A Dis-United Kingdom: Brexit and Theresa May’s Pyrrhic Victory

CounterPunch

The political landscape of the United Kingdom has gone through upheaval in the general election on 8 June 2017, and the country is to begin difficult negotiations to leave the European Union by March 2019. Despite a small majority in the last Parliament, the Prime Minister, Theresa May, called a snap general election, asking the country to give her a landslide victory, and strengthen her hand in dealing with EU negotiators. She promised that she would be a “bloody difficult woman” in the negotiation, calculating that she would charm voters by so doing.

The British electorate denied her the mandate she wanted. From a modest but clear majority, the Conservative Party was reduced to a minority party with the largest number of seats in a hung Parliament. It was a pyrrhic victory, if it could be called a victory, causing heavy loss to her reputation and ability to make judgement.

Theresa May had to sacrifice two of her closest aides, Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, described by cabinet ministers and Conservative parliamentarians as abusive and authoritarian. But the problem goes much deeper. Theresa May is a shy and secretive individual, reliant on a few loyal associates. Her spell as Prime Minister, and the seven-week general election campaign, demonstrated that she had difficulty articulating her vision, and how she would make it possible, to large audiences.

She avoided debating with opponents, and was often unable to address points directly. She either followed standard responses prepared in advance, or launched personal attacks on her rivals to deflect attention. For instance, she said that if she were not re-elected, the country would be sending Jeremy Corbyn “naked and alone” to the Brexit negotiation. And Jeremy Corbyn “will sneak into 10 Downing Street”, the Prime Minister’s official residence. Such remarks raised eyebrows.

Her tactical mistakes corroded her support base. The result of the June 2016 referendum on whether to exit the European Union was 52% – 48% in favour of leaving. An EU remainer before the referendum, her conversion into a fervent leaver was rapid. She became an advocate of severing all ties from the EU, the European Single Market and the European Court of Justice. She chose to pressure the EU into negotiating a new free trade agreement which would stop the current freedom of movement between the United Kingdom and the other 27 member-countries.

She threatened the other EU members that if she did not get her way in the negotiation, the United Kingdom could stop sharing intelligence with them. The Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, warned that British people would stop buying Italian wine. Several members of her cabinet warned that German car manufacturers would suffer if British customers stopped buying their automobiles. There was never a chance of that happening.

Irritated by attacks on the European Union for years, the EU’s patience seemed to be running out. A “divorce bill” as big as 100 billion euros was mentioned within EU circles. In London, some people talked of no payment at all. The status of several million European immigrants in the UK and British citizens living in the rest of the EU became a matter of contention. Threats were issued by both sides. As talks begin, the relationship between the two sides is far from congenial.

Theresa May played an overtly nationalistic card to draw the anti-immigration UK Independence Party’s supporters towards her. She told the British people: “If you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere.” This rhetoric repelled many cosmopolitan voters often travelling or living abroad. Young voters were attracted towards the main opposition Labour Party. Under its left-wing leader, Jeremy Corbyn, Labour performed much better than expected.

Theresa May’s eagerness to cosy up with the United States President, Donald Trump, also did not help. Keen to show off the United Kingdom’s “special relationship” with America, she was hasty to fly to Washington, to be the “first foreign leader” to meet Trump, where they were seen hand-in-hand in the White House. She gave the clear impression that she was ready to abandon Britain’s EU membership, and accept ever more dependence on an erratic and unreliable American President.

She invited Trump for a state visit to the United Kingdom, generating considerable opposition at home. Trump’s frequent personal attacks on London Mayor Sadiq Khan, a Muslim, and Theresa May’s reluctance to express her disapproval of Trump’s remarks did not go down well in Britain. It all made her look weak. Trump’s state visit has now been put off.

Theresa May will now head a minority government, dependent on Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), a hard-line protestant group, to sustain her government. DUP backed leaving the European Union in the June 2016 referendum. But it does not want a hard border between Northern Ireland and the neighbouring Republic of Ireland, an EU member. With her government now reduced to a minority in Parliament, Theresa May has a very weak hand in the coming Brexit negotiation.

