persuading either or both of those groups into a great change of heart requires a leader with exceptional negotiating skills, sensitivity and subtlety. Is that Johnson, with his fantasies, approximations and dissimulations? The man who compared the EU to Hitler?
The stakes are so high that party politics should fade into the background – but they never do. Faced with the enormity of what the Tories have done, the country needs Labour as a vigorous pro-European alternative. Instead Jeremy Corbyn is like the captain of a ship locking himself in the cabin as his vessel heads for the iceberg. His passengers are all those in the party, but also all those who need Labour to undo the damage of austerity.
The resignation of most of his shadow cabinet at least offers hope of revival, with a new leader to seize the day. Who and how we don’t yet know, but the party can’t go on denying their heartlands’ demand for migration curbs.
The pound hit a 30-year low, harming low–income families most. The blame falls entirely on the Tories for this referendum – and Johnson for his despicable campaign. Did the voters take back control? No, people are beginning to know how grievously they have been betrayed.