How less-than-great men brought Britain to its worst hour

Theresa May was the only one willing and able to take on the job of trying to clean up the mess the boys made, but it was an impossible task.

Credit: Chris BeckettAnti-Brexit demonstration in London. March 23, 2019.

Things started going downhill in the United Kingdom about 38 months ago. Well, it could be 41, if you really want to be precise. In February 2016, then-Prime Minister David Cameron announced that there would be a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union. The choice was between “Leave” and “Remain.”  At the time, the widely-held assumption was that the Remain campaign would win, with Cameron staying on for a few more years, and then eventually handing the reins to another Conservative politician of his choosing.

The results of the June 23, 2016 referendum shocked liberal Britons in particular and the world in general, just as much as the election of Donald Trump shocked Americans and the world four-and-a-half months later.

It is now August 2019 and Britain is getting ready to leave the bloc without a deal. Boris Johnson, the new prime minister and one of the leaders of the Leave campaign, has said a hard Brexit is his wish. Johnson replaced Theresa May on July 24, after she resigned in light of her failure to broker a deal to exit the EU that would satisfy her own party.

Remain voters feel ignored and unhappy; soft Brexit voters feel things are going too far and are unhappy; hard Brexiteers do not believe that Britain will leave the EU and are unhappy. The country is fractured and no person or party looks capable of bringing everyone together again.

David Cameron, meanwhile, is getting ready to publish his memoirs, which he reportedly wrote in a bespoke £25,000 ($30,000) shed, complete with wood-burning fireplace and sofa-bed, in the garden of his “quintessentially English” Cotswolds home. So, what went wrong?

The main answer, as it often is, comes from the hubris of men. First Cameron, with his unearned confidence, called the referendum to quell internal disagreements in his party. He was certain that he would win, and then he did not.

As the Remain campaign discovered slightly too late, a country that had just gone through six years of savage cuts to public services did not take kindly to the architects of said austerity warning them that if they voted to leave, there might be less money in the coffers. Many banks warned they would leave Brexit Britain, but such threats were not exactly convincing to those on the breadline, who had little hope of becoming more prosperous anytime soon.

The Remainers were convinced they would win easily, and were not ready for the Brexiteers’ intense, relentless and occasionally disingenuous approach to campaigning. Instead, they spent too much time trying to counter dubious claims about the EU, and not enough reminding people why the EU was a good thing for the country.

As one writer put it in the aftermath, “In confronting populist demagoguery, it isn’t enough to attack its promulgators. To get people to turn out and vote in your favor, you also have to give them something positive to rally behind.”

That the debate was overwhelmingly male had something to do with this disastrous turn of events, perhaps. In May 2016, Labour grandee Harriet Harman hit out against the lack of female voices leading the referendum campaigns; she quoted a study, which found that only 16% of television appearances on EU issues had been women. She was largely ignored.

A month later Leave won, by 52% to 48%, and no-one quite knew what to do. After all, damaging over-confidence had not been a side-specific issue; when Conservative MPs Boris Johnson and Michael Gove gave their victory speeches on June 24th, they looked terrified.

It is now clear that senior figures in the Vote Leave campaign had spent little time preparing for what would happen if they were to win, instead running a campaign conveniently promising all things to all people. Do you want Britain to be a buccaneering nation, ultra-liberal and open to the world? Brexit can make that happen. Do you yearn for the Britain of the past, and wish your country could shut itself from the world, and from the people wanting to move to the islands? There’s a Brexit for that — and so on.

David Cameron, who was a Remainer, resigned from his office and retired from politics after the Leave campaign won the referendum that he had called. Within weeks Theresa May, who was also a Remainer, replaced him. She was not quite the best candidate, but she was the only one willing and able to take the job.

Boris Johnson, the face of the Vote Leave campaign, wanted to run for party leadership. But Michael Gove, the other face of Vote Leave, stabbed him in the back; Gove ran instead, and the party didn’t back him. The boys had made a mess and as is so often the case, a woman had to come in and pick up the pieces, much to the glee of the boys in question. As May won, one male Conservative MP welcomed the news with a hearty “here comes Mummy!” Dry heave is appropriate.

Credit: Andrew Parsons/ i-ImagesBoris Johnson addressing the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester on October 4, 2011.

