Commentary: UK leaders scramble to stop Brexit being Brexit after all

Britain’s political leaders are now in the melancholy position of watching their power drain away, even as they must continue to wield it till their enemies take charge. Prime Minister David Cameron and his friend Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne belong to the segment of the British establishment that never lost its wealth, social privileges and access to political preference.

British Prime Minister David Cameron (L), his wife Samantha (C) and Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne attend a National Service of Thanksgiving to mark Queen Elizabeth's 90th birthday at St Paul's Cathedral in London, June 10, 2016. REUTERS/Matt Dunham/Pool

Born into wealth (both); elite private schools – Eton (Cameron) and St. Paul’s (Osborne); Oxford (both); the Bullingdon upper-class drinking club (both); short spells in the media (both); Conservative Research Department (both); married upper-middle-class, distantly aristocratic women of Conservative family (both); and rapid advancement in politics since becoming members of Parliament in 2001 (both).

Their privilege is lightly worn so as not to grate on any but those determined to feel patronized. Their sense of duty to the nation is clearly strong. Yet the confidence which birth, upbringing and early success brought them probably contributed to the gamble they took in asking the nation whether or not it wanted to remain a member of the European Union – a question to which they sought, with growing urgency, to receive a positive answer.

Faced with a negative in the Brexit vote last week — a vote springing mainly from the older parts of the less privileged classes — they have intoned the humble response that “the people have spoken,” and what they have said must be respected and acted upon.

But will it? Will this these new-old establishment figures, born to rule and to accept the consequences of rule, roll over? Or, like the 20th century’s Best Brit Winston Churchill, will they proclaim “We will never surrender!” (Even to our own people).

The will of that people will only be served if the establishment allows it. That establishment is virtually all the institutions in Britain -- the heads of banks, corporations, businesses; the leaders of (most) trade unions; the chancellors of universities, plus political and financial leaders around the world. The future acts of this drama may contain not just constitutional upheaval, EU turbulence and economic decline, but a battle between a global elite and a narrow majority of British voters.

The economic decline is evident enough. Markets suffered their worst falls in many years. Many global equities dropped up to 10 percent and investors scurried for Treasury bonds and gold. The dollar strengthened from 1.5 against the pound, to near 1.3, with sterling hitting a 31-year low.

Osborne called for calm earlier this week, but that didn’t stop a continuing slide in the FTSE index. Britain lost its AAA credit rating. The contagion spreads: Italy’s fragile banking sector saw its shares plunge on the Milan exchange.

“When Britain sneezes,” said Lorenzo Codogno, a former director-general of the Italian treasury, “Italy catches a cold. It is the weakest link in the European chain.”

It isn’t possible to know if it will get worse, or better. Or at what level the British economy will settle. It’s unlikely to cause a global financial panic, and it won’t have much, if any, effect on many of the world’s largest political problems. But the consequences are likely bad enough for Britain, and possibly even worse for the European Union, for the establishments to seek ways out. That means one thing above all: Defying the will of the British people.

It can be done. Only a day after the popular will was said to be paramount, British Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt hinted at a way for the United Kingdom to remain part of the European Union – even as he prefaced his comments with “the people have spoken – and Parliament must listen.”

“We did not vote on the terms of our departure,” said Hunt. “It is now imperative we are clear-headed about what deal we need as a country and what our plan is to get there.”

Hunt’s plan, now being discussed in various forms within the shell-shocked, warring Labour Party as well as the triumphantly pro-EU Scottish National Party, rests on the view that the people cannot be said to have properly spoken until they know what the deal with the EU will be.

The first indications are that it will be tough. The core of the argument is the insistence that if Britain wants continued access to the single EU market, with no tariff barriers, it must accept Europeans freely moving to Britain -- the main reason the majority voted to leave.

That sounds like a circle impossible to square. Cameron, speaking on a rough day for him in Brussels on Tuesday, said that the European Union must relax rigid rules laying down that the populations of all member states have an absolute right to move, work and receive benefits everywhere.

That’s where a deal may be done, and where Britain may find allies, particularly as the Brexit example starts to look more attractive to rising sections of the electorate in France, Italy, the Netherlands, Sweden and even Germany.

If a deal on free movement can be done – probably along the lines of giving the receiving countries some ability to limit it, and to limit welfare payments -- then Brexit may be avoided. Another referendum on the terms of the deal may be possible. This time, the establishments would expect the people to vote “Remain.”

This will be the underlying dynamic of the next weeks and months. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, EU dealmaker and breaker-in-chief, talks tough but will play the exit process long enough to allow a possible agreement to emerge. Then, either Britain will remain formally outside of the European Union -- as Norway -- but in the single market and with most of the duties and advantages. Or a second referendum, with the right answer, allows it to sail back in.

Will the establishments have the nerve to confront the masses? Will the masses be frightened enough to let them? Like much else that has happened since the referendum, we just don’t know.

About the Author

John Lloyd co-founded the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, where he is Senior Research Fellow. Lloyd has written several books, including “What the Media Are Doing to Our Politics”; 2004; . He is also a contributing editor at FT and the founder of FT Magazine.

The views expressed in this article are not those of Reuters News.