Chris Johns: Referendum exposes UK’s sordid, seedy underbelly

Not impossible that country’s next prime minister will be its last

Former London Mayor Boris Johnson, a leading Brexit campaigner who had been considered one of the favourites to replace David Cameron as British Prime Minister, says he will not be standing. Video: Reuters


The British government currently resembles the management team of a poorly run bank at the height of the financial crisis. Of course, in a rather different context they have form: we all know the consequences of invading Iraq without any idea about what to do next. The total absence of a Brexit plan will not, we hope, have similarly dire ramifications. But Westminster is badly in need of adult supervision.

A common feature of poorly run businesses is the prevalence of weak senior executives. The sort that have managed to get to the top without ever having to make a tough decision, have always played the right political game and spent all their energies on maintaining their image and connections. During the financial crash it was said of many a bank chief executive that they had risen without trace. For much of the time, senior mangers and politicians with these qualities don’t do too bad a job: sailing in calm waters isn’t that difficult, even if you are not a skilled yachtsman. It’s when the storms roll in that the weak get found out.

It is tempting to say that the UK government is clueless about what to do next. But that wouldn’t be quite right. There isn’t really a government: both the ruling party and the main opposition are notable only for their absence. Boris Johnson won’t be the new chief executive of the UK: that can only be a good thing. He never held serious office (mayor of London doesn’t count - he doesn’t have any real decision-making authority) and his only real job experience comes from writing newspaper columns. That should not fill anyone with confidence. At least he will understand all the inevitable references to hubris and nemesis.


It’s that word - confidence - that should worry us. An elusive and intangible but critically important ingredient for individuals and economies. And it’s draining away. I have never witnessed a British political event that has caused so much personal angst: Brexit is visceral, already deeply affecting everyone on many levels, with wholly unpredictable consequences.

There are plenty of examples of things happening in unexpected ways, evidence of the people in charge not thinking things through. Reassurances that UK citizens living in the EU will retain all their rights while Britain implements immigration curbs are both glib and delusional. Expert legal opinion is now suggesting that the Article 50 trigger cannot be a quick email to Brussels but has to be an act of Parliament. Which, if correct, is a whole new ball game.

Brexiteers promise access to the Single Market. They will, eventually, learn that ‘access to’ is not the same thing as ‘being in’. A small example: Switzerland has that access. But its citizens can’t reap the benefits of capped EU mobile phone roaming charges. So they can end up paying around five times more.

Much is made of the way Brexit seemingly united the old, the unemployed and the extremes of left and right. Pollsters have been trying to figure out the factors that prompted these groups to come together. Some 70 per cent of Leavers apparently want restoration of the death penalty.

Questions are being raised that we long thought settled - or best left unasked. Brits used to be confident enough in their own identity such that a formal constitution was never needed. Now, it is not impossible that the next Prime Minister of the UK will be the last.


Brexit was based around a series of promises, several of which have disappeared from Leave’s website. One lie was the pledge to spend £350 million (€423m) a week savings from non-EU membership on the NHS. If that was enough to persuade people to vote Leave, other important issues can be reduced to crude economics. Picture someone like Nigel Farage claiming that a British exit from Northern Ireland could save taxpayers £100 million a week. The only difference between that and the promised £350 million Brexit saving is that it is true.

How can anyone express surprise at Michael Gove doing a u-turn on running for Prime Minister and stabbing his erstwhile chum, Boris? It’s utterly consistent with everything we have learned about these people. Just shudder at the thought of Gove as PM. He once described the Belfast Agreement as ‘a greater wickedness....a denial of our national integrity’. He once said, correctly, “I could not be Prime Minister, I’m not equipped to be Prime Minister”.

A sordid, seedy underbelly of British culture has been exposed. When big decisions are based on dishonest estimates of the cash consequences we need to be reminded of at least one old cliche: we know the price of everything and the value of nothing.

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