It has been a traumatic month for politics in the United Kingdom. 30 days ago, believe it or not, the result of the EU referendum was announced. While the real effects of Brexit are still to be experienced, the 30 days since the announcement have seen major upheaval within the two major parties: the resignation of David Cameron as Prime Minister and a Vote of No Confidence in Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. That’s just the first seven days…
The events of the 23rd June 2016, or “Independence Day” as it was coined by Nigel Farage, set the benchmark for a month of surprises. While opinion polls on the eve of the referendum over Britain’s continued membership of the European Union had indicated an increasingly competitive contest between the ‘Leave’ and ‘Remain’ campaigns, few research groups actually predicted that the leave campaign would emerge victorious. Over 33 million citizens attended polling stations, 72.2% of those eligible to vote, which suggested greater English voter engagement in politics than at any point since the 1992 UK General Election. Conversely, turnout for the 18-24 year old vote struggled as only 64% of registered 18-24 year olds went to the polls to vote, dramatically lower than turnout levels registered by older age groups.
The morning of the 24th June sent political shockwaves across Britain. Many woke to see Leave secure a slim majority over Remain: 51.9% to 48.1% of the popular vote. Southampton, like many of the major cities on the South coast, also voted to leave the EU with 53.8% of citizens voting in favour of Brexit. In the days that followed various attempts to protest the result materialised, for instance a petition to run a second EU referendum gaining over 4 million signatures. However, on the 9th July the Foreign Office firmly rejected these protests, instead calling upon citizens to ‘respect the wishes of the 33 million voters’. Article 50 is yet to be triggered, yet the effects of Brexit have already proved significant, particularly when the economic and diplomatic factors are considered. Similarly, discussions with Germany and France have already begun over the terms of Britain’s future withdrawal from the European Union, which is expected to fall within the coming year.
Brexit has only served to revitalise efforts by the Scottish National Party to emphasise Scotland’s differences from the rest of the UK, and attempt to secure a second Scottish Independence referendum. The Scottish Vote strongly opposed that of the rest of the United Kingdom, as 62% of Scots voted to remain in the European Union on June 23rd, and with such a clear mandate from Scottish voters it is likely that the case for Scottish Independence will be revisited.
Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced on the 24th June that a second referendum was “highly likely”. She also contacted the European Union in the upcoming days to make the case for Scotland to remain a part of the EU, albeit unsuccessfully. However, the proximity of a second Independence referendum being decided is contentious, as the results of the EU referendum came only two years after the last Scottish Independence referendum. In a meeting with Nicola Sturgeon on July 15th, new Prime Minister Theresa May declared that while she was prepared to consider all options for Scotland, the will of the people had already been made clear in 2014. This debate is far from settled.
Prime Minister David Cameron was the first casualty of Brexit. He announced on the morning of the EU referendum result that ‘fresh leadership’ was needed to deliver the will of the British people. While Cameron originally planned to remain as Prime Minister for a further three months to ‘steady the ship’ and safeguard Britain’s transition away from the European Union, the hurried Conservative leadership contest accelerated his official handover to July 13th. Cameron’s final words in Prime Minister’s Questions resonated strongly both with voters and parliamentarians of the future:
I was the future once
Initial successors to replace David Cameron as leader of the Conservative Party included a variety of figures from the Leave campaign, most notably Boris Johnson. Yet, Boris’s decision not to run reduced the Conservative contest to a five-horse race, pitting fellow Leave supporters Michael Gove, Andrea Leadsom and Liam Fox against Remain supporters Theresa May and Stephen Crabb.
However, the Conservative race, unlike Brexit, was relatively anticlimactic. Both Fox and Crabb dropped out of the contest after the first round of Parliamentary voting on July 5th. Gove was later eliminated after the second round of voting on the July 7th. Although the contest between May and Leadsom should have been decided by Conservative Party Members, Leadsom’s withdrawal on the 11th July handed Theresa May an early, if somewhat controversial, victory.
Despite controversy surrounding Theresa May’s popular mandate as Prime Minister, her actions once elected leader have been anything but uncertain. In her first week as Prime Minister, May cleared out David Cameron’s old cabinet ministers to replace them with her new team. George Osborne, Cameron’s long standing ally and Chancellor of the Exchequer, was replaced by Philip Hammond, in one of many sweeping reforms finalised on July 14th. Eurosceptic David Davis was named Secretary of State for the newly created Ministry for Britain’s Exit of the European Union, while Boris Johnson’s appointment as Foreign Secretary has already been heavily scrutinised. At his first news conference as Foreign Secretary, American journalists questioned Johnson’s suitability for the role following his comments about President Barack Obama’s ‘part-Kenyan’ heritage.
