The earthquake that upended British politics

Published by The Wall Street Journal (9th July, 2016)

British politics and governance have been shaken during the past few weeks in ways that I have not seen during my lifetime. With savage infighting and Shakespearean betrayals unfolding almost daily, it is hard to keep up with events—we watch with mouths agape the rise and fall of our big beasts.

My former boss David Cameron is champing to get out of Downing Street, announcing the day after the stunning June 23 Brexit vote that he would resign in the fall. This comes a little more than a year after he pulled off an extraordinary election victory that left rival parties shattered. His two expected successors—Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne and former London Mayor Boris Johnson—are among those with ambitions shredded. The Labour Party, whose members of Parliament have been in almost perpetual revolt since a veteran left-winger was imposed on them by party voters, is in the midst of a slow-burn attempted coup. The Liberal Democrats, in coalition government last year, have simply disappeared.

Most attention is on the Tories, given that they are the party in power. We now know, after elimination rounds of voting by Conservative members of Parliament in the past week, that the next prime minister will be a woman, for the second time in British history. Justice Secretary Michael Gove, once admired for his ideological certainties and intellectual clarity, was humiliatingly rejected by colleagues in Thursday’s voting. His colleagues took vengeance for his earlier betrayal of Mr. Johnson, when he withdrew support at the last minute and clawed after the prime minister’s job himself.

Now we have two enigmatic candidates left standing as the smoke of sudden battle clears. Their names will go to about 140,000 party members for the final choice, to be reached by Sept. 9. One is Theresa May, 59, who has survived as home secretary—a job usually seen as a poisoned chalice—longer than any predecessor. She is a tough pragmatist who first came to public attention in 2002, when as party chairwoman she told the Tories they were seen as ‘the nasty party,’ out of touch with changing social conventions. Typically, Ms. May backed staying in the EU but kept her head down during the divisive campaign. She is seen as a safe choice who might just manage to knit the party and nation back together.

Her rival is Andrea Leadsom, 53, the junior energy minister who emerged as a candidate for party leadership after a couple of strong performances in televised Brexit debates. A cabal of hard-right social conservatives, who long disliked Mr. Cameron’s centrist approach, have clustered around her in a bid to recapture their party. Ms. Leadsom, a devout Christian, criticizes same-sex-marriage legislation, which is also unpopular with older party members, but she has run into trouble after being caught exaggerating her previous career in finance.

Both women claim the mantle of the Tory heroine Margaret Thatcher. Ms. May is the clear favorite, supported by more than half the Conservative Party and most national newspapers—but parties are prone to upsetting the odds in leadership contests. And Brexit reminded us again that electorates across the West are fed up with ‘elites’ and frustrated by the failures of conventional party politics.

A glance across the political divide suggests that we may be watching the dissolution of Britain’s traditional two-party system. Last year Labour responded to the unexpected loss of the general election by choosing unreconstructed leftist Jeremy Corbyn as its leader. He is seen as an electoral liability and loathed by most Labour MPs, who were so angered by his poor performance in the Brexit battle that almost all of his shadow ministers resigned. Then a big majority in Westminster backed a no-confidence vote. Yet supported by Labour Party members and union paymasters, Mr. Corbyn clings to power amid growing chatter about the need for a new moderate party on the left.

Meanwhile, the Scottish Nationalists remain rampant, talking about another referendum on independence after their nation backed staying with Brussels. The Liberal Democrats have vanished at a moment when liberalism is under assault from both sides. Even the UK Independence Party, the right-wing populists who three years ago forced Mr. Cameron to foolishly agree to a Brexit vote, are locked in a leadership struggle. Ukip’s long-serving chief, Nigel Farage, stepped down after seeing his Brexit dream finally come true.

Amid all this political tumult, there is little focus on how to implement Brexit, which makes multinational companies nervous and will necessitate 150 new laws, according to parliamentary sources. If Theresa May becomes prime minister, her natural caution will probably mean a long period of careful negotiations with the EU, while Ms. Leadsom says she will move expeditiously.

Yet no one seems able to answer the conundrum at heart of this debate: How can the U.K. keep European borders open for goods and services while limiting the free movement of people? Especially amid alarm in Brussels that Britain’s actions might encourage more EU members to follow suit.

Britain appears divided and fearful of the future. The referendum was led by ambitious social liberals abusing a reactionary voter insurgency against globalization and ‘elites.’ It pitched London against English regions, young against old, rich against poor. The next prime minister must heal wounds by bringing the nation together, protecting the economy and reassuring businesses while redefining Britain’s relationship with an infuriated Europe and the rest of the world. Perhaps it is no wonder the nation’s political parties are struggling amid such seismic events.

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