Following the vote by the UK to withdraw from the European Union – and with it forty plus years of integration with our European cousins – the six-year Premiership of Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron came to an abrupt end. Mr Cameron will now go down in British and wider European and Global history as the British leader who gave into the more extreme nationalists in his own Tory Party and risked everything nationally by gambling it all on holding an extremely dangerous referendum on such a fundamentally strategic component of 21st century Britain, and lost.
What made it all the more shocking was that only over a year ago it was the same Prime Minister who had just been returned to power for a second five-year term after having just completed his first. It was not expected in any way that after a pretty shaky five years of Coalition Government set against a dire fiscal and economic backdrop, that the Conservative Party under Cameron’s leadership would emerge not just the largest party in the House of Commons, but also one commanding a working majority for the first time since John Major delivered a fourth Tory term in 1992.
In many ways the person who least expected it was David Cameron, for now he would have to make good on his toxic pledge to hold a referendum on UK membership of the EU.
Therefore, one could have expected he would not linger long in Downing Street and a sense of relief was evident in his throwing in the towel immediately. What one did not expect was the extraordinarily chaotic vacuum of power that has opened up at the heart of British parliamentary democracy and the State; the implosion of the official Opposition Labour Party; the rapid ascent of a right-wing Home Office regime to No. 10 Downing Street and the subsequent whole scale purging of the Cameron-Osborne-Gove Notting Hill clique from the Government and the breaking of their power figures and base.
While Britain has been thrown into its greatest existential crisis since the defeat of the British Expeditionary Force and the Fall of France in the spring of 1940 with the ensuing humiliation of Dunkirk, the UK politically has had no political salvation on the scale of Winston Churchill. With the UK in risk of becoming as politically alienated and isolated with other European countries not seen since the days of the 1940s, and the global environment approaching a state of international tension not seen since the build-up to World War I, the changes in Government in London have the feeling of reshuffling the deck chairs on the Titanic. Britain has embarked upon a path of fundamentally altering and remaking its place in the world, reverting to a pre-1973/post-1945 state of being, divested of Imperial holdings such as India and now Hong Kong but also standing outside the developments of the European continent as it attempted to do between 1945 until its first French torpedoed EEC application under Harold Macmillan in 1962. It is hard to envision how this posture will enhance the power, influence and weight of the British abroad.
Indeed, the new Prime Minister Theresa May, would also seem to find it difficult to project such a vision of Britain post-Empire/post-War/post-Europe. Hence the pathetic and worrying dithering and typical inefficiency of the British State that Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty which will give effect to the process of formal exit negotiations, will not be triggered until 2017. This is due to the British Government needing as much time as possible just to start to think, plan and prepare what it is they actually want Brexit to be. Such is the inertia and paralysis in Whitehall when confronted with the enormity of the task ahead.
The challenge of now giving life to a Britain outside of the EU will be the overarching, indeed almost day to day focus of the May Government and the consumption of nearly all its energy. Curiously, Mrs May has no expertise or background in foreign policy and international relations. Her political career has largely revolved around domestic related policy matters exemplified in her Home Affairs brief.
Whatever limited understanding or knowledge Mrs May has when it comes to international diplomacy or global strategic geopolitics, she more than makes up for in political ruthlessness. With speed and brutality, she sacked her once political rival George Osborne (severely damaged by the EU result and exposed after Cameron’s resignation) exiling him to the backbenches and effectively stalling his ministerial career whilst undermining his power base and governmental court. The same fate befell the hapless and bonkers Justice Secretary and fierce critic of Mrs May, Michael Gove. So too Nicky Morgan, Stephen Crabb, Teresa Villiers, Oliver Letwin, Dominic Rabb, Anna Soubrey, Nick Boles, Ed Vaizey, Lord Feldman etc. A complete purge of the Cameron-Osborne set dubbed by the British media: «the Notting Hill» Tories. A group of metropolitan Conservatives, almost exclusively privately educated at top public schools such as Eton, socially liberal and upper-middle to aristocratic. Most a product of the Conservative Party propaganda department at Conservative Central Office during the Thatcher and Major years.
Yet, the quick transfer of power from Cameron to May put a gloss on the huge challenges facing the UK. The British economy is now headed into a period of acute upheaval and uncertainty. Whitehall – lacking any in-house trade negotiators – will have to enlist such expertise from abroad in order to complete the mammoth task of crafting new trade agreements with an array of countries. The Foreign Office will have to contend with the kafkaesque named Department for Exiting the EU, yet even though Britain will be exiting the EU, the British Government will have to maintain a hugs embassy in Brussels just to find out what the other 27 member states are up to. The impact both economically, politically and diplomatically will not become fully felt until many years to come and will reverberate for decades. Despite Mrs May’s reputation for steely competence, the situation now engulfing Britain is probably beyond her abilities.