Meanwhile, the Labour Party is undergoing a similar identity crisis caused by Brexit. Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has come under intense scrutiny since the referendum, with criticisms levelled that Corbyn was not decisive or influential enough to persuade the party faithful to vote Remain. Indeed Labour MP for the Rhonnda Chris Bryant urged Jeremy Corbyn to resign early to avoid the label of:
The man who broke the leader party
In the coming days Corbyn would receive resignation letters from many members of his shadow cabinet, including Angela Eagle on June 26th, who claimed that ‘we need a leader who can unite rather than divide the Labour Party’. Despite formidable opposition, epitomised by an overwhelming 172 to 40 Vote of No Confidence in Corbyn from Labour MP’s on June 28th, Corbyn continually declared that his support from Trade Unions and Labour Party members gave him a sufficient mandate to stay on and fight to be leader.
The ensuing Labour leadership contest was originally a three-horse race between Corbyn, former shadow Secretary of State for Business Angela Eagle and former Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions Owen Smith. Despite his lack of Parliamentary support. Labour’s National Executive Committee decided that Corbyn should be automatically added to the ballot as current leader.
Each candidate initially declared themselves to be the ‘Unity’ candidate to re-unite the bipolar party. However, on the 19th July Angela Eagle withdrew from the race to support Smith’s candidacy after he secured a greater number of Parliamentary nominations, most notably from former party leader Ed Miliband. The leadership battle itself is set to be decided by Labour Party members. Early opinion polls suggest that Corbyn has a commanding lead over Smith. The final decision is expected to be announced on the 24th September 2016.
The Labour Party was further dragged through the mud with the release of the Chilcot report, which was finally published on July 6th. The report, delivered by John Chilcot, held former Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair culpable for an unjust and illegitimate invasion of Iraq. and highlighted poor military practice once war had commenced, in addition to inadequate post-war planning of how Iraq should be governed following the war’s conclusion.
Many of these findings were already established, for instance the controversy surrounding Iraq’s possession of Weapons of Mass Destruction. However, the report also uncovered a series of documents passed between Tony Blair and George Bush, in which Blair promised unwavering military support to Bush.
The report has also led to increased criticism of Blair. A House of Commons debate is now scheduled to consider the extent to which Blair misled the House when convincing members that Saddam Hussein possessed Weapons of Mass Destruction and posed a threat to the United Kingdom.
With the Labour leadership battle ongoing, the UK’s reconfigured Parliament’s first decision focused on the renewal of Trident, the UK’s nuclear missile programme. and whether it boosts national security in the 21st century. Debates in the build-up to the vote centred on the security risk should Trident be abandoned, with Defence Secretary Michael Fallon asserting that Trident provides “a very cheap insurance policy” against the dangers posed today by global terrorism.
On July 19th, Parliament voted strongly in favour of renewing Trident, with 472 MP’s in favour of renewing the scheme over 117 in favour of scrapping the programme. Yet in the wake of the vote, Scottish National Party MP Mhairi Black condemned the programme, critiquing it for simply as a display of power and a means for the UK to remain on the UN Security Council. She argued that any practical use of Trident to fight terrorism is both impractical and unrealistic.
However the significance of the vote to renew Trident is not limited simply to concerns over security and prestige. It also acted as a strong indicator of party loyalty after three weeks of party infighting and divide. While the Conservatives voted almost unanimously in favour of retention, and the Scottish National Party and the Liberal Democrats voted unanimously to scrap the programme, the vote further illustrated the increasingly apparent divisions within the Labour Party. The rebellion of 140 Labour MP’s against Jeremy Corbyn’s urge to vote against renewal epitomised the Vote of No Confidence and deep rooted division within the party.
Another casualty of the EU referendum may well ironically be the UK Independence Party. The Brexit vote was the manifestation of a long-term vision, and with that goal achieved UKIP’s electability in the eyes of the voters is now questionable, particularly when the popularity of UKIP’s other policies are considered. Nigel Farage’s parting shot to the European Parliament, ‘you’re not laughing now’, symbolised the mountain that UKIP had surmounted in bringing the UK out of the EU, but it is difficult to now see what the future of UKIP will be. Indeed it seems likely that now the Conservative Party has created a ‘Brexit ministry’ to guide Britain’s exit from the European Union, UKIP voters will flock to a more electable and moderate Conservative Party.
UKIP’s difficulties are further enhanced following the resignation of leader Nigel Farage on July 4th, just over a year after his first short-lived resignation following the 2015 UK General Election result. He claimed that he has now “achieved his political ambition’ and was not motivated to be a career politician.
While successors to Farage are lining up, UKIP’s only MP Douglas Carswell has reportedly ruled himself out of running. It is likely that the race will be fought between Steven Woolfe, Diane James, and Jonathon Arnott. The 2015 UK General Election provides an effective example of UKIP’s future problems. UKIP’s strife in the 2015 General Election, despite having an outspoken leader and being seen as a viable protest vote to the Conservatives and Labour party, were epitomised by only securing one seat to represent their four million voters due to the outdated First Past the Post electoral system. In the absence of a strong leader and now aimless agenda, UKIP’s popularity in future elections may only decline.
As the House of Commons heads into its summer recess, many implications caused by the Brexit vote will only become more relevant in the weeks and months to come. The last 30 days have proven highly significant for both the short and long-term futures of Britain, and heading into this Brave New World the future both for Britain and her major parties is anything but certain.