Why Brexit Is Tearing British Politics Apart

An extremely detailed guide to the U.K.’s total breakdown.

Former London Mayor Boris Johnson, United Kingdom Prime Minister David Cameron, Labour Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn.
Former London Mayor Boris Johnson, U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron, and Labour Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn.

Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photos by Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images, Dan Kitwood/Getty Images, Chris J. Ratcliffe/Getty Images.

Why are we here?

British voters announced that they want their country out of the European Union. Prime Minister David Cameron is stepping down. The pound hit a 31-year low. And the opposition Labour Party is having a meltdown.

At least there’s clarity, right?

Oh good Lord, no. The Brexit referendum was praised for its simplicity: Should the U.K. “leave the European Union” or “remain a member of the European Union”? But it turns out you can’t reduce huge questions of foreign policy to 27 words. We have a result now, by which voters have opted to make a radical change to their country’s relationship with the rest of the world, but it’s a result that doesn’t specify any concrete steps for anyone to take.

So how is the political establishment dealing with that?

It’s tearing itself apart.

Big political events usually tip the balance: One side is up and another is down. Which party is the winner here?

Brexit doesn’t work like that because it doesn’t map onto party lines. Since the beginning of the “European project,” there have been politicians on each side of the aisle who wanted closer ties to Europe, and others on each side who wanted to stay out.

At this point, the mainstreams of the major parties are pretty close together. As prime minister, Tony Blair moved Labour toward the center in the 1990s; Cameron did the same for the Tories when he was elected PM.


Sorry, that’s the Conservative Party. Margaret Thatcher’s lot. Historically the party of Tradition and Business and Stability, as opposed to the Labour Party, which has represented the unions, the working class, the poor, and the marginalized.

Got it.

The last Labour governments, under Blair and then Gordon Brown, and the current Tory government, under Cameron, were both run by socially liberal, pro-market technocrats (or, as the British say, managerialists). You can think of them as respectively a bit to the left and a bit to the right of the Democratic Party. Those centrist Tories and centrist Labourites are all friendly to trade and immigration, and they all backed “Remain.”

Who was on the “Leave” side?

Elements of both parties that haven’t bought into the neoliberal consensus: Tory nationalists who don’t want to let bureaucrats in Brussels tell them what to do, and old Labour die-hards who think the EU was a plot to benefit multinational corporations. Plus the anti-immigrant, far-right U.K. Independence Party (UKIP).

And that’s the crew that won?


So this was a victory for …

Marginalized and atavistic elements in both of the major parties along with a bunch of nativist outsiders, all of which backed “Leave” with wildly different agendas. This is not a coalition that’s ready to take the wheel.

This wasn’t a general election, though. The mainstream Tories are still in charge, right?

Well, technically. But Cameron is resigning in disgrace because the referendum was his dumb idea in the first place. The two leading candidates to succeed him as leader of the Conservative Party—and hence as prime minister—are Boris Johnson, the colorful former London mayor who campaigned for “Leave,” and Theresa May, who backed “Remain.” Johnson is popular with the voters, because he’s funny and good on TV, but a lot of members of Parliament (MPs) hate him and are coalescing around May.

Who is she again?

Oh, like you’ve ever heard of her.

OK, OK, please tell me who Theresa May is.

She’s the home secretary—a senior official in Cameron’s government who’s broadly responsible for domestic policy. She’ll be able to make the case that Johnson isn’t serious enough to navigate the process of EU withdrawal. But some Brexit advocates will resist the idea of a prime minister who supported “Remain.”

And will this be decided in a general election?

No. Conservative MPs winnow the field to two people and then party members vote. It’s a bit like an American primary campaign where the winner is immediately sworn in as president.

Wait, why would that happen?

It wouldn’t. Bad analogy.

Give me a better analogy.

OK. The prime minister is like the speaker of the House of Representatives. Voters elect a bunch of members of Parliament, and the MPs pick their leader—just like the Republicans in the House threw out John Boehner and elected Paul Ryan.

So in this analogy Paul Ryan is now the leader of the country.


The Conservative MPs are going to pick their next leader, who will become prime minister?

You’ve got it.

How long will that take?

The Tories are trying to do this as quickly as possible, which means they should be able to tell us who the new prime minister is by Sept. 9.

At this moment of crisis, there’ll be a lame-duck PM and a succession squabble for two months? But then we’ll finally have stability?

Actually, a lot of people expect that the first thing that new prime minister will do is call a general election for October. [Update, 8 p.m.: A “source in the Johnson team” has told the Guardian that if Johnson becomes leader, he wouldn’t call for a general election and that he “believed the result of last week’s referendum was sufficient for him to start negotiating an exit from the EU without seeking a new mandate.”]

Meaning this new prime minister could be out a month after taking office?

More like six weeks.

So the Conservative government has collapsed and no one knows who’s going to lead the party—right before a possible election. This sounds like a great opportunity for Labour!

Yes, and they’ve responded to that opportunity by trying to depose their own leader.

Huh? Why?

The Labour Party is screwed for reasons that have nothing to do with Brexit.

Labour’s coalition depended on winning parliamentary seats in progressive Scotland. In 2014, Scotland threatened to split from the U.K. with its own independence referendum. The forces of Scottish nationalism lost that vote, but the Scottish National Party got a huge boost—and the following year, it took 40 of Labour’s 41 seats north of the border. As long as the SNP dominates Scottish politics, it’s hard to see a path to victory for Labour.

