Day six of Brexit, and things are cooling a little bit. That is, if cooling is the right way to define a Tory leadership contest getting under way under a caretaker Prime Minister, the Labour party close to ripping its own head off and disputing ownership of the body, and Nicola Sturgeon in Brussels opening talks for Scotland with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker.
Astonishingly, the mayhem described above seems somehow slightly less manic than the weekend, where no-one had any idea what was going on. It seems that the Civil Service may be exerting a steadying hand behind the scenes, and the risks of rash moves are receding. It is clearer now that we have not suddenly turned hard Right, we are not going to be seeking UKIP in the Cabinet, that Vote Leave wasn’t a political party and that there is still no real plan. More voices are appearing urging caution, reminding us that Parliament is still sovereign. The conflicting promises and scenarios offered by the Leave campaign are becoming clearer, even though those who offered them are still in hiding or writing articles for the Daily Telegraph (they were journalists, after all).
So, apres le deluge, we have this pause. Not a celebration after the storm as in Beethoven’s Pastoral symphony, but a curious and unprecedented moment where Prime Minister’s Questions seems to go on as normal and all concerned are playing their roles as if nothing much was happening – even discussing a question about a children’s birthday card competition. (This is laudable in itself, but seems to many not to really be focusing on the issues at hand.)
One reason for this is that pretty much all those in power are, for the next weeks, not really in power. It’s not at all usual to have two dead-men-walking facing each other over the dispatch boxes. As nobody is in a position to make much in the way of a decision, we don’t have a decision of any kind – other than to hurry up and wait. ‘Notyexit’ has arrived.
Notyexit means that we are not exiting – yet. Article 50 has not yet been triggered. Nobody is in a position to trigger it, pending the arrival of a new Prime Minister. David Cameron has returned from Brussels having not triggered it accidentally, like someone who scratches their nose at an auction and ends up unwittingly buying a collection of Victorian mousetraps. Lord Turnbull, former head of the Civil Service, has said in an under-reported meeting of the Treasury Select Committee this week (look at 17.31 on Tuesday), that it shouldn’t be triggered until we have a firm and collective idea of what we want, which may not be until Spring 2017 – after which time France and Germany have elections and will have other things to worry about. That would alarm the other EU leaders, but there seems as yet to be no way they can force us to pull the trigger.
The first signs of Notyexit are the rising stock markets – the FTSE 100 index is now higher than it was last Thursday evening, when the markets were assuming a Remain win. (The FTSE 250 index of smaller companies is still somewhat lower.) This doesn’t reflect that Brexit will be fine for the markets – it merely means that for the time being nothing catastrophic will happen, which is itself a step forward from the mayhem of last Friday. We might hope that experienced hands are now reaching for the day-to-day processes of government and that some greater degree of rationality (made unfashionable by Johnson and Gove over the past weeks) may prevail.
How long will Notyexit continue? It seems likely to be at least until 9 September 2016, when the Tory party plans to announce their (and our) new leader. Then whoever that is will come under pressure from Mrs Merkel and the others to trigger Article 50, but will plead for time to build a cabinet and to agree a position. So that’s October. There will undoubtedly be calls for an early election – very understandable given the utterly different context from May 2015 when the Cameron government was narrowly given an overall majority. Politicians hate fighting elections in the winter when it’s cold on the streets… And then there is the not-so-small issue of parliamentary approval for a position and for activating withdrawal. So Lord Turnbull’s assessment of spring 2017 seems quite feasible, perhaps even optimistic. Notyexit might be around for quite a while.
And who knows where we will be by then. If a week was a long time in politics in Harold Wilson’s day, next spring is a galaxy far, far away.