By Dan Balz
June 27, 2016
LONDON — Britain’s political system remained in turmoil Monday, virtually leaderless and with the two major parties divided internally. But the meltdown that has taken place in the days after voters decided to break the country’s ties with Europe is more than a British problem, reflecting an erosion in public confidence that afflicts democracies around the world.
Last Thursday’s Brexit vote cast a bright light on the degree to which the effects of globalization and the impact of immigration, along with decades of overpromises and under-delivery by political leaders, have undermined the ability of those officials to lead. This collapse of confidence has created what amounts to a crisis in governing for which there seems no easy or quick answer.
The debris here is clear. The Brexit vote claimed Prime Minister David Cameron as its first victim. Having called the referendum and led the campaign to keep Britain in the European Union, he announced his intention to resign the morning after the vote. The results also now threaten the standing of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who faces a likely leadership election after seeing more than two dozen members of his leadership team resign in the past two days.
Alastair Darling, a former chancellor of the exchequer, outlined the extent of the crisis here during an interview with the BBC’s “Today” program on Monday. “There is no government. There is no opposition. The people who got us into this mess — they’ve gone to ground,” he said “How has the United Kingdom come to this position? We have taken this decision and have no plan for the future.”
The seeds of what has brought Britain to this moment exist elsewhere, which makes this country’s problems the concern of leaders elsewhere. In Belgium and Brazil, democracies have faced crises of legitimacy; in Spain and France, elected leaders have been hobbled by their own unpopularity; even in Japan, where Prime Minister Shinzo Abe faces no threat from the opposition, his government has demonstrated a consistent inability to deliver prosperity.
Anthony King, a professor of politics at the University of Essex, said the underlying factor is that many people no longer believe that, however imperfect things are economically, they will keep getting better.
In the face of that change in public attitudes, he said, much of the political class “is behaving the way it used to behave, the old arguments, the old fights, the adversarialism.” That has created what he called “the palpable disconnection” between political leaders and ordinary people. “That is true across much of the democratic world,” he added. “How do you put that right?”
The problem is especially acute here at the moment and threatens to grow worse in the near term. A longtime analyst of politics here, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of his position, said: “If you thought your [American] politics were a mess, we can outdo you anytime. I’ve never known it in any way, shape or form as bad as this.”
Britain’s political system faces months if not years of instability. Cameron originally recommended that a new prime minister be in place by early October. On Monday, the party committee overseeing the rules for the selection of a new Conservative Party leader to succeed Cameron accelerated that timetable, calling for a decision to be made by Sept. 2.
Boris Johnson, the former mayor of London and the leading voice in the campaign to leave the E.U., is seen as the favorite to succeed Cameron. But he is a controversial figure and faces resistance inside the party.
The selection of a new prime minister probably will be followed by an early election — almost four years ahead of the next scheduled election — because the next prime minister will need a public endorsement as they begin the process of negotiating a withdrawal from the E.U.
For the Conservative Party, the prospect of an election as soon as possible is attractive because of the chaos within Labour and the prospect of enlarging the narrow majority won in May 2015. It is the prospect of a crippling defeat that caused many Labour members of Parliament, long unhappy with Corbyn, to move swiftly against him now.
A left-wing backbencher, Corbyn was propelled to the leadership position after Labour’s wipeout in the 2015 general election. He won on the strength of support from the unions and particularly from rank-and-file members of the party.
Today, Labour is in a vicious civil war, split between its grass-roots membership and the party’s elected leadership in Parliament. Its future as a viable and effective opposition party is under threat at a time the country most needs one.
The party’s deputy leader told Corbyn on Monday that he has lost the confidence of the parliamentary party. But Corbyn has fought to fight on and might have enough grass-roots support to fend off a challenge.
The reality is that neither party enjoys a particularly stable coalition. Tim Bale, a professor of politics at Queen Mary University in London, argued that as cultural issues — here symbolized by immigration — have risen to the fore, they have put pressure on a party system long organized over economic differences of more or less reliance on free markets rather than government’s hand.
Labour saw many of its strong areas outside of London vote strongly in favor of leaving the E.U. Meanwhile, Cameron was relying on the votes of Labour districts in London to help prevent that from happening.
“In other words,” Bale said, “there’s possibly a mismatch between the party system we have and the party system we need.” But he added that history and institutional inertia mean there is no prospect of any realignment.
It will be left to the leaders of the next government to pick up the pieces after Thursday’s vote. But those who led the “leave” campaign to break with Europe and who are likely to lead the government by this fall will be challenged to live up to the promises they made in the weeks before the referendum. Already they have backed away from some of the more questionable assertions of the campaign.
That governing challenge could fall most heavily on Johnson, if he becomes the next prime minister. The normally flamboyant former journalist appears somewhat chastened by what lies ahead. In a column in Monday’s Telegraph newspaper, he sought to present himself as someone who would try to unite a sharply divided country and smooth over some of the issues that were at the heart of the Brexit debate.
He argued that the government would be able to take back control of immigration — the issue that above all animated the actions of many supporters of Brexit — while maintaining many of the economic benefits it now enjoys by being a member of the E.U.
“Britain is and always will be a great European power,” he wrote, “offering top table opinions and giving leadership on everything from foreign policy to defense to counter-terrorism and intelligence-sharing.”
But so far there is no plan for implementing any of this from those who led the campaign to leave. To some outside observers, that is a recipe for more voter disappointment and a further decline in confidence in leaders and institutions. As Bale put it, “The time seems right for another betrayal.”