Contrary to what’s been repeated ad nauseam on cable television this week, the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union tells us very little about the United States presidential election or American politics. It does, however, tell us everything we need to know about the state of British politics and leadership at every level. What has been revealed is not encouraging.
While the impact of the UK’s decision will be far-reaching, the logic behind how we got here is relatively simple: Britain’s center-right sought to resolve a debate going on amongst themselves by letting voters settle the score. The plan was hatched over several careful years of planning, mostly by British Prime Minister David Cameron, but also by his Conservative Party rivals and other far-right nationalist elements. Outside of government and lacking a coherent vision of their own, the opposition was forced to adapt to circumstances beyond their control, and failed disastrously to do so. While much has been written about the economic implications and potential future political maneuvering, I think it’s instructive to look back at the political personalities involved and the decisions they made along the way to get us to this place.
Why did the UK hold a referendum in the first place?
This question is particularly relevant to an American audience, which has never had the opportunity to vote in a true national referendum. While the UK’s relationship with the EU is long and complex, the decision to call for the vote was essentially a political calculation.
David Cameron made his fateful decision to hold a referendum on EU membership during a chat over pizza with other senior Conservative Party officials at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport of all places. His reasons had very little to do with EU reform or migration policies. Instead, Cameron was worried that his party was headed toward a civil war headed into the 2015 general election. Faced with internal party rivals who openly favored leaving the EU, Cameron promised to hold a referendum by 2017 in hopes of holding the party together and preserving his own leadership of it.
Cameron’s concerns were not totally unfounded. By the fall of 2014, two Members of Parliament (MPs) from Cameron’s own Conservative Party had defected to the nationalist UK Independence Party (UKIP), whose leader Nigel Farage has been a thorn in Brussels’s side for years and who later campaigned fiercely in support of leaving the EU. UKIP had also experienced a strong performance in that year’s elections to the European Parliament in Brussels. Cameron feared that more officials and voters would bolt the Conservative Party for UKIP unless he announced a compromise that would appease both the Leave and Remain factions in his own party.
In hindsight, the referendum did nothing to resolve the Conservative Party’s divisions on “Brexit,” as the question of the UK’s EU membership came to be known, but rather deepened the divide and exposed those divisions for all to see. Faced with so many internal conflicts, Cameron ultimately allowed his own cabinet ministers to advocate leaving, despite the fact that this would contradict the official policy of the government in which they were serving. Potential challengers to Cameron’s seat atop the Conservative Party – most notably, Boris Johnson, who I will get to later – tripped over one another to campaign for Leave in hopes of raising their own stock as Cameron’s heir apparent.
This all may have been effective short-term politics for David Cameron – his party did win the 2015 election resoundingly, after all – but the implications of this decision have spelled disaster in the long-term. Today, David Cameron’s decision appears less an act of brilliant political maneuvering and more an exercise in arrogance and recklessness.
Where was the opposition?
In the face of such obvious divisions within a nation’s largest political party, one would expect the main opposition party and its leaders to come out looking stronger by comparison. Yet somehow, as deep as the Conservatives’ internal divisions may be, the UK’s Labour Party made it out of the referendum looking even worse.
Perhaps one reason so many failed to predict the Conservative Party’s imminent civil war was that the Labour Party was neck-deep in their own, very public leadership race. In the wake of Labour’s crushing defeat in the 2015 election, their leader Ed Miliband had little choice but to resign and hand over the party reigns. However, unlike the Conservatives, Labour does not enjoy a deep bunch of contenders to the leadership. Many were underwhelmed with the choices at hand, which led to low participation in the voting to pick Miliband’s replacement. The winner was Jeremy Corbyn, a long serving, left wing MP who premised much of his appeal on his lack of association with previous Labour leaders. From an American perspective, comparisons between Corbyn and U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders – while not perfect – are instructive for comparison’s sake.
While Corbyn won the leadership election by an enormous margin, Labour’s rivals could not have asked for a better opponent. While popular with left wing voters who’d grown tired of the Labour Party’s attempts to win the center, Corbyn is simply not a skilled politician, nor a natural leader. His views on many issues, especially foreign policy, do not reflect that of the British political mainstream, to say the least.
Most confounding however, was Corbyn’s actions ahead of and during the referendum campaign. The Labour Party’s views toward EU membership had always been murky – this itself provided Cameron more space to manage his own rivals – but the party ultimately came to a consensus that their official position would be to support the Remain campaign. Corbyn was nominally on board with this, but some feared his commitment due to his long history of criticizing the EU as a tool of corporate interests.
Jeremy Corbyn is no barnburner of a speaker on the best of days, but his public statements during the referendum campaign were especially ineffective at bolstering the party line or swaying voters in favor of Remain. In the end, approximately 40 percent of Labour voters lent their ballots to Leave and the post-mortems on Corbyn’s role in that result have been brutal. In the aftermath of the vote, Labour activists who had worked hard in favor of Remain took to the press to accuse Corbyn of sabotaging their efforts by avoiding campaign events and refusing to make statements favorable of the EU.
Since the referendum, faith in Corbyn among Labour’s elected officials has plummeted. Much of Corbyn’s closest advisers have resigned and his colleagues in parliament staged a vote of no confidence in his leadership. While dramatic, that vote has no legal authority and, as of this writing, Corbyn continues to refuse calls to resign. Nonetheless, his party still lacks a competent bench of potential successors to replace him. In short, despite circumstances which suggest that Labour should gain from the Conservatives’ divisions, Labour have found themselves the laughing stock of the political moment.
Did anyone gain anything here – or at least hope to?
Every British politician from the center to far right ends of the political spectrum felt that they stood to gain from the Brexit vote. Boris Johnson certainly felt he’d gain from the campaign, if not from the vote itself. I will join the chorus of those who believe that Boris Johnson was genuinely surprised that Britons had not voted to Remain, despite having campaigned for the opposite result. While there’s no direct evidence of this, I would speculate that Johnson had expected a close result in favor of Remain, but one in which a clear majority of Conservative Party voters had voted to Leave. In that case, Johnson would have left Cameron to fill out the rest of his term in office, and ultimately claim the mantle himself as the Conservative leader most in touch with the will of the party. Otherwise, Johnson’s announcement yesterday that he will not seek the Conservative Party leadership makes very little sense, as his desire for the job is well known.
Johnson simply was not prepared for the circumstance in which he finds himself and certainly did not want to handle the nitty-gritty details of negotiating the UK’s exit. While Boris Johnson may live to fight another day, the story here should be a cautionary tale for ambitious politicians everywhere: Be careful what you wish for, because you might just get it.
Meanwhile, David Cameron and his allies felt confident that they could convince the country to Remain, and would cement Cameron’s legacy in the process as a Conservative leader who transcended party lines. Instead, Cameron has resigned in the face of repudiation and will be forever known as the Prime Minister who took Britain out of Europe. His legacy may well still precipitate the demise of the UK itself if Scottish leaders move forward with their threats to secede in order to maintain EU member status. In any event, I would wager that history will look upon the EU referendum as a deeply reckless decision that undid an otherwise effective leader.