How her political calculations failed so spectacularly will be a matter for analysis for months or longer. Many commentators, including this one, had interpreted the narrow result to leave the EU in June 2016 primarily as a vote against immigration, and the perceived burden immigrants put on the public services – immigrants who work legally in the UK to do jobs British people would not do, and pay tax.

The reality was more complex, for it was the government’s obsession to make financial cuts that did not allow more spending to meet the extra demand on the public services. It was thought that the anti-immigration sentiment whipped up by the UKIP drove the vote to leave the EU. Less than a year after, Theresa May’s Conservative Party adopted the same anti-immigrant rhetoric in the general election campaign in the hope of wooing UKIP voters.

It did not happen. Most working class voters, traditional supporters of the Labour Party, returned to their old party. It now looks as though the referendum was actually a protest vote against deep cuts in the government spending year after year, causing hardship for ordinary people. In the general election just held, Labour came out with a manifesto that promised extra spending on public services, abolition of the University tuition fee and protection for senior citizens’ pensions, financed by an increase in the corporation tax, and income tax on high income earners.

Young people, many of whom did not vote in the past, registered in vast numbers and did vote this time. Labour captured almost 65% of all votes under 40 years of age. This turnaround is both about fact and perception. Two months ago, the focus was on the Labour Party’s infighting, the electoral unacceptability of its socialist leader Jeremy Corbyn, and the image perpetuated by the right-wing press of Theresa May as a “strong and stable” leader. The picture now is the exact opposite. The Conservative Party is in disarray, and the Prime Minister, Theresa May, is seen as the loser. Governing the country has suddenly become a lot more difficult, and the government is not sure what kind of exit from the European Union to negotiate.

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The Fall of David Cameron

History News Network

Prime Minister Harold Wilson, who dominated British politics in the 1960s, once said that a week is a long time in politics. The meaning of his famous remark is that political fortunes can change dramatically in a short time. Just one year after winning the May 2015 general election against the odds, Prime Minister David Cameron has suffered a spectacular fall. He is out of power and out of politics, having stood down as an MP with immediate effect on September 12, less than three months after he resigned as prime minister.

Cameron had been leader of the Conservative Party for ten years, and prime minister for six, all but one in coalition with the Liberal Democrats. When he appeared to be at the pinnacle of his career, having won a majority in the May 2015 general election, his luck ran out. Now, he is yesterday’s man. Much of Cameron’s legacy is being dismantled by his successor Theresa May. His record in office is under critical examination. His admirers are dwindling.

Two days after Cameron’s resignation as an MP, the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee published a highly critical report. It held him “ultimately responsible” for the collapse of the Libyan state, and the rise of ISIS after the Anglo-French military campaign with American help in 2011.

Remember, then Prime Minister David Cameron and President Nicolas Sarkozy were leading champions of military action in Libya, citing the principle of “responsibility to protect” – a principle endorsed by the UN Security Council as a means of last resort to prevent war crimes and crimes against humanity. Amid determined public calls for a western-led campaign against the Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, a reluctant President Obama gave in. The result was a NATO campaign which led to the overthrow of Colonel Gaddafi. Obama regrets the bungled Libyan intervention now.

The parliamentary committee’s report said the government of Prime Minister Cameron neither had accurate intelligence nor a coherent strategy for Libya after Gaddafi’s removal. The result, according to the report, was political and economic collapse, tribal warfare, widespread human rights abuses and the rise of ISIS in North Africa, fuelled by weapons which the Libyan army abandoned.

The initial objective of the Libyan campaign was limited to protect the besieged civilian population in Benghazi, protesting against Gaddafi’s rule when the Arab Spring swept across the region. After that objective was secured within a short time, the Foreign Affairs Committee’s report concluded, the United Kingdom “drifted into a policy of regime change by military means.” It became “exclusively focused on military intervention.” The decision was taken in France; the United Kingdom simply followed.

Insofar as Britain’s recent military interventions abroad are concerned, there are parallels between David Cameron and Tony Blair, prime minister from 1997 to 2007. Blair was heavily criticised in the Chilcot Inquiry, published in July 2016, for acquiescing with President George W. Bush to invade Iraq in 2003. The parliamentary inquiry into Libya found that David Cameron went along with the decision-making in France, with calamitous results.

