When they were on the same side: Gove (left) and Johnson at a June 24 press conference in central London. (Mary Turner/AFP/Getty Images)
What a weird few days in Britain. As the country — and the continent eyeing it warily across the Channel — attempted to come to grips with the fallout of last week’s vote to leave the European Union, its political parties imploded in a frenzy of backstabbing and internecine struggle.
It’s intrigue and skulduggery that puts the current feuding across the pond, where Donald Trump is now rounding on GOP rivals who have so far refused to back him, in the shade.
First, there was the no-confidence vote against Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, whose lackluster support of the Remain campaign infuriated many of his fellow colleagues in the opposition. Corbyn’s decision to fight for his post — backed by much of Labour’s more leftist rank-and-file — has triggered “what will likely be an ugly and protracted war for the party’s soul,” writes The Washington Post’s Griff Witte.
Then, there were the Conservatives. The victory of the pro-Brexit camp compelled British Prime Minister David Cameron, leader of the failed movement to remain, to announce his resignation. On Thursday, Boris Johnson, the former mayor of London and the most mainstream politician leading the Leave camp, began the day assuming it would mark the first step toward his coronation as Cameron’s successor.
But there was a sting in the tail in the form Johnson’s longterm friend and deputy, the bespectacled, bookish conservative politician and former journalist Michael Gove.
As Johnson prepared to announce his candidacy, Gove betrayed him without notice, announcing that he was launching his own campaign to helm the Conservative Party and thereby become prime minister. The insurrection earned comparisons to backroom maneuvering in “House of Cards” and prompted Johnson to withdraw his candidacy, leaving Britain totally befuddled.
“This one stunned an already dazed nation, and left no doubt, if any had remained, that Britain is divided, directionless and leaderless as it prepares for a leap into the unknown of life outside the E.U.,” wrote Witte.
There’s a somewhat crowded field of candidates to now follow Cameron. The Post’s London correspondent Karla Adam wrote profiles of the two at the head of the pack: Gove and Theresa May, 59, who commands perhaps the most support from sitting Conservative parliamentarians.
Observers weren’t impressed by Johnson’s retreat. The flamboyant, mop-headed former mayor had championed the Leave campaign and won a narrow victory in last week’s referendum — a result some pundits say he never had anticipated.
“Boris engineered the largest constitutional crisis in post-war history but won’t even put his name forward to clear it up?” tweeted University of Manchester political scientist Rob Ford.
“They show every sign of suffering from a bad case of buyer’s remorse, with no idea what to do next,” wrote Jonathan Powell, a former Labour Party adviser, about the conservative politicians who championed Brexit. “Drifting away from the undertakings they made during the campaign, they appear to be making it up as they go along. Certainly they can’t offer us a way out of the crisis they have created.”
And, increasingly, it appears Britain’s woes may not become everybody else’s problems.
U.S. markets bounced back healthily on Thursday, even as the British pound continues to take a beating. “We are clawing back from the losses after Brexit as investors realized that it was not the watershed event that they thought it was,” James Abate, chief investment officer at Centre Asset Management LLC, told MarketWatch.
Moreover, a potential Brexit could be good news for countries as far-flung as China and Russia, where the dysfunction of the West is always welcome coin for the realm, and even Germany, which could attract the sort of top-notch, well-heeled professionals who have so far called London home.
The political implications for Britain, though, aren’t pretty. The country needs a functioning government to contend with the myriad challenges ahead: The prospect of negotiations with Brussels over the terms of a future deal; the renewed calls for independence in Scotland; the likely outrage of Leave voters who realize many of the campaign’s promises — from reinvigorating the welfare state to booting out Muslims — may be impossible to fulfill.
A new prime minister is expected to trigger the formal process by which Britain will extract itself from the E.U., which may take up to two years. Johnson had hoped in vain that Britain could reach a deal whereby they remain in the single market without having to adhere to the bulk of the rules set down in Brussels, including controls over the freedom of movement. This, European officials have indicated, was “a pipe dream.”
Britian’s European interlocutors, instead, may strike a hard bargain, something neither Gove nor May can meekly accept.
Henry Kissinger explains the conundrum rather lucidly in an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal: “Britain will want to maintain extensive ties with Europe while lifting or easing the constraints of its many legislative and bureaucratic requirements. The EU leadership has almost the opposite incentive. It will not wish to reward Britain’s Leave majority by granting Britain better terms than it enjoyed as a full member. Hence a punitive element is likely to be inherent in the EU bargaining position.”
There are tense times ahead. And the confusion has raised the prospect that a Brexit could yet turn into a Bremain. A petition for a new referendum garnered millions of signatures. There are even suggestions the decision can be invalidated in court.
Financial Times columnist Gideon Rachman put forward the idea that European negotiators and British politicians could reach a happy compromise that may eventually allow the country to back away from a full Brexit. So far, though, that sort of move does not seem on the cards.
“Brexit means Brexit,” May told reporters. “The campaign was fought, the vote was held, turnout was high, and the public gave their verdict. There must be no attempts to remain inside the EU.”
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