AGITATED markets, a tumbling pound-sterling, a downgraded credit rating: none of these should have been an unexpected outcome of the British electorate’s decision last weekend to opt out of the European Union.
As for leadership turmoil in the main parties, it was more or less a given that David Cameron’s days as prime minister were numbered if his arguments for remaining in the EU were defeated by the popular verdict. But the concerted move by members of his own shadow cabinet to expel Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition Labour Party was greeted with surprise.
It shouldn’t have been. The Daily Telegraph reported 10 days before the vote that “Labour rebels believe they can topple Jeremy Corbyn after the EU referendum in a 24-hour blitz”. The result of the referendum was unclear at the time, and it is reasonably clear that the “24-hour blitz” would have occurred even if the popular verdict had gone the other way.
The move to expel Corbyn was greeted with surprise.
The bulk of the Parliamentary Labour Party was extremely disconcerted by Corbyn’s landslide victory some nine months ago in a leadership contest that, under new rules, for the first time gave each party member an equal say. Corbyn was a backbench maverick in the PLP who frequently voted against New Labour when it was in power under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, and his triumph was anathema to the bulk of MPs who saw power primarily as a means of consolidating the Thatcherite agenda that Blair, with minor variations, had so blatantly pursued.
A clear majority of Labour members thought otherwise, though, and Corbyn’s ascendancy drew back into the party a substantial number of those who had abandoned it because they considered it too right-wing.
The PLP’s assault against Corbyn — led, somewhat ironically, by former shadow foreign secretary Hilary Benn, whose dad, Tony Benn, a close comrade-in-arms of Corbyn was for decades the most coherent and consistent Labour opponent of the EU on the utterly plausible grounds of its depletion of national sovereignty — has ostensibly been based on the Labour leader’s lackadaisical approach to the ‘remain’ argument ahead of the referendum.
In fact, Corbyn, perhaps against his better judgment, campaigned extensively, if not always enthusiastically, in favour of Britain remaining in the EU. Sure, he was disinclined to rave like Boris (Johnson) and Dave. But that’s not his style. And, more importantly, he had qualms about the EU that his intrinsic honesty prevented him from disregarding.
Yesterday, as Cameron headed for a meeting where he would be obliged to face his EU counterparts, Corbyn faced a PLP vote of no-confidence that was expected to overwhelmingly go against him. Whether his position would remain tenable beyond that is open to question, but there is a fair chance that he could rely on a second leadership vote to retain his post. Where would that leave the conspirators, who until the time of writing had failed to come up with either an alternative candidate or a distinct set of policies?
Amid the inevitable turmoil among the Conservatives, commonplace logic pointed to Labour unity behind a democratically elected leader on the basis of a platform that challenged from the left the consequences of a Tory catfight between a pair of more or less equally contemptible former Eton classmates.
Labour’s MPs — and many of Corbyn’s most vociferous opponents belong to constituencies that voted overwhelmingly to leave the EU, but are unwilling to accept responsibility for that outcome — were, until the weekend, in a position to make their party electable in the probable event of a snap election. They have now squandered that chance. Were Labour to win power under a re-elected Corbyn, which is not an impossible dream, it would be despite Hilary Benn & co, caterers to the despondent elites.
Meanwhile, Cameron, who has decided to leave activation of Article 50 — which formally begins the process of UK withdrawal from the EU — to his successor, does not intend to step down until October. Not all of Europe empathises with that approach. France, in particular, wants the exit strategy to be put into action right away, whereas Germany has shown signs of greater patience.
Some constitutional lawyers — of whom there is no dearth in Britain, despite its lack of a formal constitution — have indicated that the nation’s parliament is under no obligation to abide by the referendum verdict, so the UK could remain part of the EU. Direct democracy has also come in for some flak — as, more appropriately, have younger voters who largely opposed a Brexit but did not turn out in sufficient numbers to produce a different verdict.
Amid a sharp rise in instances of racism and profound uncertainty in every sphere, including the UK’s integrity, the only thing Britons are clearly blessed with is the ancient Chinese curse: may you live in interesting times.
Published in Dawn, June 29th, 2016