Britain is facing into what is becoming a mounting political crisis following Thursday’s ‘leave’ referendum vote. Political and economic shockwaves have already rippled out across the globe from the result which has already seen UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s resignation, and could yet see wider significant political change too, including to the territorial integrity of the United Kingdom.
The vote has rattled financial markets and the UK political establishment, and Cameron’s decision to resign, only a year after his landmark General Election success last May in winning the first majority Conservative Government for over two decades, only adds to the uncertainty. A major reassurance effort is now underway to respond to the political trauma and financial uncertainty with the European Central Bank, Bank of England and other central banks preparing to make potentially further significant interventions to respond to market volatility.
While the onus for immediate political action remains on the United Kingdom, Brussels will also be centre stage tomorrow and Wednesday with a previously planned EU summit of national leaders. The EU elite are shell-shocked, not least given fears about political contagion to other countries potentially looking to leave the union in future years, and European political leaders will now seek a strong, coordinated front to emphasise the continuing resilience and integrity of the EU project.
In this turbulent context, Cameron has decided to resign, despite the fact that there have been significant shows of support for him from within the Conservative Party on Friday. A key reason he decided to go is that the Conservative backbenches would have become significantly more ungovernable post-referendum under his premiership. And an internal leadership challenge against him, which requires 50 Conservative MPs to trigger, could not have been ruled out.
He will also have recognised that the Government’s small parliamentary majority could have meant a more embattled administration as intra-Conservative tensions festered, in a way not dissimilar to that under the Government of John Major after Britain was ejected from the-then European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM) in 1992. And such political troubles would have undermined key elements of domestic policy, including the government’s plans to try to secure some 30 billion pounds of spending cuts in the first years of this parliament.
Favourites to replace him in the internal Conservative leadership election in coming weeks will be key exit supporters, especially former London Mayor Johnson, although the prospects of some who favoured remain, including Home Secretary Theresa May, should not be dismissed. However, the leadership ambitions of Chancellor George Osborne, a close ally of Cameron, could now be sunk.
Cameron will not himself trigger Article 50 of the EU Treaties, the formal mechanism for bringing about the UK’s withdrawal process, at the Brussels summit or in coming weeks. Given the massive stakes in play, he has chosen to defer this momentous decision to his successor.
One other possibility, suggested by some leave campaigners, would be for the United Kingdom to leave the EU by deploying alternative legal/ legislative procedures, including by repealing the 1972 EU Communities Act. However, some lawyers and constitutional scholars have dismissed the feasibility of this, and indicated that Article 50 is the most politically and legally viable route.
One further option in coming months, which cannot be completely ruled out under a new Prime Minister, is a second EU referendum if better terms can be secured from Brussels. Even some exit campaigners such as Johnson have advocated this in the past, despite the fact that it would infuriate many of those who voted leave on Thursday.
In this context, Cameron’s successor as Prime Minister may well seek to engineer a general election if it is believed the outcome will be favourable to the Conservatives to try to secure a strong electoral mandate. While the current Parliament theoretically runs to 2020 under the terms of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, the new Conservative leader would be in a good position to challenge opposition parties to support him or her in calling an early ballot given the change of prime minister, and the potential gravity of the situation facing the country.
Thursday’s vote will have potentially massive implications for the longer-term future of the EU and the United Kingdom. On the latter front, for instance, British exit of the EU would increase the likelihood of a second Scottish independence referendum vote, and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, the Scottish Nationalist Party Leader, asserted Friday that it is “high likely” that she will seek such a second plebiscite as Scotland does not want to leave the EU.
Turning to the EU at large, the Brussels-based club now faces the biggest potential reversal in its more than half century history. As one of the more influential European states, a UK exit would disrupt the balance of power, inner workings, and policy orientations of the EU in a way that could ultimately consolidate the influence of other large states, especially Germany.
Taken overall, the historic decision will set the political weather in both Britain and Brussels for months to come as political leaders scramble to come to terms with it. Decisions taken in coming weeks will define the longer-term political and economic character of the EU and United Kingdom, with both unions now facing major stress as the implications of the referendum bed in.