Everybody in British politics is in shock now that that they face the reality of having to negotiate the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union. In the case of Boris Johnson, a charming opportunist who took the leadership of the Brexit campaign in the hope of succeeding David Cameron as prime minister, the prospect of having to lead those negotiations was so frightening that he simply froze up.
That gave Michael Gove, co-leader of the Brexit campaign, an excuse to stab Boris in the back and supplant him as the main “Leave” candidate for the Conservative leadership, which he duly did on Thursday morning. Gove is a true believer, but he lacks Johnson’s charisma, so the next Conservative prime minister is actually likelier to be Theresa May – who supported the “Remain” campaign.
If most Conservative members of parliament are terrified by the outcome of the referendum, that is even more true for ordinary pro-Brexit voters. The level of voters’ remorse in Britain is so high that a re-run of the referendum today would probably produce the opposite result. But it is hard to imagine how such a thing could be justified. (Best two out of three referendums?)
So the process of extracting the UK from the European Union will presumably stumble forward, albeit at a snail’s pace, even though most of the promises that were made by the “Leave” campaign about Britain’s bright future outside the EU have now been exposed as lies. “A lot of things were said in advance of this referendum that we might want to think about again,” admitted Leave campaigner and former Conservative cabinet minister Liam Fox.
One thing all the contenders for the prime ministerial job agree on is Britain should not start negotiating its exit now. Recognising this, Cameron promised to stay in office until October to give the Conservative Party time to find a new leader – and promised NOT to invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon treaty during that time.
Article 50 is the trigger that would start the irrevocable process of negotiating Britain’s exit from the EU – but there is no agreement yet even on what Britain should ask for, let alone what it might get. By not pulling that trigger for months, Cameron is allowing time for the painful consequences of leaving the EU to mount up and become horribly clear. Maybe he hopes that might cause a larger re-think about the whole Brexit idea. And maybe it will.
But will all this fear and remorse really lead to some sort of turn-around in the exit process? Left to stew in its own juices for six months, British politics might eventually come up with a typically muddled compromise that postponed the final break with the EU indefinitely – but it isn’t going to have six months.
It is now clear that the EU will not be generous and patient in negotiating the British departure. German Chancellor Angela Merkel told the Bundestag that the EU would not tolerate British “cherry-picking” when negotiations on subjects like trade and the free movement of people finally begin. “There must be and will be a noticeable difference between whether a country wants to be a member of the European Union family or not,” she said.
There has been great impatience with British behaviour in the other EU countries for many years. Britain has always been the odd man out, demanding exemptions from various rules and agreements, rebates on budgetary contributions, special treatment of every sort. And now that it has “decided” to leave (sort of), it’s playing the same old game, asking everybody else to wait while it deals with its domestic political problems.
“The European Union as a whole has been taken as a hostage by an internal party fight of the Tories (the British Conservatives),” said Martin Schultz, the president of the European Parliament. “And I’m not satisfied today to hear that (Cameron) wants to step down only in October and once more everything is put on hold until the Tories have decided about the next prime minister.”
To make matters worse the opposition Labour Party is also descending into chaos, with leader Jeremy Corbyn facing a revolt over his half-hearted support for the “Remain” campaign, which may have been the main reason for Brexit’s narrow victory. (Half the Labour Party’s traditional supporters didn’t even know that their own party supported staying in the EU.) Both major British political parties, for the moment, are essentially leaderless.
British politics is a train-wreck, unable and unwilling to respond to EU demands for rapid action, but the EU cannot afford to wait five or six months for the exit negotiations to begin. The markets need certainty about the future if they are not to go into meltdown, and one way or another the EU’s leaders will try to provide it. It is going to be a very ugly divorce.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 8. (“It is now…said”)