4 Things to Expect in British Politics Now the Dust Has Settled
The 30 days following the EU referendum may well go down as one of the most incredible and frantic months in the history of British politics.
In the early hours of the 24th June, it became clear that despite virtually everyone’s predictions (especially those of hedge funds with a lot of money riding on guessing correctly), Britain had in fact voted to leave the European Union. And from there, it felt like about five years’ worth of news was happening in one go.
Cameron resigned, triggering a Conservative Party leadership contest. Nigel Farage resigned, triggering a UKIP leadership contest. A flurry of Labour ministers resigned and Labour MPs voted 172-40 that they had no confidence in their leader, Jeremy Corbyn. The Conservative leadership contest was a fractious week-and-a-bit long, leaving Theresa May leader of the party and Prime Minister despite no one but Conservative MPs getting the chance to vote. Angela Eagle and Owen Smith launched bids for the Labour Party leadership, triggering yet another leadership contest. And that’s only the briefest of overviews.
But Parliament’s summer recess has now arrived and we have a new Prime Minister, so it looks as if it might be possible to write an article like this without it being out of date three hours later. After the insanity of the first month of Brexit, here’s what is likely to happen next.
1. The Labour leadership contest
The Conservative Party’s leadership contest was unusually fast even by their standards, but the way the contest is run helps ensure a speedy decision, with candidates whittled down rapidly to the final two by the votes of MPs, before being put to a vote of party members. (Andrea Leadsom’s decision to pull out of the race after getting into the final two, leaving Theresa May the de facto winner, is what made this contest so very quick.
Labour Party leadership contests, however, tend to last rather longer. This time, ballot papers will be sent out from the 22nd August, and the result announced on the 24th September, two months after the deadline for supporters to sign up to vote.
This long election period should mean a chance for the candidates to have a thorough debate, leading to a better contest. But that seems unlikely to happen this time around. The contest has come about because the current leader, Jeremy Corbyn – elected just last September – is hugely unpopular among MPs while being hugely popular among Labour Party members, especially the massive wave of members who joined specifically in order to support him. For many Labour members, he represents the party that they truly believe in and thought they had lost to the compromises of the New Labour era. Labour MPs, however, point to his poll ratings of -41 – a record low for an Opposition leader at this stage of his tenure.
Standing against Corbyn is Owen Smith, a relative unknown, who has presented himself as a unity candidate. But it is hard to see how the stark divide between Labour’s Corbynites and its other members can be healed. The party has already had to warn that activists engaging in abusive behaviour will lose their right to vote in the contest, Smith has claimed that under Corbyn, there has been a “culture of bullying”, and a third possible leadership contest, Angela Eagle, had a brick thrown through her office window after she announced her intention to stand (she later withdrew). It seems likely that the contest will only become more unpleasant from here – especially now that Parliament is in recess, and so the media will have fewer other things to focus their attention on.
Right now, it seems very likely that Corbyn will win again, possibly with an even greater majority than last time. Owen Smith’s vote in favour of renewing Trident, the UK’s nuclear weapons system, is just one example of many policy positions he has held that are anathema to hardline left-wing Corbyn supporters, and those supporters make up an increasing percentage of the Labour Party’s membership. Swaying some of them to Smith would be essential if he wants to win, but it will be an uphill battle.
2. Other party leadership contests
But Labour and the Conservatives aren’t the only parties to have leadership contests. Nigel Farage, leader of UKIP, achieved his political dream when Britain voted in favour of leaving the EU on the 23rd June – and promptly resigned as leader on the 4th July, citing a desire to live a more normal life again.
Meanwhile, the Green Party has been having a leadership election much more quietly. Their constitution mandates that an election must be held every two years, and the current leader, Natalie Bennett, announced in May that she would not be standing again, having been leader for four years.
The two contests should be quite similar, on paper – both parties have just one MP, and both sets of candidates are mostly unknown. But the fact that Corbyn will – presumably – continue to lead Labour casts a shadow over both. Corbyn is extremely popular with Green Party voters, and it’s likely that the Greens have lost a good deal of their support over the past year as their supporters have defected to Labour. Who leads the Green Party is much less important than it might have seemed at the general election last year, when all the discussion was about a Green surge that never really materialised.
By contrast, UKIP’s star has never been brighter – they’ve achieved their Brexit mission, they’re polling around 15%, and they picked up four million votes in the last general election. The Labour voters who dislike Corbyn, who are predominantly socially conservative and working class, are being courted as a key target for UKIP. UKIP have never been able to get more than one MP, but the next general election might be crucial for them to make inroads into Labour seats.
It’s hard to find much reporting on the Green Party race, but the likely frontrunners seem to be Caroline Lucas – who led the party to great heights as leader from 2008 to 2012, and who is its sole MP – and Jonathan Bartley, who is standing with her on a joint ticket; they plan to job-share the role.
