Nothing beats it in 36 years as a journalist. And even if I work for another 36, nothing can surely match the final seven days of June 2016. The equivalent of ten years of news was crammed into one week. Our politics turned Shakespearean after the sedate, gentlemanly decades of post-war British democracy.
Friday breakfast after the Brexit vote, pandemonium breaks out as the prime minister quits and politicians flock to the TV encampment at Westminster. Peter Mandelson tells me he wouldn’t blame the Scots if they now voted for independence so as to stay in the EU. But there is so much going on I can’t get his remarks on screen.
Donald Trump’s visit to Britain gets barely a mention. Despite the huge economic uncertainty, George Osborne isn’t seen in public for three days. The Home Secretary is even less visible. ‘Is Osborne still alive?’ I tweet mischievously. ‘Or has he eloped to Brazil with Theresa May?’
We awake on Sunday to Labour turmoil too. Jeremy Corbyn has sacked Hilary Benn, and then we get hour-by-hour resignations from his front bench. I doorstep several of them, but feel guilty as I notice Angela Eagle is in tears.
Monday night, we hear shouts and cheers through the doors of a crammed committee room as Corbyn is ripped apart by Labour MPs, then go out to see him hailed a hero by 1,500 angry activists in Parliament Square. On Tuesday, Labour MPs declare no confidence in Corbyn by an astonishing 172 votes to 40. More unprecedented still, he refuses to resign. Off camera, I’m astonished at how even supposed Corbyn allies say he must go.
I tweet frantically – snippets of news, rumours, jokes – and gain 1,000 Twitter followers a day. Normally that number would take at least three weeks.
Thursday reveals another overnight stabbing. Michael Gove, who had been running Boris Johnson’s campaign for the Tory leadership, suddenly declares he is standing too. Later that morning, Johnson toys with journalists who have come to his leadership launch. ‘That person cannot be me,’ concludes the man once favourite.
And the following week was almost as eventful: Nigel Farage resigns; Conservative MPs decide one of two women should be the next Prime Minister, only for one of them to later throw in the towel; and Angela Eagle challenges Jeremy Corbyn.
After the extraordinarily fraught Referendum contest, much we took for granted in British politics has been trashed.
That week Westminster journalism was frenetic but also simple – open, raw and dramatic. Big names were available on tap. Calls were returned; texts pinged back from figures who had once ignored me. One shadow cabinet adviser rang exhorting me to embarrass a colleague the next day. Instead of our normal trade, deciphering the code of what politicians said, the dialogue was blunt enough for a child. So Boris Johnson’s supporters openly denounced Gove’s ‘treachery’, and the trade unionist Len McCluskey accused his former flatmate Tom Watson of ‘sabotage’.
It’s as if a faithful married couple had stumbled into a swingers’ party, and suddenly decided, ‘This is the life’. Can normal existence ever be restored?
And, as if the post-Brexit chaos weren’t enough history for now, thank you, we finally got the Chilcot report – all 2.6 million words on arguably the biggest foreign policy disaster since Munich. And the Iraq war is really where the revolt of 2016 started. Add to that the Blair government decision, with little debate, to encourage mass immigration to boost growth (and, some might say, Labour votes), and the 2008 financial crisis. Politicians and their advisers were hugely discredited. Then we had the added British ingredient of the MPs’ expenses scandal which ended up with more politicians in jail than at any time since the 18th century.
No wonder new parties emerged – the Scottish Nationalists, the Greens, Respect, above all, UKIP, whose threat forced Cameron to concede the referendum. The advent in recent years of new elections under various forms of PR – for the European Parliament, the Scottish, Welsh and London assemblies; and for mayors and police commissioners – helped erode party loyalties and promote electoral promiscuity.
As both main parties turn this summer to their members to determine their future direction, the talk is of realignment. Could the cross-party Remain and Leave alliances of 2016 develop into permanent parties? Labour seems in danger of a split between MPs and its grassroots. A new left-leaning Liberal-Labour-Green party looks a genuine possibility. The aftershocks will resound for decades. And who knows, the world may come to terms with Johnson as foreign secretary.