IT WAS a troubling exchange. On live television Faisal Islam, the political editor of SkyNews, was recounting a conversation with a pro-Brexit Conservative MP. “I said to him: ‘Where’s the plan? Can we see the Brexit plan now?’ [The MP replied:] ‘There is no plan. The Leave campaign don’t have a post-Brexit plan…Number 10 should have had a plan.’” The camera cut to Anna Botting, the anchor, horror chasing across her face. For a couple of seconds they were both silent, as the point sunk in. “Don’t know what to say to that, actually,” she replied, looking down at the desk. Then she cut to a commercial break.
Sixty hours have gone by since a puffy-eyed David Cameron appeared outside 10 Downing Street and announced his resignation. The pound has tumbled. Investment decisions have been suspended; already firms talk of moving operations overseas. Britain’s EU commissioner has resigned. Sensitive political acts—the Chilcot report’s publication, decisions on a new London airport runway and the renewal of Britain’s nuclear deterrent—are looming. European leaders are shuttling about the continent meeting and discussing what to do next. Those more sympathetic to Britain are looking for signs from London of how they can usefully influence discussions. At home mounting evidence suggests a spike in racist and xenophobic attacks on immigrants. Scotland is heading for another independence referendum. Northern Ireland’s peace settlement may hang by a thread.
But at the top of British politics, a vacuum yawns wide. The phones are ringing, but no one is picking up.
Mr Cameron has said nothing since Friday morning. George Osborne, the chancellor of the exchequer, has been silent. (This afternoon I texted several of his advisers to ask whether he would make a statement before the markets open tomorrow. As I write this I have received no replies.) The prime minister’s loyalist allies in Westminster and in the media are largely mute.
Apart from ashen-faced, mumbled statements from the Vote Leave headquarters on Friday, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove have also ducked the limelight; Mr Johnson is meeting friends and allies today, June 26th, at his house near Oxford in what are believed to be talks about his impending leadership bid. Neither seems to have the foggiest as to what should happen next. Today Mr Gove’s wife committed to Facebook the hope that “clever people” might offer to “lend their advice and expertise.” And Mr Johnson’s sister, Rachel, tweeted: “Everyone keeps saying ‘we are where we are’ but nobody seems to have the slightest clue where that is.”
Ordinarily the opposition might take advantage of the vacuum: calling on the government to act, offering its own proposals, venturing a framework. But Labour has turned in on itself, a parade of shadow ministers resigning this afternoon in what seems to be a concerted coup attempt against Jeremy Corbyn, the party’s useless leader. In a meeting tomorrow Tom Watson, the party’s deputy leader, is expected to call on Mr Corbyn to quit. Of the need for stability and leadership following Thursday’s vote the party has little to say.
No one seems capable of stepping forward and offering reassurance. The Leavers, who disagreed on what Brexit should look like, do not think it is their responsibility to set out a path. They reckon that falls to Number 10 (where they have appeared in public, it has mostly been to discard the very pledges on which they won the referendum). Number 10, however, seems to have done little planning for this eventuality. It seems transfixed by the unfolding chaos; reluctant to formulate answers to the Brexiteers’ unanswered questions. As Mr Cameron reportedly told aides on June 24th when explaining his decision to resign: “Why should I do all the hard shit?”
This could go on for a while. The Conservative leadership contest will last until at least early October, perhaps longer. It may be almost as long until Labour has a new chief, and even then he or she may be a caretaker. The new prime minister could call a general election. It might be more than half a year until Britain has a leader capable of addressing the myriad crises now engulfing it.
The country does not have that kind of time. Despite arguments for patience from continental Anglophiles, including Angela Merkel, the insistence that Britain immediately invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, launching exit negotiations that can last no longer than two years, is hardening. Soon it may be a consensus. Britain could be thrust into talks under a lame-duck leader with no clear notion of what Brexit should look like or mandate to negotiate. All against a background of intensifying economic turmoil and increasingly ugly divides on Britain’s streets. The country is sailing into a storm. And no one is at the wheel.