Many key figures are ruled out of the UKIP leadership contest. For instance, one of their most well-known politicians, Suzanne Evans, is currently suspended from the party after her repeated rows with Farage, though she is lobbying for the rules to be changed. The probable frontrunner is Steven Woolfe, an MEP who has said he will “ruthlessly” target Labour voters, in a change from UKIP’s usual tactic of concentrating on Conservative seats or Conservative-Labour marginals.
2. New political parties or groupings to be formed
The spectre in the background of all of these contests is the question of whether the political parties the candidates are vying to lead will even exist in their current form by the end of next year.
If Corbyn wins the Labour leadership election and it becomes clear that he intends to carry on until the next general election and beyond, many Labour MPs, opposed to his policies and his leadership style, will look to leaving the party. On the other hand, in the unlikely event that Smith wins, Corbyn’s own faction may choose to leave the Labour Party instead – perhaps setting up under the banner of Momentum, the pro-Corbyn campaign group within Labour.
Meanwhile, a split in the Conservatives was averted by the election of Theresa May – 20 MPs had threatened to quit if her rival, Andrea Leadsom, had won instead. The Greens and the Liberal Democrats have both raised the option of an alliance of progressive parties, who would work together to support a close relationship between Britain and the EU, and seek to oust the Conservatives. That idea was given a recent boost by the launch of More United, a political start-up intended to help crowdfund the campaigns of progressive, pro-EU parliamentary candidates. If the Labour Party did split, the prospect of some kind of alliance between the anti-Corbyn chunk, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens would also be a possibility.
And finally, even a party with just one MP might get to have a split of its own. One of the party’s biggest donors, the millionaire Arron Banks, has suggested starting a new political party to target conservatives as well as “the patriotic working-class voters who rejected the Blairite left on referendum day”. He remains a keen UKIP supporter – but has mooted the idea of a new party should UKIP “[temper themselves] to create another bland, centrist party”. The implication of his writings on the subject is also that UKIP or his new party should try to poach some of the current Conservative MPs who had supported Andrea Leadsom over Theresa May.
British political parties tend to be stable, and in particular, many are haunted by the history of the 1980s, when a group of Labour MPs left to form the Social Democratic Party, which then merged with the Liberals to form the Liberal Democrats. Neither the SDP nor the Liberal Democrats have ever had the degree of influence over British politics that they wanted, and it’s the hope of many current anti-Corbyn Labour MPs that they will be able to force Corbyn out of the party, rather than being forced out of it themselves.
3. Article 50 to be triggered – or delayed
Though Britain voted in favour of leaving the EU on 23rd June, the actual process of leaving doesn’t begin until we trigger Article 50, from which point we would have two years to negotiate our exit before we would cease to be an EU member state.
The difficulty for Theresa May is that once Article 50 is triggered, it’s final – there isn’t a cooling-off period where it can be un-triggered again. And what British people want varies significantly. There are the 48% who voted Remain, who would presumably prefer that Article 50 not be triggered at all. But even among the 52% there’s a remarkable diversity of viewpoints. Some would like an EEA-plus option which would be as close as possible to remaining an EU member state while not having ‘European Union’ on our passports, while others would prefer the opposite extreme, operating by World Trade Organisation rules and restricting immigration as much as possible – and of course, every variation of opinion in between. Whatever form Brexit takes, it seems like that a majority of the population won’t like it.
The ideal approach would be to negotiate a Brexit deal before triggering Article 50, possibly even having a general election with the deal on the table so that the government that implements it definitely has a mandate to do so. But most European countries have made it clear that they won’t commit to negotiations before Article 50 is triggered – which makes sense, as the longer it takes to trigger Article 50, the longer the current period of damaging uncertainty is extended.
So instead, May has to decide when to trigger Article 50 in the knowledge that the two-year period might not be at all sufficient for a thorough negotiation – and that if the negotiations fail to produce a satisfactory deal, she will be blamed, for all that she supported Remain. Despite pressure from other European leaders, the temptation to put off triggering Article 50 until there’s some more clarity about the possible deals available and what British voters would accept is understandable. Currently, the date for triggering Article 50 seems likely to be early January, but that may well change.
The other related question is when the next general election will be. By law, it doesn’t have to happen until May 2020, but May could call a general election much sooner. It was David Cameron’s government rather than hers that won the last election, and Gordon Brown’s decision not to call a general election after taking over following Tony Blair’s resignation is thought to have contributed to him losing the 2010 election. Calling an election would allow May to propose a Brexit deal – even if she couldn’t be sure of securing it – and then go into negotiations with a clear mandate. It would also be likely to increase her majority significantly; the Conservatives are currently on track for a 100-seat majority at the next election (May currently has a majority of 12). But political parties are currently recovering from fighting the referendum campaign just a year on from the general election, and to call an election now might seem opportunistic. Either way, it should become clear before Christmas whether there will be a general election before 2020, and when Article 50 will be triggered – and thus, what the whole future of British politics will look like.
Image credits: ripped eu flag; downing street; farage; eagle; lucas and ramsay; corbyn; may; union flag