Political fallout of the Brexit vote

I must admit that I have been taken by surprise by the ‘sky is falling’ reactions to the vote by the UK to leave the European Union. This is my fault in that I, like so many Americans, wasn’t paying close attention to what was going on in Europe and while it appears that dire warnings about the consequences of leaving were commonplace over there, this news did not really register for me in the days before the vote.

One suspects that the economic impact of a withdrawal will be much larger for the UK than for the EU, since the size of the economy of the former is much smaller than that of the latter, and a useful rule of thumb is that larger institutions can withstand upheavals more easily than smaller ones. The EU can find a new equilibrium fairly easily after the ripple effects of the UK exit subside. This may explain why EU leaders are urging the UK to start the process of leaving soon so that they can return to a new normalcy, while even those British politicians who were so gung-ho about leaving have suddenly become coy about when they will do so.

In the UK, while any economic impact will start to be felt later, there has been considerable immediate political fallout. That prime minister David Cameron has resigned is not a surprise because in the parliamentary system, the prime minister is expected to take responsibility and quit in the event of a major defeat. But what has been surprising is the tumult within the opposition Labour Party, with many members of the shadow cabinet quitting or being fired for plotting against their leader Jeremy Corbyn. These people are calling for Corbyn to resign. Corbyn seems determined to fight them on this even if a secret ballot of party MPs goes against him, and the rank and file who voted him in are rallying to his support.

Why did Labour Party MPs decide that the very moment when the Conservatives were in deep disarray and likely to call for a general election soon was the time to create their own party crisis? It has been no secret that the leftist Corbyn was the choice of the party rank and file but that many Labour MPs are part of the neoliberal establishment that has a strong presence in the US Democratic Party establishment too and they were not happy with his election to the leadership. To choose this moment to launch what seems like a coup against Corbyn seems to suggest that their main goal is to regain control of the party from the insurgent leftists even if it undermines the party’s effort to become the next government.

The other major political fallout in the UK have been the geographical divisions within the country, with Scotland and Northern Ireland both voting against withdrawal, the former by a large margin. Those two regions are seeking to find ways to remain in the EU even if England and Wales leave but it is not clear how that could possibly work. There seems to be no precedent for parts of countries to be in the EU. The closest is Greenland which is an “autonomous country within the Danish Realm” (whatever that means) that voted to withdraw from the EU in 1985, while Denmark remains within it.

But Greenland has a tiny population of just over 50,000 people, making it the least densely populated country in the world. It is also isolated and has no land borders with any other country, making it easier to make special accommodations for it. For Scotland to remain in the EU while England leaves would be far more complicated since they are so integrated and share a land border. Would that mean the erection of border checkpoints to impose tariffs and travel restrictions? Such things are not uncommon between different countries but would be highly unusual between two parts of the same nation.

A ‘simpler’ solution would be for Scotland to become an independent nation and there have been calls for a new referendum on that very question. There have also been calls for Northern Ireland to secede from the UK and join up with the Republic of Ireland that is part of the EU but such a move risks opening up bitter old wounds between Protestants (who are the majority in Northern Ireland) and Catholics (who are the majority in Ireland).

John Oliver looks at the possible breakup of the UK.


  1. Sunday Afternoon says

    You are correct about the need for the prime minister to take responsibility.

    Given the divisions on the referendum in the Conservative Party, Cameron had a vanishingly small chance of retaining the confidence of the House, so basically had no option but to resign instead of triggering a general election if recent precedent of the last 2 lost confidence votes is followed https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Motions_of_no_confidence_in_the_United_Kingdom

    With the current turmoil regarding the EU exit vote, any new Conservative prime minister has a terrible hand dealt to them (perhaps, in the case of it being Boris, deservedly so?). There will need to be legislation passed by the House of Commons to enact the “will of the people” to withdraw from the EU.

    One option would be to go to the country (call a general election) once both the Conservative and Labour Parties have settled their leadership questions. As the EU question cuts across party lines, the party leaders could promise that MPs would have a free vote on the question of triggering Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. (A free vote is where MPs are released from their party obligations to voting according to their conscience.) Such a free vote would eliminate the question of confidence in the new government and the government would follow the outcome. In essence such a vote by a new parliament would be a confirmation “yes, we’re sure” from the UK electorate as they would have just elected a new House of Commons.

    If Boris (or whomever it is) doesn’t call a general election, I think there is a substantial chance of losing a vote of confidence anyway shortly after taking office. As there will have just been a change of government without an election, this would clearly trigger a general election. Boris probably paid attention to the Blair/Brown transition -- Brown suffered mightily for not going to the country shortly after becoming prime minister.

  2. sonofrojblake says

    any new Conservative prime minister has a terrible hand dealt to them

    There’s a thing going viral in the UK at the moment that holds out some hope that Brexit might not even happen (what follows is a copy, not original to me):

    “If Boris Johnson looked downbeat yesterday, that is because he realises that he has lost.

    Perhaps many Brexiters do not realise it yet, but they have actually lost, and it is all down to one man: David Cameron.

    With one fell swoop yesterday at 9:15 am, Cameron effectively annulled the referendum result, and simultaneously destroyed the political careers of Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and leading Brexiters who cost him so much anguish, not to mention his premiership.


    Throughout the campaign, Cameron had repeatedly said that a vote for leave would lead to triggering Article 50 straight away. Whether implicitly or explicitly, the image was clear: he would be giving that notice under Article 50 the morning after a vote to leave. Whether that was scaremongering or not is a bit moot now but, in the midst of the sentimental nautical references of his speech yesterday, he quietly abandoned that position and handed the responsibility over to his successor.

    And as the day wore on, the enormity of that step started to sink in: the markets, Sterling, Scotland, the Irish border, the Gibraltar border, the frontier at Calais, the need to continue compliance with all EU regulations for a free market, re-issuing passports, Brits abroad, EU citizens in Britain, the mountain of legislation to be torn up and rewritten … the list grew and grew.

    The referendum result is not binding. It is advisory. Parliament is not bound to commit itself in that same direction.

    The Conservative party election that Cameron triggered will now have one question looming over it: will you, if elected as party leader, trigger the notice under Article 50?

    Who will want to have the responsibility of all those ramifications and consequences on his/her head and shoulders?

    Boris Johnson knew this yesterday, when he emerged subdued from his home and was even more subdued at the press conference. He has been out-manoeuvred and check-mated.

    If he runs for leadership of the party, and then fails to follow through on triggering Article 50, then he is finished. If he does not run and effectively abandons the field, then he is finished. If he runs, wins and pulls the UK out of the EU, then it will all be over -- Scotland will break away, there will be upheaval in Ireland, a recession … broken trade agreements. Then he is also finished. Boris Johnson knows all of this. When he acts like the dumb blond it is just that: an act.

    The Brexit leaders now have a result that they cannot use. For them, leadership of the Tory party has become a poison chalice.

    When Boris Johnson said there was no need to trigger Article 50 straight away, what he really meant to say was “never”. When Michael Gove went on and on about “informal negotiations” … why? why not the formal ones straight away? … he also meant not triggering the formal departure. They both know what a formal demarche would mean: an irreversible step that neither of them is prepared to take.

    All that remains is for someone to have the guts to stand up and say that Brexit is unachievable in reality without an enormous amount of pain and destruction, that cannot be borne. And David Cameron has put the onus of making that statement on the heads of the people who led the Brexit campaign.”

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