And what does this have to do with Jeremy Corbyn?

Party members responded to the 2014 defeat by picking Corbyn as their next leader. It was an anti-establishment revolt by a base that was tired of Blair-style centrism. Moderate Labour MPs, most of whom cut their teeth during the Blair years, were not thrilled with this return to a school of left-wing politics that they believe kept the party out of power from 1979 to 1997.

The progressives versus the pragmatists! Sounds like what’s happened in the Democratic Party this year.

Corbyn resembles Bernie Sanders in some ways—a grouchy old white lefty who inspires devotion in his supporters and contempt from insiders. But unlike Sanders, Corbyn managed to seize the helm of his party.

Where does the Brexit vote come in?

Corbyn’s wing of the party has always been suspicious of the EU. As an MP, he voted against its formation in 1993, saying it would lead to “the imposition of a bankers’ Europe.” Tony Blair’s ascension in 1997 made Labour a solidly pro-Europe party, settling the issue for a while. When Corbyn became leader, he made it an open question again.

So Corbyn backed “Leave”?

No, he came out for “Remain” without much enthusiasm—he said he was “seven out of 10” in favor. But working-class voters in Labour’s Northern heartland voted “Leave” by unexpectedly huge margins. Some pro-“Remain” Labourites are accusing Corbyn of lackluster campaigning or deliberate sabotage.

Is that why MPs are trying to oust him?

It’s certainly a good occasion for it—and the fact that cosmopolitan Labourites in London and other cities are distraught over the Brexit vote gives the anti-Corbyn movement a boost. But the MPs who want him out wanted that well before last week.

Because he’s too much of an unreconstructed lefty for them?

He’s also not known for his charisma. Someone once told me you’re always worried Corbyn is about to offer you a glass of his home-brewed elderberry wine.

What does that mean?

It refers to a kind of stereotypical— you know what? It’s not important.

OK. How are the Labour MPs trying to get rid of Corbyn?

They just held a vote of no confidence, which passed by 172 votes to 40.

I have always felt too embarrassed to ask, but now seems like a good time: What is a vote of no confidence? [Hides.]

It’s a way for a group to say that someone sucks, basically. When the House of Commons passes a vote of no confidence, it means they’re withdrawing their support for the prime minister and his government, which leads to a new election. (That last happened in 1979.) When Conservative Party MPs do it, it means they’re throwing their leader out and replacing him. (That last happened in 2003.)

What about when Labour Party MPs do it?

It just means they think Jeremy Corbyn sucks. The Labour leader, unlike the Conservative leader, is elected by the membership. MPs can’t actually vote him out.

So Jeremy Corbyn is the leader of a bunch of MPs who overwhelmingly think he sucks. Will he resign?

Nope. He’s not particularly interested in being liked.

What happens to Labour now?

Presumably, one or more MPs will challenge Corbyn for the leadership, and the members will vote. No one expected Corbyn to win the leadership last year; no one knows if he’d win again. But whatever the outcome, a significant constituency within the party will be alienated.

And that means …

Labour has a long road to walk before it can win a general election.

So the two main parties are a mess. Are there any others?

Two, really. And they line up much more coherently on the question of Europe.

The Liberal Democrats are the most consistently pro-Europe party in the U.K. They’ve announced they plan to run in the next general election on a back-to-the-EU platform, and they’d be a natural home for die-hard Remainers. But they disillusioned many of their supporters in 2010 when they formed a coalition with the Conservatives, who promptly announced dramatic cuts to social services; they were practically wiped out five years later. We’ll see if enough time has passed that voters have forgiven them for their complicity in the Tories’ austerity policies.

And the other party?

The U.K. Independence Party, which was founded on opposition to a federated Europe, holds only one seat in Parliament. And yet it has been unimaginably successful: It provoked Cameron into granting a vote on its pet issue and it won. Its leader, Nigel Farage, was last seen telling members of the European Parliament, “Most of you have never done a proper job in your lives.” Now he lurks malevolently in the wings to pick up “Leave” votes from any party seen as insufficiently committed to implementing the Brexit mandate.

Remainers are worried about that?

Everyone who cherishes Britain’s reputation as an open and tolerant country is worried about it. Part of the terror gripping Britain this week is the realization that they’re about to have an empowered European-style far-right party of their very own. There are already reports of an increase in racist attacks.

So, if you had to bet, where do things go from here?

Either Boris Johnson or Theresa May wins the Conservative leadership battle, becomes prime minister, and calls a new general election in October.

Corbyn will probably fend off a leadership challenge from within his party, but either way, Labour will be too riven by internal strife to convince the country to put them into power and the Conservatives will win another term.

The Tories will try to convince “Leave” voters that they’ll faithfully implement the will of the people and pull out of the EU—while also trying to convince “Remain” voters, and everyone else worried by the post-referendum economic collapse, that they won’t be too hasty.

That’s an impossible balancing act, and UKIP will capitalize on it by loudly insisting that the Conservatives are betraying Brexit. That should be good for at least a dozen seats and a bunch more racist and anti-immigrant violence and abuse.

The Liberal Democrats will win back a few seats, for all the good it does anyone.

No one will send the Article 50 notification that begins Britain’s withdrawal from the EU until after the hypothetical October general election, and probably not then either.

Read more Slate coverage of the Brexit vote.