Tony Blair, with George W. Bush, must bear the ultimate responsibility for the collapse of the Iraqi state, the emergence of al-Qaida in Iraq and more recently ISIS. Likewise, the parliamentary inquiry, in its final analysis, held David Cameron responsible for the disintegration of Libya. The policy created conditions for the birth of ISIS in North Africa, and for massive waves of refugees arriving in Europe. UK actions in Libya were described as “ill-conceived” by the inquiry chairman Crispin Blunt, a member of Cameron’s own Conservative Party. Cameron himself refused to testify. He said he was too busy to appear.

But the reason for Cameron’s fall from power was not Libya. He was a tactical, rather than visionary, leader, not able to stand up to dissenters in his party. He failed to secure a majority in the 2010 general election, and had to form a coalition government with the Liberal Democratic Party. In 2015, he won by a small majority in parliament on a manifesto pledge to hold a referendum on whether the United Kingdom should remain a member of the European Union.

His pledge was meant to placate the anti-EU faction in his Conservative party, and to counter the UK Independence Party (UKIP) led by Nigel Farage, a vehemently anti-EU and anti-immigration politician. Cameron’s lurch to the right on issues such as immigration, and his attempts to secure concessions from the EU, were tactics to maintain control, win the referendum, and stay in the European Union. He was over-confidence that he was a winner, and would prevail in the referendum. It proved costly.

Cameron’s predecessors, Margaret Thatcher and John Major, had resisted calls for a referendum. In the 1980s, Thatcher’s frequent public arguments with the rest of the European Union over British contributions, and her assertions of national sovereignty, concealed divisions in the Conservative Party. Her successor John Major (1990-1997) often clashed with party rebels over EU membership, but would not contemplate another referendum. Major insisted that the membership issue was resolved in the 1973 vote. Cameron lost the gamble, because what was meant to be an electoral exercise about the EU became a vote on a wide range of policies under his prime ministership.

Now that Cameron has left the political scene, it is for Prime Minister Theresa May to manage the aftermath. But the recent history of the United Kingdom demonstrates that when a prime minister has dominated national politics for years, the tenure of their successor is difficult and short. James Callaghan (1976–1979) survived in office for three years before his defeat by Margaret Thatcher. John Major had a difficult time in office before his defeat in 1997 by Tony Blair’s Labour Party. And after Blair’s resignation, Prime Minister Gordon Brown managed to remain in office for three years before he was defeated in 2010.

The next general election in the United Kingdom is due in 2020. Whether Prime Minister Theresa May’s government can last until then is an open question.

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Britain in the Doldrums After the Brexit Vote

CounterPunch

The recent referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union was a people’s revolt which unleashed a series of unintended consequences. The result was unexpected, and its aftershocks ended more than a handful of political careers. Prime Minister David Cameron, who had vigorously campaigned to remain in the EU, resigned the following day. The euphoria which the Leave campaign’s ‘victory’ generated did not last. Several leading figures of the winning side withdrew from the front line.

Nigel Farage, a vehement anti-EU and anti-immigration politician, stood down as leader of the right-wing populist UK Independence Party. Farage claimed that he had done his bit, and was going to spend time with his family. Boris Johnson, former mayor of London, whose last-minute decision to join and become co-leader of the Leave campaign, announced that he would not enter the race to succeed David Cameron as the Conservative Party leader and prime minister. George Osborne, chancellor of the exchequer (finance minister), who was seen as a future prime minister, also decided not to enter the leadership contest.

Amid the shock of Brexit, the party’s ‘big beasts’ Michael Gove and Liam Fox were eliminated from the leadership race in the first two rounds. The Home Secretary Theresa May, a quiet Remainer, found herself in a commanding position among Conservative members of parliament. Chris Grayling, another Leaver, made a tactical retreat without even entering the race. Andrea Leadsom, a junior minister, took a distant second place. Her lack of judgment and experience were soon obvious. Leadsom retired hurt after growing criticisms from party members and the press.

Leadsom’s withdrawal left Theresa May as the last candidate standing in the field. Thus she became the leader of the party and prime minister.

