The Aftermath of BREXIT and the Accession of Theresa May
Lee Edward Ellison
“It’s happened, the Brits have done it and this is not good!” Not the typical phrase one would hear coming from a young French woman outside a pub in Piccadilly Circus at 2:00AM on a Friday morning. Although one could ask what would be a typical phrase at such a time. This morning in question was different, being the early hours of the 24th of June, the day after the Brexit referendum. It was too early to call at 2:00AM as the various vote counting centres around the United Kingdom began to announce whether their respected areas had chosen to remain or leave the European Union. As the pub crawl continued and the votes streamed in it became increasingly evident that the British people had voted to leave the EU. At 6:00AM with approximately 80% of the 33,500,000 votes counted it was declared that the United Kingdom had in fact taken the crucial first step of detaching itself from the European Union.
The implication of such a result for the Referendum heralded by numerous political scientists, journalist and politicians from the United Kingdom and further abroad was before the vote seen as impossible. The decision to leave has firmly shaken any certainty the British political establishment had thought it held on the political moods of the population. A private exit poll presented to David Cameron had the Remain vote ahead by at least 10%. However, this, by four in the morning, had proven to be completely wrong, as the neck and neck vote surged forward in favour of Leave.
The immediate aftermath of the Brexit referendum triggered contests for both the major parties at Westminster for their respected leadership. Changing leaders is a position Australians have become well accustomed to over the last six years. With stable leadership under Cameron since 2010, political commentators took to this overnight disintegration of the two parties leaders with great enthusiasm, hoping to illustrate that the Brexit had not only brought in financial shocks but also political instability for the nation. The resignation of David Cameron as Prime Minister and leader of the Conservative Party, coupled with the a letter of no confidence in Jeremy Corbyn from Margaret Hodge and Ann Coffey, brought on leadership contests for both parties. While the Conservative Party has quickly chosen a new leader and cabinet and begun the process of leave negotiations with the European Union, the Labour Party has fallen into internal turmoil.
Labour’s leadership struggle began with the mass resignations of Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow cabinet. Immediately following the referendum outcome Labour frontbenchers Margaret Hodge and Ann Coffey penned a letter declaring their lack of confidence in Corbyn’s ability as leader of the Opposition. Corbyn’s decision to sack his shadow foreign secretary Hillary Benn exacerbated party tensions and acted as the catalyst for a widespread revolt of the Party’s MPs. Benn has been seen by the majority of the party as a potential leadership candidate in the wake of his speech last December on combatting ISIL. Nevertheless, he has maintained that he does not wish to be considered for leadership of the Labour party. An embattled Corbyn has faced calls to stand down not only from the overwhelming his own MPS 172 – 40 after a vote was held on the 28 June. But also from David Cameron during Prime Ministers Questions on the 29th June as well as from former deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg. Clegg who in an op-ed for the Evening Standard on the 11th July, savaged Corbyn for dismantling any hope Labour had at holding the Conservative Party to account. Two weeks on and Corbyn has found himself a place on the Party’s leadership ballot, regardless of his inability to garner the required 51 votes from his parliamentary colleagues. With the support of Momentum, the grass roots organisation within Labour Party members that elected Corbyn last year, Corbyn’s mission of recasting the Labour party as a principled protest party has a huge potential to lead to the split of the Labour Party. Corbyn’s official rivals Owen Smith and Angela Eagle, whilst maintaining the support of their parliamentary colleagues, will face a hard and divisive campaign to win over the Party’s membership base. Ultimately this division will keep the Party away from the treasury benches for the foreseeable future.
Conversely the Conservative party while initially prepared to wage a nine week leadership contest, has surprisingly put party unity ahead of the Remain and Leave factions of the party. Understandably this is a strategic appeal to the electorate as Labour continues to concern itself with the topic of whether Corbyn will remain as leader. After a three week contest which had toppled both Boris Johnston the favourite for party Leader and Michael Gove his supposed lieutenant, the abdication of Andrea Leadsome from the contest has left Theresa May as Leader of the Party and the Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. May who had served as the Home Secretary in Cameron’s Cabinet since 2010 is a committed One-Nation Tory and unlike Gove or Johnson is viewed by many of her Westminster colleagues as a policy driven parliamentarian one keen to focus on the administration of government and not a partaker in back room factionalism. A strength she campaigned on during the short leadership race, commentators from across Europe have heralded her as the Angela Merkel of Westminster. While May voted to Remain, her perceived absence from the campaign and soft-Eurosceptic positions on controlled immigration, welfare funding to EU students and professionals as well as the position of EU nationals residing within the United Kingdom has garnered her support from the many Conservative pro-Brexit MPs. Her stated position that “we are all Brexiteers now” reiterates her stance that she does not intend to introduce a second referendum. This stance has sparked disapproval from the Liberal Democrats and the moderate Labour MPs who had voted to remain. Her commitment to renewing Trident and increasing funding to the British Armed Forces also reflects her position that Britain should play a leading role in global security. She has placed Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary. Similarly, the prominent Leave campaigner David Davis, has been given the reigns to the new Brexit ministry. Osborne’s resignation as Chancellor of the Exchequer has seen previous former foreign secretary Phillip Hammond take up the mantle. May’s previous position as Home Secretary has been given to Amber Rudd who had been the Secretary for Energy and Climate Change. May’s new cabinet while maintaining some continuity with Cameron’s ministry has seen the removal of Osborne and Cameron’s Notting Hill Set, bringing in a far greater diverse ministry. While Britain may have the left the EU, under May’s leadership it is not going to be an isolated inwards focused nation. Quite the contrary, May’s leadership platform points to her desires to see greater equality domestically whilst remaining as an outward looking global leader of finance, defence and democracy.
May’s accession to the Prime-Ministership of the United Kingdom two months earlier than Cameron’s original proposed resignation date offers, plenty of time for exit negotiations to begin. An independent and now politically stable United Kingdom offers numerous countries the chance to reengage with the United Kingdom. In Australia’s case a free-trade agreement with the United Kingdom has already been proposed. While 60% of the British economy had been geared towards the EU Single Market (and still is until Article 50 is triggered), Australia’s primary industries will now have the chance to competitively trade with the United Kingdom.
The referendum vote, believed by many to never materialise has over a three week period quickly transformed the landscape of British politics. While Labour is looming into political obscurity and considering a re-branding, the Conservatives who instigated the Referendum have quickly reformed and are ready to face tough EU negotiations and bring in a sensible Brexit. We may not be looking towards the ascendancy of the Conservative Party in the United Kingdom past 2020. Nonetheless its new leadership under Theresa May has firmly seen the Party embrace a pragmatic liberal conservative platform in which the centre ground of politics has and will be seized. This has provided the Party with a stable foundation as it prepares to lead Britain for the nation’s greatest political undertaking in modern times.