It is often said that a week is a long time in politics. This last week, starting from June 23, must seem like an eternity for some in Westminster. Indeed, the unfolding dramas continue in a manner more akin to a soap opera than national politics.
As the morning of June 24th unfolded, the results were as predicted. The economy was under threat, and the pound fell dramatically in value. Shockwaves were felt as far afield as Asia on the financial markets.
It was further expected that Prime Minister David Cameron‘s position might become untenable. As the voting swung towards Leave, questions about his future were already being asked. What was unexpected was the nature of his departure from No 10. In a clearly emotive speech, he announced his intention to resign in the autumn, and to allow a new leadership to carry on the the task started. In a dignified manner, Mr Cameron had never acted in more Prime Ministerial manner as he announced his resignation.
Furthermore, with the eyes of the world upon him, seeking reassurance in a time of uncertainty – he delivered. Although he merely promised more uncertainty by delaying invoking Article 50, and by delaying his own departure, it was the reassurance that was needed. The certainty of the uncertainty had a calming effect on politicians and the financial markets alike. By delaying making any decision, by delaying showing firm leadership at a tense time – ironically Mr Cameron showed himself to be a great British leader and Prime Minister. His calm approach at a time of uncertainty has earned him a place in the history books. It was a fine example of one of those times when the finest form of leadership – is to do nothing.
His opposite number in Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition was not so fortunate. Whereas Mr Cameron resigned as Prime Minister with great dignity and on his own terms – Jeremy Corbyn had to endure a slow whispering campaign against him. As evening fell on June 24, that had turned into a vote of no confidence that was to be tabled against him. Depite insisting on, and enforcing, Labour party discipline in recent months, a lack of firm, clear leadership and direction in the Referendum campaigning left him open to criticism from his own party. By departing, Mr Cameron secured the support of his party; by remaining and not confronting opposition, Mr Corbyn will be replaced in a leadership coup that is usually seen in the Conservative party.
Always keen to try and show Labour as united, Mr Corbyn’s big mistake was to dismiss the greatly respected Hilary Benn as Shadow Foreign Secretary. Resignations followed at such pace that even the ever watchful political media could hardly keep up. At time of writing, Angela Eagle, former Shadow Secretary for Business Innovation & Skills, seems likely to replace him in an ongoing leadership challenge.The question has to be asked concerning the formidable Tom Watson, and why he has not stepped forward at this time. Despite record unpopularity amidst his MP’s, Mr Corbyn refuses to leave, clinging on to the leadership like a shipwrecked sailor clinging to wreckage. Despite having plenty of opportunity to leave with dignity and a legacy, now Mr Corbyn’s only legacy will be that he will be pushed out of office in a hasty, undignified manner. Mr Cameron, by contrast, leaves with dignity and grace after willing stepping down. Of course, Mr Cameron is only too painfully aware of Conservative party history regarding toppling party leaders.
The question now remains as to who will lead the Conservative party – and the nation. Already the race had begun, with some expected names throwing their hats into the ring. What was unexpected was Boris Johnson’s surprise that he himself would not run. The question arising from that is – what will be do next? A political heavyweight like Mr Johnson will not be out of the public eye long, and will need to fill a significantly important role given his experience, stature and status. But what role?
The other noticeable absence from the spotlight has been the much criticised Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne. Aside from hastily ruling himself out of any leadership battle, he had been remarkably quiet, emerging only to reassure jittery financial markets – with great effect, it must be noted. Similar to Mr Johnson, a question also hangs over Mr Osborne. A guess would be that he is seeking to remain as Chancellor in the next administration, and as such is keeping quiet. It would indeed be sensible for the Chancellor of the Exchequer to remain unchanged at a time of economic uncertainty.
Meanwhile, the other Opposition party seems more united and stronger than ever. Under the leadership of Nicola Sturgeon (the only Westminster leader to still be in power after the vote), from Brussels to Edinburgh the SNP had made its voice heard loud and clear. Firmly against Brexit, it is quite clear that the SNP will block or delay any efforts in that regard. Of the major political parties nationwide, it is the SNP who seems the most on point, on message and in control; quite clearly a contender to be officially called the real Opposition party in Parliament.
Another unexpected matter arising was the time frame the Prime Minister set out. He (and many others) were at pains to stress that it is business as normal currently; everything remains exactly the same for now. It is in the autumn that things will start to happen, and a negotiation team will start the long process surrounding leaving the EU. That time frame, although vague and perhaps undesirable, is very welcome. Although uncertain, it provides the certainty and framework that many on the Continent and domestically wanted. That vague timeframe was of great reassurance to both the people and the economy. Further, the delay in any proceedings gives everyone a chance. It gives the financial markets a chance to recover from the initial shock of the news. It give companies big and small, local and international, a chance to consider how to react to the news. It gives politicians and diplomats both in the UK and the EU, and in other relevant and concerned nations, to consider their positions. Indeed, the intervening months will be a perfect opportunity for secret and behind closed door talks to take place, so that initial agreements can be made, and disagreements discussed. When the actual formalities actually begin in October – the impact will not be so dramatic. Time is a great healer; although a Leave vote can never be healed, the delay will help in the proceedings. Once again, by effectively doing nothing, the current Conservative government is showing great leadership and ownership of the outcome – despite being effectively leaderless.
Although the Leave vote threw up a lot of unknown issues and factors – there were a lot of matters thrown up that were inevitable and expected. The greatest known thrown up by the Leave result is quite obvious; every aspect of Britain leaving the European Union is absolutely unknown. Whatever can be predicted or guessed, the only certainty now is that the whole matter is unknown. Another outcome is that domestic politics has been turned on its head, with both major political parties effectively leaderless at this time.
The only other known is that this is a moment in time; this is one of those moments in history. What is unknown is the next chapter as set out in the history books of the future. That will be written in the months and years to come.