Two striking features emerged from May’s appointment of a new cabinet on taking office. The overwhelming majority of her ministers were in the Remain camp, as she herself was, before the vote. Nevertheless, she did bring some prominent figures of the Leave camp into her cabinet. She has given them departments with the responsibility to negotiate Britain’s exit from the European Union, and to find new trade deals to plug the big hole which leaving the EU will create.

The appointment of Boris Johnson, an outspoken politician who has a reputation for making undiplomatic remarks, as Britain’s foreign secretary has caused astonishment, ridicule and anger in Europe and the United States. Johnson has few friends, but many foes. The new Brexit Secretary, David Davis, was minister of state for Europe twenty years ago. Liam Fox has been given the department of international trade, and Andrea Leadsom environment, food and rural affairs – a department which has to deal with massive EU subsidies for farmers.

These four politicians were the main faces of the Leave campaign in the governing Conservative Party before the referendum. Now they are entrusted with the heavy responsibility of making Britain’s exit happen. For them, the time for sloganeering is over. Now they must deliver. The presence of some of the most vocal Leavers in a cabinet which has a safe majority of Remainers looks like a Machiavellian device to keep opponents in and, at the same time, contain them. If they fail, people will hold them responsible.

The United Kingdom leaving the EU would be a walk into the dark, for there is no precedence of a member-state walking out of the association. Once Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty is triggered, the process would be extremely complex, tense and risky. The prime minister has announced that she will chair three new cabinet committees which will focus on the European Union and international trade, economy and industrial strategy, and social reform. The Brexiteers who found a place in the cabinet achieved high office, but with their wings clipped. Theresa May, to whom they should be grateful, will always be watching their every move.

This outcome shows that winners are often losers in the chaotic aftermath of a popular mutiny, for that is what the referendum was. Rebellion continues to simmer under the surface in the governing Conservative Party, which has a working majority of just 16 in parliament. There are about 20 hard-line MPs who will stop at nothing short of complete exit from the EU, and Theresa May has either sacked or not promoted around 25 Tory MPs, who are unhappy. The prime minister may be safe in the cabinet she has chosen now, but the prospects of revolt in the near future are high.

The origins of the people’s revolt in the EU referendum are worth exploring. A close examination of how different groups voted is revealing (see Politico). While 70 percent 18 to 24-year-old voters wanted the United Kingdom to remain in the European Union, there was a steady decline in support for the EU among older age groups. Among those aged 65 years or more, 61 percent voted to Leave. Britain’s aging population has been on the rise for years. Older people with lingering memories of World War II look negatively at the EU, in which Germany is the most powerful member-state.

Support for remaining in the EU among voters with a university degree was 71 percent. It declined with lower education to the extent that almost two-thirds of voters with a high school diploma chose to Leave. Across the political spectrum, the more right-wing voters were, the stronger their opposition to Britain’s membership of the EU and free movement of people. So Labour and Liberal-Democrat voters backed the idea to remain in large numbers while backing for leaving among Conservative and UK Independence Party supporters was very high. Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain. England and Wales went against. The referendum has divided families, with young and ambitious graduates wanting to travel on one side. Their parents and grandparents on the other.

Most worrying is the divide between rich and poor in England and Wales. Communities devastated by the demise of the coal and steel industries since the 1980s have still not recovered. Young, able and ambitious have moved to other parts of the country, indeed to other European countries. Left behind are the old, the less educated and the poorly skilled whose wages are easily undercut by new arrivals from other EU countries. Years of hardship, isolation and hopelessness have made them bitter and resentful. A great many of them saw in the referendum their only opportunity to punish the rich and the powerful, who had failed them. To vote Leave was their only weapon.

The United Kingdom has not seen such deep polarization in living memory. The pound has crashed. Confidence in the economy has suffered a sharp decline. Prime Minister Theresa May has said that she will not trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, and start the exit process this year. For the country faces major challenges – to negotiate the exit from the EU; at the same time to maintain as much access to the European single market as possible; to negotiate dozens of new trade deals with countries around the world. These are monumental challenges. It is doubtful whether the United Kingdom has the ability to meet them without having to pay the price.

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