British Prime Minister David Cameron once warned that the peace and stability of Europe were at risk if the people voted to leave the European Union. The warning came to be derided by the "leave" camp as his Armageddon speech.
Well, the public duly voted to leave in last Thursday's shock referendum result. And, quicker than Cameron could possibly have imagined, Armageddon has broken out. The war is not on the battlefields of Europe, but in the bloody arena of British domestic politics.
Nobody has any clue how to proceed. Other European leaders have been preparing their strategies for a possible Brexit. While they might not agree on how quickly to move forward, or whether to punish Britain or try to reach a pragmatic deal, there is little sign of fundamental disagreement on the principles. If the U.K. wants out, so be it. It cannot have access to the single European market without also accepting the free movement of labor. Membership of the single market implies the right of all Europeans, from Greece and Poland in the East to France and Portugal in the West, to live and work in Britain. There will be no concessions on that. And if Germans and Italians can't work freely in Britain, Britons won't be able to work freely in in Germany or Italy.
On the British side there is no plan in place. The "remain" camp, led by the government, was unprepared to lose the referendum vote. The leavers, who campaigned on a promise that Britain would "take back control" from Europe, were unprepared for victory.
Prime Minister Cameron himself has already fallen on his sword. The Conservative Party, which he first called on to "stop banging on about Europe" and, when that didn't work, tried to unite by calling his ill-judged referendum, is now tearing itself apart as it battles to replace him. In the turmoil, the hard work of planning is on hold.
In the leadership struggle, much of the Brexit faction supports Boris Johnson, the charismatic former Mayor of London who led the "Vote Leave" campaign to a victory that seemed to take him by surprise. But Johnson is a journalist-turned-politician who in neither profession has ever let the facts get in the way of a good headline. So there is a powerful "stop Boris" campaign, supported by some more thoughtful and responsible Brexiteers as well as virtually everyone on the other side of the Conservative Party's great divide. He is seen as ill-suited to lead the country through a crisis largely of his own making.
Exactly who would have the stature and support to stand against him is unclear, although there are plenty of names being thrown about. But Britain is about to embark on the most difficult and important negotiation in a generation. The threat is not just to our economy, to our ability to trade with and offer financial services to the vast market of 450 million people on our doorstep. It is a threat to the to the rights of our own people to travel and work in Europe. The rights of the 1.2 million Britons working or in retirement in the EU are in the balance. Brexit will restrict the future choices of our children. It will reduce the options for British scientists to work with their continental peers, for British universities to take part in international initiatives and exchanges for British qualifications in medicine or teaching to be recognized abroad.
With so much at stake, Britain needs a leader with gravitas, not a shambling clown whose reputation with the crowd rests on his readiness to be photographed kissing a fish, waving a Cornish pasty, or hanging helplessly in mid-air after getting stuck on a zip-wire.
The parliamentary opposition, the Labour Party, is imploding too. The party failed to rally its base to the "remain" cause. Disaffected Labour supporters voted en masse for Brexit. Labour's hard-left leader, Jeremy Corbyn, a bland British version of Bernie Sanders, but without the skill at working crowds, is refusing to step down. But half his top officials have resigned in protest and are leading a revolt against him. The truth is, however, that the rebels are probably even further out of touch with the party base than the so-called Corbynistas. Neither the Liberal London elite of the parliamentary Labour Party nor the privately educated, independently wealthy Conservative leadership has much experience of insecurity or unemployment.
So: no leader, no effective opposition - and that's only the beginning. England and Wales voted overwhelmingly for Brexit. Scotland and Northern Ireland - the other two "home nations" of the United Kingdom - voted to remain. Scotland voted to remain in the U.K. in a 2014 referendum, but is now considering whether to ballot again. Scottish Nationalist Party leader Nicola Sturgeon is thrashing around for the constitutional ways to keep Scotland in the EU. Among other desperate ideas, she has said the Scottish regional parliament in Edinburgh might withhold legislative consent to legislation necessary for Brexit. Constitutionally and legally, she is likely to be on shaky ground. She might also have a tough time with the principle that it is wrong for the much larger population of England to impose its will on Scotland, but fine the other way round.
And yet it is not only Scotland that feels hard done by. Britain is used to parliamentary democracy. Lawmakers are elected to make decisions on the voters' behalf. After a general election, the government of the day usually gets its way, but minority voices can still make themselves heard. Especially when the government has a slim majority, concessions may have to be made to avoid punishment at the next election.
This referendum might have been a more direct form of democracy, but the 48% of the country who voted to Remain - including big majorities in London and the wealthier parts of Wales - now have no recourse.
It is true that in the parliament of the United Kingdom at Westminster, where lawmakers have the final say on foreign affairs and relations with the European Union, the opponents of Brexit are in a majority. Like their regional counterparts, and with greater constitutional authority, they could also hold up or block legislation related to Brexit. But to do so would likely be seen as a defiance of the will of the people.
And the end result would likely be an even worse form of limbo than the uncertainty which already awaits us over the coming months and years.