Brexit for the non-British

A few days ago I listened to the latest episode of The Weeds, a really interesting podcast from Vox, on which they discuss Brexit. Their discussion was interesting but ultimately not particularly accurate, which made me realise that if you don't regularly read a British media source you probably don't have a solid handle on what exactly has happened, let alone how or why. So here is my first venture into 'explainer journalism'!


What is 'Brexit'?
Brexit is a terrible portmanteau for "British exit", copied from 'Grexit'. Last year, after winning government in the general election, the Conservative Party legislated to hold a referendum on whether the UK should stay in or leave the European Union. That referendum was held last week, and returned a 52-48 result to Leave.

Why was there a referendum in the first place?
The short answer is that David Cameron, the Conservative Prime Minister, promised one in the run-up to the 2015 election. But that hides a few slightly peculiar things. One is that there's no constitutional requirement to have a referendum about this: the UK could have left the EU just by a majority in Parliament.

The reason there was a referendum instead is that neither David Cameron nor a majority of Parliament actually wanted the UK to leave. Many, probably most, Tories in Parliament think that the UK is better off in the EU. But among grassroots conservatives the EU has become a serious bete noire over the last 25 to 30 years. Membership of the EU means being subjected to various European regulations and decisions of European courts, which in the eyes of many Tories is an offence against national sovereignty and a serious overexpansion of the regulatory burden on people and companies. This has been causing rumblings for a long time, but in the last decade increased immigration from the EU - member states largely cannot block EU citizens from entering - and the euro crisis have made disenchantment with the Union more widespread and deeply felt.

The Conservative party won power in 2010 only by entering a governing coalition with the Liberal Democrats, the most consistently pro-Europe party in the country. So for that five year government nothing could really be done to appease the Eurosceptics, which contributed to the rise of the UK Independence Party, which is usually described as a far-right party but in fact has basically no issue positions that anyone cares about other than leaving the EU and cutting immigration. UKIP was attractive to disgruntled grassroots Conservatives, and in Britain's ludicrous first-past-the-post electoral system that posed a threat to the Tories.

So Cameron had to do something to make fierce Eurosceptics feel satisfied enough to vote Conservative. But being an on-the-record supporter of UK membership in the EU, he couldn't and didn't want to simply promise to leave. Instead he promised this referendum. And it worked - UKIP got 12.7% of the vote, but that was less than what Tories had been worrying about and only netted them a single MP (who was anyway an ex-Tory.) And the Conservatives won a majority to govern in their own right.

Why is David Cameron resigning? Who's going to be Prime Minister?

You might think that having delivered what his party's grassroots always wanted, David Cameron would be in a pretty good position. He could have stayed on as Prime Minister until near the end of this parliamentary term (he'd already committed to standing down before the next election), beloved by conservatives whose dream he's enabled and saying some fine words about the power of democratic choice. And the groundwork was being laid for this to happen: prominent Tories in the campaign to leave publicly said that they didn't think Cameron should resign if Leave won, and were fulsome in their praise of him as a PM generally and his decision to hold this referendum.

Instead, he's resigning immediately and the Conservatives are holding an internal leadership contest to determine who'll take over as Prime Minister. There are a few reasons for this. The first is that he threw himself headlong into the campaign to Remain and so has taken a pretty bad credibility hit. The second is that he probably has some respect for the broadly democratic idea that Brexit should be negotiated and managed by someone who believes in it, and ultimately would have faced political pressure to uphold that idea. But - I admit to speculating a little - it seems to me that the most important reason is that he just had no interest in continuing to be PM in this environment. The next Prime Minister will have to have a series of very difficult negotiations with European politicians who want to uphold the integrity of their Union and not let Britain get away with too much. They'll probably also be quite personally unpleasant, because for many European elites the EU is the embodiment of a kind of continental solidarity which they now see Britain as having betrayed. For Cameron, he'd have had to do all this in order to achieve a goal he doesn't believe in; he'd probably also have to work alongside senior Tories who campaigned to Leave, with whom his personal relationships have become extremely strained over the course of the campaign. What's the attraction?

