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Almost three weeks after the Brexit vote, the British public remains in shock. It is not just because opinion polls were wrong (as they were during the general election last year) or because even the bookmakers, normally so accurate, miscalled the race. Rather, voters are surprised that an entire political class could have pegged them so wrong.
It has become clear that, contrary to frequent assurances, the government and civil service did very little to scope out a post-Brexit future and have thus been caught in a terrible dereliction of duty. If the leaders of the Leave campaign looked visibly shaken by what they had achieved, it was even more telling that their Remain colleagues disappeared into furious silence. Prime Minister David Cameron—who immediately broke the Remain slogan “Brits don’t quit” and quit—and Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne went to ground for a weekend, apparently dismayed by a country that had failed to follow their advice. For three days, only an appearance by the governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, did anything to reassure nervous global markets.
The next week was the longest of anyone’s political lifetime. Mass resignations from the opposition’s Shadow Cabinet paved the way for the Labour Party’s latest attempts to eject their leader, Jeremy Corbyn, whom they charged with having campaigned too halfheartedly for the losing side in the referendum.
That was nothing, however, compared to the brutality on the Conservative side. The pact between Michael Gove and Boris Johnson—the two highest-profile members of the Leave team, who were going to run for the top jobs as a team—ended up destroying them both when Gove pulled out of running Johnson’s election campaign and then found himself kept out of the final two in the leadership race by the Conservatives.
By the end of last week, the United Kingdom thus faced a nine-week slog to replace David Cameron between Home Secretary Theresa May (who, like Corbyn, had campaigned halfheartedly for Remain) and Andrea Leadsom, a junior figure who had campaigned for Leave and had been startlingly propelled forward in the aftermath of the vote. The prospect of an entire summer of debate between May and Leadsom delighted no one. During this time, the United Kingdom’s standing with the EU would remain uncertain—and its relationship with the rest of world even more so.
After a weekend of excruciating press, however, on Monday, Leadsom withdrew from the Conservative race, thus propelling British politics back to its recent 100-miles-an-hour pace. As the only person left standing, May was announced as the new leader of the Conservative Party. Cameron said he would vacate Downing Street. And by Wednesday evening, the United Kingdom had a new prime minister. The irony of a Remain politician seizing the top job from another Remainer after a Leave vote was lost on no one and is just the first hurdle for May to overcome.
There is genuine uncertainty over what the public may want.The new prime minister comes to the job as qualified as anyone could be. For six years, May had toiled away at the Home Office (a notorious graveyard for politicians over the previous decade). Before that, she had been a loyal colleague throughout the Conservative wilderness years as William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith, and Michael Howard tried and failed to move Tony Blair from office. Few in the Conservative Party begrudge her the chance to lead, and fewer still doubt the wisdom of the party’s swift conclusion of its horse race. Yet nobody could envy the country’s second female prime minister the task in front of her.
From the moment the results of the referendum were announced on June 24, May made it clear that the will of the public will prevail and that “Brexit means Brexit.” There are those who believe that she will not deliver on this promise. Disgruntled Conservative Leave voters, not to mention many UKIP members, fear that the revolution (which has already eaten so many of its own) may now be stolen from them, with UKIP already issuing threats to May if she doesn’t follow their “red lines.” But these are comparatively marginal voices. For the time being, the conventional wisdom is that May will follow through on her promise, which will see her negotiating one of the trickiest obstacle courses in modern politics.
For one, those who voted Leave often find it hard to pin down any one cause for their success. Opinion polls suggest that sovereignty and immigration concerns were foremost in voters’ minds. But so were concerns about the economy, including workers’ pay. In other words, the reasons for voting Leave ranged from the grand to the specific. Navigating—and satisfying—that range of feelings will not be straightforward.
And there is genuine uncertainty over what the public may want. Did voters want to return to a common trading agreement (taking the United Kingdom back to the original intention of its membership in 1973) or do they want to scrap the whole thing? Do they expect to exit via Article 50 or through the retraction of the entire agreement that took the United Kingdom in 40 years ago (the former would lead to at least two years of detailed negotiation whereas the latter would be a blunt but wholesale rejection of all negotiation processes)? Does an order from the public to exit the EU include an order to leave the European Convention on Human Rights, or a desire to retain it? None of this is clear.
A further problem is that many of the causes for Brexit are widely thought to be in contradiction with each other. For instance, for trade reasons, the United Kingdom may well choose to remain within the common market. In that case, though, it would almost certainly have to accept the conditions that come along with that, not least the condition of free movement of peoples—which was one of the causes of Brexit in the first place.
These are not unsolvable problems, but their answers are in part instinctive, which raises the question of how a prime minister can be in tune with a public attitude she did not herself share. May’s unwillingness to guarantee that all EU nationals working in the United Kingdom on June 23 could remain is just one early, jarring, example. Questioned as to why she would not promise something that all prominent Leave campaigners had called for, May and her closest colleagues have argued that the presence of EU workers in the United Kingdom (and indeed British workers in the EU) would be a “bargaining chip” in forthcoming negotiations with the EU. That explanation left many Leave voters horrified and it revealed a deep misunderstanding of why they voted out in the first place.
Finally there is the question of priorities. If the United Kingdom spends the next four years navigating its exit from the EU, it risks becoming an inward-looking country at precisely the moment it needs to take wing and head out into the world, searching for new trading opportunities and reviving old friendships. It can perhaps do both, but so far May has placed priority on extrication from the EU over reentrance into the wider world. Whether she continues to do so will decide the success of this new chapter of British history.