LONDON – It’s a bit like a Shakespeare play — specifically the final scene of Hamlet, when almost all the play’s major characters die violently. And now we’re down to one. Her name is Theresa May.
It has been barely three weeks since the United Kingdom (or at least, 52 percent of those who voted) chose to leave the European Union, but all the main Brexit leaders have already left the stage. The Conservative Party has always been notable for its ruthlessness, and leaders who threaten to split the party get short shrift.
The first to go was Prime Minister David Cameron, who called the referendum expecting that a pro-EU outcome would finally make the anti-EU obsessives on the right of his own Conservative Party shut up. It was a needless, fatal blunder.
Cameron allowed some of his own cabinet members to campaign for Brexit, in the belief that they would return to the fold, chastened by defeat, when the country voted for “remain.” Instead, the “leave” campaign won, and Cameron announced his resignation the morning after the referendum.
However, he said that he would stay in office until October, to give the party time to choose a new leader. This would have involved three months of political paralysis, but it also gave Cameron time to settle his own future (he seems to be angling for a senior job with NATO). And then the slaughter started.
It was generally assumed that one of the pro-Brexit Conservative leaders would replace Cameron, most likely Boris Johnson. His presence at the head of the Brexit campaign probably gave it the million extra votes it needed for victory — but he was clearly shocked by the prospect of actually having to lead the country into the post-Brexit wilderness.
Johnson disappeared from sight for four days after the referendum, which gave the co-leader of the Brexit campaign, Justice Minister Michael Gove, time to plan a coup against him. Gove was supposed to be running Johnson’s campaign, but instead he announced that Johnson was not up to the job and declared that he was running for the leadership himself.
Johnson withdrew (probably glad to be out), and Gove’s treachery was so blatant that even his fellow Conservatives turned against him. For comic relief Nigel Farage, leader of the UK Independence Party, also quit, saying that he wanted his life back. All the main Brexit leaders were gone in just two weeks, leaving only Andrea Leadsom as a pro-Brexit contender for the Conservative leadership.
Leadsom was a hard-right pro-Brexiter who only entered Parliament in 2010. She was a lightweight who would never normally be seen as a potential prime minister, and her views were so extreme — marriage should only be for Christians, not gays; bring back fox-hunting — that she probably could not win a general election.
But Conservative members of Parliament worried that she might win the leadership race anyway, because the people who decide that are the 150,000 paid-up Conservative Party members, a socially conservative, middle-class group with an average age of 60. So the pressure on Leadsom to step aside grew and grew.
On Monday morning Leadsom caved in, ensuring that the last woman standing, Home Secretary Theresa May, will be the new Conservative leader and British prime minister. There will be no split in the party, and there will be no three-month hiatus in British politics. May is seen as a “safe pair of hands,” and she will be in office within days.
She will have a free run in Parliament, because the opposition Labour Party has a radical new leader, Jeremy Corbyn, elected a year ago by the rank and file of the Labour Party, who has never had the support of even one-fifth of the party’s Members of Parliament. Corbyn had always been hostile to the EU, and his lackluster campaigning for remain contributed to the fact that fully one-third of Labour voters backed Brexit.
As a result, the Parliamentary Labour Party is now in revolt against Corbyn, and a senior Labour politician, Angela Eagle, is officially challenging his leadership. The Labour Party will be off-line politically while it settles its internal struggle, so May will not face any serious opposition in parliament.
May supported remain in the referendum, but very quietly. She has now pledged to carry out the wishes of (52 percent of) the voters and lead Britain out of the European Union — but that doesn’t mean she has the faintest idea how to do it.
The Guardian newspaper summed up the situation in an editorial last Wednesday: “It is now brutally clear that there is not a plan — no plan for how and when Britain leaves, no plan for future relations with Europe, and no plan at all for how political assent might be secured for any of the imperfect political options on offer.” That is as true for May as it was for the defunct pro-Brexit leadership.
But cheer up. Assuming that Angela Merkel remains chancellor of Germany and that Hillary Clinton wins the U.S. presidential election in November, by year’s end the three biggest Western countries will all be run by women. Maybe they can sort it all out.
Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.
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