The economy, the union and the promises made during the referendum campaign are theirs to safeguard
In the terminal days of his premiership, David Cameron told audiences that “Brits don’t quit”. Enemies used the line against him when he resigned last Friday but, really, both sides had it wrong. Since when is quitting always and everywhere a vice? Total commitment to something — a relationship, a job, a cause — in the face of all practical evidence is nobody’s idea of a life intelligently lived.
Pro-Europeans must learn to see the virtue in retreat. Spurred by the 48 per cent of voters on their side and the British impulse to make the best of things, they want to influence whatever settlement emerges between their country and Europe in the coming years. Conservative Remainers such as Theresa May, the home secretary, still have ambitions to lead their party. The Remain campaign aspires to live on as the liberal conscience of the more probable next prime minister — Boris Johnson — by encouraging his openness to markets and migration against more nativist competitors for his ear.
This is all very plucky, but so is turning up to work after you have been sacked. The British people have instructed their rulers to leave the EU. The execution of their will is the work of years and soul-sapping detail. It cannot be done by a prime minister who believes the instruction was foolish in the first place. It is awkward enough that the technical process of extrication will be managed by reluctant, deflated civil servants.
None of this is pleasing to say as a Remainer but it is no less true for that. Imagine our reaction if, having lost the referendum by a four-point margin, the other side invoked their hefty vote share to justify a prominent perch in the making of European policy with a view to loosening the terms of membership.
Democracy, like sport, is governed by a cruel clarity. Forty-eight per cent of votes does not entitle pro-Europeans to 48 per cent of their manifesto or 48 per cent of major ministries. Victory and defeat are more absolute than that, and not out of some misplaced machismo. It is for the sake of accountability that winners take all in our system.
That accountability is now everything. Leavers have won what was essentially a referendum and a general election all in one. They must be responsible for the country in the coming years. The economy, the union and the commitments made during the referendum campaign are all theirs to safeguard. A European settlement that simultaneously satisfies Brussels and the 52 per cent is theirs to negotiate.
In his column in The Telegraph on Monday, Mr Johnson sketched a model of exit that seems to entail “access” to the single market — whatever that means — without paying in, observing its laws or honouring free movement. He did not say whether he also intends to bake a pie and put it in the sky. Whatever the sceptics, lacking his Homeric largeness of vision, think of his plan to cajole sentient heads of government into letting Britain systematically undercut them in their own market, he is entitled to try. Those of us who misjudged his potential to win the referendum cannot dismiss his capacity to bring something worthwhile out of it.
But Leavers will understand one thing on taking control. Mr Cameron and George Osborne, his chancellor, did not sex up the official advice they received about the economic costs of exit. If anything, they sexed it down to avoid the charge of lurid alarmism that came anyway. The private dreads of people at the summit of the British state were worse than was ever let on. Unless they are taken with a sudden intellectual sunniness, it will remain the advice that Mr Johnson and his ally Michael Gove, justice secretary, hear as the new masters.
The advice may turn out to be wrong but, on the morning after the referendum, the two men wore the haunted look of jokers at an auction whose playfully exorbitant bid for a vase had just been accepted with a chilling smash of the gavel. They must now govern as well as they campaigned.
Ms May is a serious politician. Stephen Crabb, work and pensions secretary, understands the economically insecure Britain that voted to Leave. But unless we are to make a mockery of the referendum these politicians cannot lead the nation. For the sake of democracy and accountability, Leavers must be left to it, whatever it turns out to be.