This is where things could have picked up; the moment when the country could have come together. In a different world, May would have announced that the result of the referendum had been close, and that it called for a Brexit that kept Britain close to the European Union, in order to honour the winning side without alienating the others. Even if unenthusiastic about the compromise, Brexiteers could have rallied around her and accepted their narrow margin of victory, and Remainers could have gracefully accepted their defeat and constructively worked with those who had beaten them.

This, of course, is not what happened. Already in a tough position, May made her own life worse by pandering to the harder Brexiteers and, perhaps overcompensating for her Remainer past, all but ignoring everyone else. The Brexit fanatics used this opportunity to harden their lines every step of the way, while shellshocked Remainers floundered, and failed to do much but yap from the sidelines.

This is when things started to get steadily worse. Entire books could be written about what happened between the summer of 2016 and the summer of 2019, but in short: May called an election to get a bigger majority in Parliament and was instead left with no majority at all, the hard Brexiteers kept voting against the Brexit deal May got because they thought it wasn’t a hard enough Brexit, everyone else wasted more time arguing about whether they wanted no Brexit, a second referendum or a soft Brexit than doing anything else, and in a day of “indicative votes” (test votes), MPs showed that not a single Brexit outcome had a majority in the House of Commons.

If you want to picture it, it was a bit like one of those scenes in cartoon where the unlucky main character slips on a banana peel, stands up, steps on a rake, stands up again and then walks straight into a glass door, on repeat, for three years.

Still, the themes remained similar. There was the hubristic assumption from Remainers that as Brexit negotiations would get worse, enough people would fling back to their side (they didn’t), and the hubristic assumption from Brexiteers that all problems with the negotiations would simply fade away if people started believing in Brexit enough (they didn’t).

In a way, the natural conclusion to all this was always going to be Boris Johnson. The former London mayor is a serial cheater, has an unknown number of love children, no principles to speak of, and is interested in little but power. What he excels at is boisterous self-confidence, and an ability to speak with conviction on anything he believes would be useful for him to talk about. His gaffes are frequent and his blunders dangerous, but to his fans he represents the one true Brexit believer who can deliver on all those impossible promises. As has become received wisdom in Britain, it is sufficient to believe in things very hard in order to make them come true; he may not be fond of the comparison, but Johnson is the Tinkerbell of Brexit, Lost Boys very much in tow.

What happens now remains unclear; Johnson won on a platform of leaving the EU on the October 31st deadline “do or die.” He insists that leaving without a deal is not something he wants, but he will not bring May’s deal back to Parliament for one last go, and there is not enough time to negotiate another deal and get it through the Commons. Still, he believes something will happen therefore it must be true.

Members of Parliament, meanwhile, insist that they will stop Johnson from going for no-deal, despite the awkward fact that there is not much they can do about it. Still, they believe — well, you get the point.

As Westminster tribes keep fighting to see which will make the best Icarus, the country they govern remains entirely split along the lines drawn on June 23rd. Where you stand on Brexit is now as important (if not more) than which party you usually vote for, or any other characteristics identities are usually built upon.

It did not have to be this way, of course. The opportunities for healing were always going to be rare and complex, but they did exist and no-one took them up. After all, doing so would have involved coming to terms with reality, unpleasant and imperfect as it may be. Forty-one months on, Britain stands on the brink of destroying itself for no reason; by the time its economy tanks and it scrambles to rebuild its relationships with the EU and the rest of the world, it will be too late for anyone to be the bigger person.

Given the wider context, it might be unwise to suggest Brits now turn to culture from the continent for advice, but they could do worse than revisit the most famous scene from the cult French movie La Haine: “Heard about the guy who fell off a skyscraper? On his way down past each floor, he kept saying to reassure himself: So far so good… so far so good… so far so good. How you fall doesn’t matter. It’s how you land!”

Marie Le Conte

Marie Le Conte

Marie Le Conte is a French-Moroccan freelance political journalist based in London. She has worked for BuzzFeed News and the Evening Standard among others, and has written for publications including the Guardian, the Sunday Times, Prospect, VICE and i-D Magazine. Her book, Haven't You Heard? Gossip, Power And How Politics Really Works, is coming out on September 5.