Some words are extensively overused in political debate. Journalists and academics are often guilty of peppering their analysis with words such as ‘catastrophic’, ‘extraordinary’, ‘seismic’, giving stories more gravitas, and more appeal than they might otherwise have. The extensive use of these words since the early hours of Friday 24th June is not only fitting, but actually doesn’t quite seem to express the magnitude of the events that are unfolding minute by minute, hour by hour, in the fallout from the EU referendum result. In some ways, the result itself has a become a mere backdrop to more immediate events, and its significance will only really become clear in the coming months, once domestic politics return back to ‘business as usual’ – or something like it.
The EU referendum result was shocking. While many are now arguing that they saw the writing on the wall well before last Thursday, the truth is, many of us, whether we be academics, journalists, or the man and woman on the street, did not see this as a realistic political reality. These enormous political changes rarely happen and the status quo is just that because it tends to weather the storms and carry on regardless. There will be no return to the status quo following this vote. That was clear on Friday morning as we watched David Cameron, voice breaking, resign as Prime Minister, and we watched Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, the victors, give a victory speech which reminded me very much of the last scenes from the Red Wedding in Game of Thrones. Indeed Gove and Johnson looked as surprised by the result as everyone else, and it is safe to say they didn’t look very victorious. In actual fact, they looked like men contemplating the massive impact of what they had done, and wondering if perhaps they hadn’t gone too far. What became very clear very quickly was that the ‘Vote Leave’ camp had been doing a very good job of papering over the cracks in their different attitudes by ignoring issues which would inevitably need dealing with in the event of a ‘No’ vote.
Within hours of the result being announced, Nigel Farage, when questioned by Susanna Reid, backed away from the Vote Leave promises on NHS spending, with Iain Duncan Smith telling Andrew Marr that the £350 million figure would not all be spent on the NHS and claiming that no promise had been made on that issue. The Vote Leave bus insignia would suggest otherwise. Daniel Hannan told Evan Davis on Newsnight that immigration would be unlikely to be substantially reduced, another key plank of the Vote Leave message. So, did the Vote Leave campaign lie? There is some suggestion that key individuals did promise £350 million a week would be diverted to the NHS and that immigration would be cut, but even those who did not make direct promises on immigration or health care spending knowingly allowed an impression to be created where some voters believed that was what they were voting for. That is not to say that everyone who voted to leave the EU believed these promises or was mislead, but there does seem to be strong justification that many voters were, at best, misled on these issues.
Other voters focused on sovereignty, an issue which was not fully explored during the campaign by either side. The Remain camp failed to highlight that the EU is, in many respects, more democratic than Westminster. The reasons for this perhaps highlight the fatal flaw at the heart of the Remain campaign. There is very little education provided in schools or in the media on the EU, an organisation which has a massive impact on all our lives. Regardless of your views on that institution, a key element of democracy is that the people should have knowledge of the bureaucratic systems which rule their lives, so they can change them if they wish. That has not been the case with the EU, an organisation which is often considered to be distant and remote, not a surprising conclusion to reach when you consider how little people know about it. That is not the fault of the public; that is the fault of politicians. For decades, British politicians, both Labour and Conservative, have allowed the EU to be blamed for unpopular policies. This has been convenient for them, as it has allowed them to distance themselves from policy repercussions that they wanted to avoid being blamed for, although those repercussions were rarely the fault of the EU. During the campaign, these same politicians, and their successors, were caught in a catch 22 position. They either had to accept responsibility for unpopular policies and the divisions these have created within society, such as spending cuts in the NHS or a lack of resources in Border Control meaning immigration controls were not being adhered to as strenuously as they could be, or blame the EU, an organisation they were desperately trying to save. There was no easy solution to this, with politicians such as David Cameron picking the middle ground, accepting no responsibility while not blaming the EU. This looked like the political equivalent of ‘dancing between the raindrops’ and it was.
