When I was a kid, my cassette recorder got jammed on fast-forward, after I dropped it. That’s what British politics feels like since that Brexit vote. Resignations, recriminations, a Conservative leadership battle where the Brexiteers consumed each other, then imploded, a Labour opposition ripping itself apart. The fast-forwarding didn’t let up today – the day when power was actually handed over.
It was perhaps fitting that David Cameron’s last set-piece event, was Prime Minister’s Questions. He’s always been at his best at the despatch box – a sharp political mind, combined with quick humour and a brutal put-down. Jeremy Corbyn was again the butt of most of his jokes, as the Labour leader squirmed. I’ll come back to Labour later.
The tributes to the Prime Minister were many, warm and genuine. David Cameron machine-gunned the stats about saving the economy, about improving education, about jobs, about bringing in gay marriage. It would have been easier, perhaps, if he had worn an old fashioned sandwich board that screamed „My legacy is not just Brexit”.
Most brutal when you exit the place
A standing ovation from MPs, and then it was back to Downing Street for a last bit of packing. When I go on holiday, I throw everything I can into the biggest suitcase and then get my wife to sit on the lid, so I can zip it up. I’m sure it was a bit more dignified than that behind the door of Number 10 Downing Street, but probably not much.
British politics is at its most brutal when you exit that place. The Camerons had just two days to pack up their things and ship them out. For the civil servants it’s effectively „The King is dead, long live the King”, as they prepare immediately for the new incumbent. So, the last touches done – David Cameron left Downing Street. I remember seeing Margaret Thatcher wait till she got to the car before wiping a tear. I was there when Gordon Brown came out with his two sons.
Today, as I was reporting for BBC World News, David Cameron – not even 50 – left the place he’s occupied for six years. He said it had been a lovely home for his three children to grow up in and his wife had kept him ‘vaguely sane’. He couldn’t have dreamed it would end like this. He did well to disguise the disappointment, in his final comments. Dignified, another chance to set out his legacy – and then he was gone – the final journey to Buckingham Palace. And that was that.
With seamless choreography, Theresa May’s car swept her into the Palace not long after. The first chance for the Queen to welcome her 13th Prime Minister – the third who wasn’t even born when she came to the throne. The ‘kissing of hands’, although I’m not sure that actually gets done; a private conversation, the first picture. Then the journey back to Downing Street as the country’s new leader.
Talking about fast-forward
On Monday, Theresa May thought she had two months to sort out her plans, what her government might look, the direction. Two days later, we were streaming live on the BBC as she was there outside Number 10, telling the country how honoured she felt, how she would govern for everyone, the challenge of implementing Brexit. She describes herself as, „not showy”, someone who just gets on with the job. And boy, what a job she faces.
Once the welcomes were done – the work began – with her first Cabinet. Gone was the Chancellor, George Osborne, a serious break with the past. In came Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary. David Davis, an ardent Eurosceptic was put in charge of the Brexit negotiations. One Conservative MP described the next 72 hours, as a period where you have to „endlessly congratulate others, while secretly thinking, it should have been me!”
The relationship with Europe is the issue that will dominate the next few years. Such is the speed of events, other governments wait to learn what the British position will be. Capitals like Delhi and Beijing will also watch with interest, to see if their relationship with Britain changes. Expanding trade in those markets will be critical, if there’s to be a counter-weight to the economic hit that’s expected with Europe.
Know what Brexit means
As Theresa May mapped out the direction of the Conservatives domestically, the Labour opposition is in total freefall. It is open warfare between most of the Labour MPs who think that Jeremy Corbyn is not up to it, and the leader, who says he has massive support from the grassroots.
A leadership battle has started and could end up splitting the party. Perhaps as voters have realigned over recent years, political parties are ultimately going to have to do the same. And so the day closes – with a new occupant in Number 10. And yet, with a parliamentary majority of just twelfe for Theresa May, there are huge difficulties ahead. Every relationship, both domestically and internationally, is going to have to be redefined.
As he delivered his final Prime Minister’s Question Time, David Cameron was teased about perhaps becoming the next England football manager or the next presenter of the TV programme Top Gear – but the veteran Conservative Ken Clarke made a more serious plea. He said, „no two people know what Brexit means” and he urged the former Prime Minister to continue to advise from the side lines.
Not sure what Theresa May made of that. But Mr. Cameron rehashed his famous putdown of Tony Blair, when he told him „you were the future once”. Today he wryly observed: „I was the future once”. For him, that’s how it ends. For Theresa May this is how it starts. As for my old cassette recorder, the fast forwarding did eventually stop. But it was never quite the same.