The British Crisis: Monday, July 11, 2016
Hans Kundnani, senior transatlantic fellow, will be delivering on-the-ground reports from London as Brexit unfolds. Check back for regular updates.
LONDON – The United Kingdom finally has certainty about who the next prime minister will be: Theresa May. As the most prominent Conservative campaigners to leave the EU, including Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, were successively sidelined over the last two weeks in a series of dramatic and ugly twists and turns, it became a race between May, the home secretary, and Andrea Leadsom, a relatively inexperienced MP, who finally dropped out today. But though it is now clear that May who will move into Number 10 in the next few days, we still have no real idea what kind of deal she will want with EU – in particular, how she will balance the economic need for access to the single market and public demands for restrictions on EU immigration.
During the last two weeks, almost no progress has been made in creating clarity about what the United Kingdom’s future relationship with the European Union might look like. In fact, the question seemed to have receded into the background in the U.K. as the debate here narrowed to the acrimonious internecine battles within both the Conservative and Labour parties. In both cases, a fight was taking place for the soul of the party – though neither case is directly focused on the issue of Europe as such. Rather, the referendum on British membership of the EU seems to have been the catalyst for a struggle between each of the two the parliamentary parties, which are generally more centrist, and the party membership, which has become more extreme.
The ongoing struggle within the Labour party is even more acrimonious, and has even less to do with Europe, than that within the Conservative party. Over the last two weeks, the left-wing party leader Jeremy Corbyn has rejected demands by the vast majority of Labour MPs and former leaders such as Neil Kinnock, that he stand down. Angela Eagle, who until recently served in his shadow cabinet, is now formally challenging him. But the party members will ultimately decide. They seem more interested in the Iraq war, which Corbyn opposed and Eagle supported, than in the difficult, urgent question of how to manage the situation created by the vote to leave the EU. (The war is once again news following the publication last week of the Sir John Chilcot’s report on the Blair government’s role in it.)
May has ruled out the possibility a general election, though she may now come under greater pressure to hold one – especially because now she does not have a mandate from the Conservative Party’s 150,000 members. She may even decide it is in her own interests to do so. After all, over the next few months, she will have to make immensely difficult decisions that will have huge consequences: above all, when to invoke Article 50 of Lisbon Treaty and what type of new relationship to seek with the EU. As the economic consequences of the U.K.’s decision to leave the EU intensify, particularly if and when Article 50 is invoked and negotiations with the EU begin, she may have to take measures, like spending cuts, that will make her even more unpopular. Without a mandate, she will be extremely vulnerable – and may not survive very long.
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