The world woke up on Friday morning, astonished to discover that Britons had done the unthinkable and voted to leave the European Union. Forty-eight hours later, that sense of wonderment has only grown, as it emerged that the resigning prime minister David Cameron and his team are planning to do nothing about the Brexit decision; that the victorious faction within his Conservative Party has absolutely no idea what it intends to do now it has won; and, meanwhile, the opposition Labour Party, which should have been capitalizing on the Tories’ disarray, is in an even more advanced state of meltdown, with nearly half of its shadow cabinet resigning and demanding that party leader Jeremy Corbyn step down immediately.
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Such a complete shambles of the entire political establishment is, of course, par for the course for Israelis. But no one ever imagined that it could take place within the hallowed corridors of the “Mother of Parliaments.”
In Britain, where the unwritten constitution and irreplaceable civil service have kept thing ticking over steadily for centuries, this was never meant to happen.
When the government falls, usually as the result of a general election, the machinery of state continues seamlessly. The new prime minister arrives at 10 Downing Street the next morning, having stopped at Buckingham Palace to kiss the Queen’s hand and receive the seals of office. The movers have already replaced the previous premier’s belongings in the residence upstairs, and the private secretaries are waiting with red boxes full of briefing papers and schedules. They’ll have already studied the incoming government’s election manifesto and prepared initial plans for putting the new policies in motion – or have reasons why the election pledges may have to be put on hold, perhaps indefinitely.
However, Cameron’s decision to resign – not immediately, but in three months, while Britain has been plunged into arguably its most severe constitutional crisis since the abdication of Edward VIII in 1936 – has brought about an unaccustomed twilight of governance.
Nominally, Cameron is still in charge. But he has made it clear that he’s not going to pull the Article 50 trigger, which starts the two-year process of exiting the EU. But the Eurosceptic members of his party who defeated him aren’t in a hurry to do so, either. They promised the British public that leaving the EU would bring great benefits to an “independent” Great Britain, but now they’re starting to admit that there’s no plan on how to achieve this.
The Civil Service, which supported Cameron in his bid to remain within the EU, has no detailed papers on how to do it either, beyond scrambling in the coming days to keep the economy stable and the Bank of England’s emergency plan to prevent the pound from crashing through the floor.
Two things are going to happen this morning. The stock exchange will open after an uneasy weekend, and the markets will somehow have to be reassured if hundreds of billions more are not to be wiped off the FTSE 100 Index.
And today is also the day that the Daily Telegraph runs the weekly offering of its star columnist, Boris Johnson – member of parliament and, until two months ago, the mayor of London.
Three months ago, Johnson used his column to announce that he was joining the “leave” campaign, and his latest column will be even more fateful. He will have to set out his vision of how to manage the difficult divorce, and what Britain will look like on the day after. He is a talented writer, capable of polishing off a thousand elegant, well-turned and highly entertaining words in less than an hour. But serious policy prescriptions – beyond advocating more bike lanes in London – has never been his thing. Will he rise to the challenge or will he play for time?
Some are already speculating that Johnson, should he replace Cameron in Downing Street, doesn’t really want to lead Britain out of the EU. He could play for time in the hope that, by September, when and if he becomes prime minister, German Chancellor Angela Merkel will have sent Britain a lifeline in the form of better terms of membership, or a special status for the United Kingdom. He could then agree to this and even present it to the public for a second referendum.
Of course, Johnson may not win the Conservative leadership contest. He is far from universally loved by his party colleagues, many of whom see him as an unprincipled and disloyal opportunist for his conduct in recent months. Around half a dozen other candidates are expected to throw their hats into the ring. Cameron’s loyalists, and Conservatives who campaigned to remain in the EU, are expected to try and block Johnson’s ascension. But whoever emerges as the winner, he or she has already been gifted one political bonus: they won’t face a functioning opposition.
Instead of taking advantage of Cameron’s resignation and presenting a coherent alternative on how Britain should prepare itself for a new period outside Europe, the Labour Party has started tearing itself to shreds.
This didn’t begin on Friday. It has been in the making for the last 10 months, ever since Jeremy Corbyn – an old back-bench Marxist rebel – surprised everyone, himself included, by being elected party leader.
As it stands, Corbyn commands the full loyalty of less than 10 percent of his MPs and has faced simmering unrest since his election. But his halfhearted campaigning in favor of staying in the EU, which was long-standing party policy, has enraged the party’s senior figures.
In the past two days, internal papers have emerged of how Corbyn’s closest aides – a circle of hard-left ideologues, some of whom are opposed to the “arch-capitalist” EU – ensured that he would attend only a handful of events calling on Labour supporters to vote “remain.” They also toned down his pro-EU speeches, including mainly criticisms of the Union and offering only faint calls to stay in. This has brought the leadership crisis to a head.
His internal opponents began moves for a coup, to which Corbyn responded by sacking one of the ringleaders – the popular shadow foreign secretary, Hilary Benn. Yesterday, at least eight other members of the shadow cabinet resigned, citing the party’s need for leadership. More front-bench members are expected to follow.
Despite publicly losing the support of most of his political team, Corbyn is determined to stay on as leader. He may be able to rely on hundreds of thousands of rank-and-file party members who joined Labour, in the belief that Corbyn represented a different style of left-wing politics. But whether or not he survives, Labour is headed for a long period of upheaval, during which the party will be incapable of seriously opposing the Conservatives. Sometime in the next few days, a controversial report on the allegations of anti-Semitism that have rocked Labour is due to be published, which will only increase the turmoil.