So where do we go from here? The Conservative Party is now on the hunt for a new leader, a new Prime Minister. But who would want this poisoned challis? The next Prime Minister will be forced to trigger Article 50, whether it be on their first day in the job or later, and may well oversee the separation of the United Kingdom. Who would want that job? Boris Johnson, who many view as the figurehead of the Vote Leave campaign, will undoubtedly stand but many not win. As the man who destroyed Cameron (with some considerable help from Cameron himself), Johnson will struggle to present himself as a unity candidate, particularly with Michael Gove as his bagman. The EU is, and has always been, a contentious issue for the Conservative Party and Johnson may just find himself cast in the role of hatchet man but not leader. Additionally, his comments post-referendum, where he appears to have backed away from certain promises made or implied during the campaign, and is now proposing a new position for Britain which looks remarkably similar to the old position, only slightly worse, will not aid his leadership bid. Theresa May, a member of the Remain camp, may find herself at odds with those like Iain Duncan Smith, who argue the next leader should be a ‘Brexiteer’ but she may find that her quiet and limited support for the Remain campaign make her more of a unity candidate, someone who moderates on both sides can back. George Osborne, long talked of as successor to Cameron, looked an unlikely candidate before the vote, but seems completely unthinkable now. His threat of an ‘emergency budget’ and his disappearing act after the vote have ended any realistic chance he had of succeeding Cameron. Other names suggested include Stephen Crabb, the successor to IDS at the Department for Work and Pensions, and a backer of Cameron’s ‘compassionate Conservatism’ and Priti Patel, a ‘Brexiteer’ and Secretary of State for Employment. While there is no guarantee of who will be the next party leader, what can be guaranteed is that the Conservative party is about to undertake an unedifying and ugly leadership battle, exposing the scars on the party of a battle over Europe which has been raging for over 30 years.
The picture on the opposition benches is no better. As I write this, Shadow Cabinet ministers are resigning faster than I can type. Any other leader would have resigned before now, the pressure would have been irresistible. Additionally, it would be hoped that any leader finding themselves in this situation would recognise that they were actually deeply damaging the party that they claim to love, that they were putting their own survival above that of their party. At the heart of this is a fight for the soul of the Labour party. Jeremy Corbyn is in the eye of a perfect storm, not one he created directly, but one he is battling to survive. The reforms of Kinnock and Smith and the leadership of Blair created a Labour Party which was far more electorally successful than the party had ever been before, but one where the Parliamentary arm of the party was not singing from the same hymn sheet as the Constituency Labour Party. This became progressively worse during the Blair years and came to something of a head with the election of Ed Miliband. This separation became more obvious with the election of Jeremy Corbyn on the £3 membership vote.
Can Corbyn win? In the longer term, no. His position is completely untenable. The Labour Party, like all political parties, is made up of different parts, some more important than others. While a leader can largely ignore some parts of the party as, for example, Blair did with the unions while leader, any leader needs to ensure that they are capable of winning elections. Party members can be quite forgiving if a leader can win elections, at least in the short term. Without that election success, any leader is essentially doomed. Corbyn has not faced a general election, and the successes of the Labour Party in by-elections and in the London Mayoral election can be argued to be in spite of Corbyn not because of him. It almost doesn’t matter if that is true, what matters is that a case can be made that Corbyn is an electoral liability, not an electoral asset. The real damage for Corbyn is not simply that his political views do not chime well with the Parliamentary Labour Party, it is that members of the Parliamentary Labour Party, and perhaps some members of the Constituency Labour Party, don’t believe Corbyn can win. That is at the heart of this party collapse, and while the resignations might be dismissed as opportunistic, the timing is driven by the view that Corbyn cannot win, and did not win during the referendum campaign. Figures suggest that Vote Leave won in many Welsh and Northern constituencies in the Labour heartland, and a case can be made that a contributory factor to that was Corbyn’s weak and uninspiring campaign for Remain. The resigning shadow ministers have continually made reference in their post-resignation interviews and resignation letters to Corbyn’s inability to win. The problem the party has is that not only is there no one standout candidate for new leader, but that the Constituency Labour Party and the Parliamentary Labour Party now seem so distant from one another, it is hard to see how they can be brought back together, and even if they can, how that can be done quickly. It may be that a separation is required, along the lines of the 1981 split and the creation of the SDP. It should be noted that Labour were not elected into government for another 16 years. Splits and division are bad for business, especially in politics.
What of Britain then? The short answer is, we simply don’t know yet. We don’t know when article 50 will be triggered. We don’t know how amicable the divorce from the EU will be. We don’t know what kind of trade deal Britain will get with the EU nations or whether we will adopt a Norway style European Economic Associate membership. We don’t know whether the EU will survive. Until active discussions begin, nothing is certain and even then, it will be some considerable time before the final deal becomes clear. Fifty two percent of those who voted to leave on Thursday wanted political change. They will have it, but it is often ugly, unsettling, expensive and does not guarantee the outcome desired. Currently, we are all looking up, waiting to see where those poker chips which were so dramatically thrown into the air on Thursday 23rd June, fall.
Dr Victoria Honeyman, Lecturer in British Politics, University of Leeds.