As a result, the Conservative party is having a leadership election. It's not clear who's going to win it; at the moment the best guess is probably Theresa May, the home secretary (responsible for policing and immigration). There are five candidates - not including Boris Johnson, the man who everyone thought would be a shoo-in as next PM, because he quite dramatically declared on Thursday morning that he wouldn't run.

What does the Labour Party think about Brexit?

Labour's official position was in favour of remaining in the EU, and that's how all the party's prominent figures campaigned. But it has a very mixed history: in the early decades of the European project, up until about the mid-1980s, Labour was generally more Eurosceptic than the Conservatives. Some of the reasons were the same as many Tories' reasons - worries about immigration and loss of national power - and some were about the EU's perceived neoliberal agenda and undemocratic structure.

The party's top leadership is now pretty much uniformly pro-EU, though some backbench MPs campaigned to leave. Of the voters, about 60% voted to stay, although many ex-industrial and ex-mining traditional Labour areas voted to leave.

What the hell is going on with Jeremy Corbyn?

Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party, is in the midst of facing down an attempted coup by his MPs, almost none of whom want him to be leader. Since Saturday, a huge number of his shadow ministers have resigned. Some of the no-name replacements he appointed have since resigned as well. The parliamentary party held a no-confidence debate, and over three quarters of Labour MPs declared they had no confidence in him. But the leader of the party is chosen by a vote of the membership, not MPs, so that vote doesn't mean he has to resign and so far he's shown no intention of doing so.

This coup is putatively about Corbyn's performance in the referendum campaign. Labour, as mentioned, was officially in favour of Remain. But as an old member of the hard left, Corbyn didn't fit naturally with that position; many have suspected that he wasn't really committed to it, and didn't campaign hard enough. Some go as far as to blame the defeat on him. Along with the many suggestions that he just didn't try hard enough because he didn't care, there are some suggestions that he actively sabotaged the Remain campaign, the evidence for which is completely flimsy.


No doubt there are many MPs who genuinely feel this has pushed them over the edge. But for the most part what's happening is the dramatic boiling over of a tension that's been bubbling away in the Labour Party since last September, which is that most MPs never wanted Corbyn to be leader. Before the 2015 parliamentary elections, the Labour Party changed its rules so that the leader of the party would be chosen directly by a vote of party members, affiliated trade union members, and registered supporters (who pay £3 to register.) Previously, the result was determined by an 'electoral college' in which MPs had a third of the votes, unionists a third, and signed up members the final third. Under the new rules Corbyn romped home promising a significantly more left-wing platform than had been run at the 2015 election, which was the opposite of what the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs thought was needed to improve their electoral chances.


So things have been pretty unhappy in the Labour Party for a while, with most MPs - who it's Corbyn's job to lead in Parliament - thinking that Corbyn's policies are wrong on the merits and that he's completely unelectable. The Brexit vote has done a few things: convince some MPs that he doesn't have the leadership skills to unify the party; give some MPs a convenient excuse to try to oust him; and freak many MPs out because there's the prospect of a new election in the next year - rather than in 2020 - which leaves them not much time to get rid of their unelectable leader.


Unfortunately there is no actual way for MPs to get rid of the party leader unless a majority of party members agree with them, and so far there's no evidence to suggest they do. So the plan, such as it was, seems just to have been to apply intense pressure to Corbyn by destroying his shadow cabinet and making clear that all the MPs hate him, until he resigned. But since he and his supporters are quite stubborn, and have the (correct) view that all the MPs already hated him, they think he should stick around for the members who overwhelmingly elected him not all that long ago.


This is of course catastrophic behaviour from everyone involved. Given this wave of resignations, there's no way Corbyn can lead an effective parliamentary opposition, and it seems highly likely that if he doesn't step down there'll be some sort of split in which a number of Labour MPs form their own faction. (This is most likely, I think, if there's a leadership election and Corbyn wins again.) On the other hand, given that it was sort of obvious that this is what would happen if they tried to oust him, the decision of Labour MPs to launch this coup was a really stupid one which may itself lead to a party split. So, good job, Labour.


Comments