British politics of late has been notoriously difficult to predict. Since the Great Recession, we have witnessed an unexpectedly close Scottish independence referendum, the surprise Conservative election victory and the surprise election of Jeremy Corbyn as the leader of the Labour Party and Her Majesty’s Most Loyal Opposition. Of course, the most surprising outcome of all has been the decision to Brexit, viz. for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union.
The gravity and impact of this decision cannot be understated. It has at the time of writing, (12pm UK time), lead to the resignation of the Prime Minister, a motion for a vote of no confidence in Jeremy Corbyn, calls for independence votes in Scotland and Northern Ireland, and has wiped approximately £450 billion off the FTSE. Naturally, as a commentator who has been wrong on most of the political surprises mentioned above, I will try to forecast the political implications of Brexit. The Treasury and other well-resourced organisations have forecast the economic realities and I can find no reason to repeat what they have said.
Firstly: change in the leadership of the Tories, and by extension the identity of the next Prime Minister. The election will proceed as follows: the 1922 Committee (i.e. the backbench MPs of the Conservative Party) will set the timeline for the election of the next leader. Of all the candidates that stand, only the two candidates who garner the most votes from the ’22 will progress to a run-off vote of the approximately 150 000 Conservative Party members. There are thought to be about 20 possible candidates, but it is almost a given that Boris Johnson will be amongst them, if not the outright favourite. I expect (or rather hope) that he runs off against either Stephen Crabb, the young and capable Work and Pensions Secretary, or Johnson’s antithesis, Theresa May, who has been the longest-serving Home Secretary for more than 50 years. But since Boris will be the outright favourite to become the next Prime Minister, I want to reserve some words on him.
Anyone who has followed Boris for a while will be struck by both his inexplicable charm and that he is very effective in using bluster to conceal his inability to manage his brief. His integrity is also in doubt. It is no secret that as a journalist he was fired for dishonesty and making up stories. His time as London mayor was without any noticeable achievement, and his decisions in the EU referendum campaign have laid bare his vulgar opportunism. A Tory friend of mine once described Boris as such: “Cuddly Johnson is a determined, self-interested and ruthless monster. The worst kind of politician. The annual Tory conference goes nuts when he arrives and he has a following. But he is nevertheless a joke. And he has the morals of a polecat.” Ouch.
Looking across the aisle, leadership prospects don’t look much better. Anyone who thinks Corbyn has been a successful Labour leader is deluded. He panders to the self-righteous, bourgeois metropolitan idealists and has alienated the Party from its working class roots, who overwhelmingly voted for Brexit. One just has to look at Labour’s northern heartlands to see the divergence between the opinions of their voters and their elected officials. It’s eerily similar to the divide described by Orwell in The Road to Wigan Pier in the 1930s. Clearly as much as things change, some things remain the same. Even if Corbyn does stand down, it is unlikely that his successor would be any more inspiring. The other candidates in the leadership contest held last year had the charm of a corpse and the vision of a blind man. In short, their campaigns were dire and painful. Other potential candidates, Hillary Benn and Dan Jarvis, are a bit more inspiring, but are hardly geniuses who can find a way to reinvigorate social democracy.
In short, there is likely to be a shortage of intelligent and inspiring politicians at the peak of British politics to lead the nation forward and deal with the challenges ahead. And what challenges they are.
Firstly, let’s discuss the calls for regional independence referendums. Any discussion of a referendum in Northern Ireland has to be done with reference to the contents of the Good Friday Agreement. Sinn Fein has already called for a referendum to be held, but ultimate authority vests in the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to call a referendum where she (currently Tory Eurosceptic Theresa Villiers) is convinced that there is a reasonable chance of success. Interviews she conducted this morning give the impression that she is not particularly convinced that there are any chances of success. Hence it might very well not happen.
The Scottish question is a bit more challenging. Nicola Sturgeon, the Scottish First Minister, has already indicated that her preparations for a second referendum are going forward. However, it does run into one major hurdle: the Scottish National Party does not enjoy a majority at Horywood, the Scottish Parliament. It will have to find another party to agree to a referendum: more than likely it will be the Scottish Greens who supported an independence vote in the last referendum. Even if that happens, a date will need to be found and then a 10% deficit will have to be overturned for independence to win. That is going to be a challenge. The last case for independence was based on oil prices of around $120 a barrel. It is also based on the continued membership in the European Union. That may no longer be feasible (Spain would likely exercise a veto). But one lesson that must be drawn from British politics of late is that the reasonable is hardly ever the likely outcome. In short, watch this space.
Furthermore, there are the challenges of leaving the EU in terms of Article 50. The process is likely to take two years at least and is probably going to take much longer. There does not seem to be the appetite to start negotiations immediately by the British. Whitehall would probably want to prepare adequately before starting formal discussions. But what is clear is that these negotiations will be difficult and complex. The EU is expected to adopt a harsh stance to deter others from leaving. What is clear is that a difficult period lays ahead.
Finally, there is the challenge of trade. Britain has not had to negotiate trade deals for more than a decade. To establish this capacity, formulate a trade policy as well as negotiate complex trade agreements could take a decade or more. Until then, managing the economy could prove to be an acute difficulty.
While independence from the European Union offers many exciting opportunities, it is clear that there are many political risks in light of yesterday’s vote that have arisen. It will require wisdom and sanity to prevail in addition to a good dose of luck. As the effects of this political earthquake are felt, be prepared for any past assumptions to be shaken out of place.
Author: Kai graduated from Stellenbosch University with a Bcom LLB with Economics degree in 2015. He has a great interest in current affairs and is also an avid non-fiction reader.