This is primarily aimed at my North American friends, many of whom want to know why every single person in the UK has been screaming about political stuff for several weeks.
The first thing you need to understand is that in the UK we don’t elect our Prime Minister directly — the Prime Minister is anyone who has the confidence of Parliament. For a Prime Minister to stay in power, they have to be able to convince a majority of MPs to vote for their programme of government. It’s possible for the Prime Minister to change without an election, if their own party decides they no longer support them or the Prime Minister steps down willingly.
This means that the Prime Minister is in a more precarious position than a directly elected leader — if they can’t get their party to support them, for whatever reason, they lose the job and get replaced by someone who can.
When David Cameron came to power in 2010, his party, the Conservatives, didn’t win a majority of seats in the election, and so he went into coalition with the Liberal Democrats, the party I’m in. Neither party had enough seats for a majority, but the two combined had a comfortable one. This worked well for Cameron — he’s on the left of his own party, and the Lib Dems’ then leader, Nick Clegg, was on the right of mine, and so both were able to work together and create a government which no-one was particularly happy with, but which at least managed to hold itself together.
That’s more of an achievement than it sounds. The last Conservative government, under John Major (Prime Minister from 1990 to 1997) had torn itself apart. There were many reasons for that, but one was that the party was deeply split over the issue of Europe. Its leadership has always supported membership of the European Union, but the hard right wing of the party had never liked the idea of it.
This split in the Tories (the nickname for the Conservatives that almost everyone uses, the same way they use GOP for the Republicans in the US) had continued, and had been made worse by the popularity of another political party, the UK Independence Party, or UKIP.
If the Tories are the equivalent of the Republicans (and Cameron in this picture would be a moderate Romney-style Republican, more concerned with tax cuts for the rich than in punishing poor and black people), UKIP are the Tea Party, and while they only have one MP (a former Tory) they get a lot of the vote, on a platform that consists solely of not liking foreigners.
So from 2010 to 2015, because he was working with the most pro-European party, Cameron could avoid dealing with the massive split in his own party. “Oh, I’d love to deal with it, but those damn Lib Dems, I’m so terribly sorry”. But then came the 2015 election.
Cameron has a way of dealing with political splits he doesn’t like — he has a referendum on them. That happened in 2011 with the coalition government, when the Lib Dems wanted to change the voting system and he didn’t. He called a referendum, and he won. In 2014, because the Scottish people had voted for a party that wanted independence for Scotland, he called a referendum on that, and won.
So in the Conservative manifesto (the party platform) for the 2015 election, there was a section which said that if they won a majority, they’d call a referendum on Britain’s EU membership.
Cameron wasn’t expecting the Tories to win a majority — all the polls said that just like in 2010, no party would win a majority — so he was expecting to have to work with the Lib Dems again and not have to deal with the problem. Unfortunately, the polls had underestimated how angry Lib Dem voters were for the party going into coalition, and the Lib Dems lost nearly all their MPs. And the worst thing for Cameron, or the country, happened — the Tories won a majority, but an absolutely tiny one.
This meant Cameron was essentially held to ransom by the right wing of his party. He *had* to call a referendum.
Meanwhile — and this will become important later — the Labour party, the main opposition party, had a leadership election themselves. They put up three dull centrist candidates, and a left-winger, Jeremy Corbyn. Labour always put up a left-wing candidate, who always loses, so that they can say “we wanted to hear all views from all sides of the party”, and keep the left wing of their own party quiet. This tactic didn’t work for them this time though, and Corbyn won easily in a ballot of party members — which means that Labour’s leader has almost no support among their MPs.
So the referendum on Europe happened. Cameron’s hope was that he would win the referendum again, as he had the others — it would shut the right wing of the party up. “We voted, you lost, deal with it”.
But then Cameron’s old schoolfriend Boris Johnson, another moderate centrist Tory MP, came out in favour of leaving the EU. Johnson was, at the time, comfortably the most popular politician in the country, and until he became leader of the leave campaign he was in favour of the EU. His hope appeared to be that the leave campaign would lose, but only just, and that he would be able to gain the support of the Tory right and become the next leader of the party, and thus the next Prime Minister.
The campaign was the nastiest in British political memory. The leave side, in particular, used racism in its campaign to great effect. Near the end of the campaign, a centrist pro-remain Labour MP, Jo Cox, was murdered in the street by a pro-leave fanatic shouting “Britain First!” (the name of a prominent neo-Nazi group). The Leave campaign then disrupted a public memorial for her by flying a plane above it with a pro-Leave banner.
And the result of this was that Leave won, at 51.9% of the vote to Remain’s 48.1%.
Almost immediately, the shit hit the fan. The pound collapsed, to the point where it’s now less stable than bitcoin. Racist attacks increased fivefold as violent racists were emboldened (there were, of course, non-racist voters for Leave. But given the tenor of the campaign, most violent racists saw it as an endorsement of their own views). The biggest economic crash in decades is happening, as a direct result of all this. The British economy has lost trillions of dollars in the two and a bit weeks since the vote, and it hasn’t finished yet.
The vote was, however, an advisory vote. It could theoretically be ignored by the government… if they wanted to make sure they never got elected again. To actually leave the EU, the Prime Minister has to invoke article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. Once that happens, the UK has two years to arrange an orderly exit — and only *after* that can it start to negotiate new trade terms with the EU.
Oh, and we have no trade deals with *anyone*, because all trade deals for the last forty years have been made by the EU, not Britain. We’re not even members of the WTO on our own — we’ll have to negotiate membership of that, which will take five years.
Oh, and we don’t have anywhere near enough trained trade negotiators for even one deal, let alone setting up deals with every other country in the world separately.
Also, Scotland voted hugely in favour of remaining in the EU, so it’s widely expected that if the government try to drag Scotland out against the Scottish people’s will, there’ll be a second independence referendum, and Scotland will leave the UK this time. Taking the UK’s oil and gas (all in Scottish territory) with it.
Oh, and also the Northern Ireland peace process, which has almost eliminated terrorism over the question of Irish sovereignty for the last twenty years, is based entirely on agreements that are themselves based on EU treaties which will now be null and void.
David Cameron announced he would resign as soon as a new Conservative leader could be chosen — he was reported as saying “why should I do all the hard shit?”. The new leader was widely expected to be Boris Johnson — who looked sickened by the idea of taking control of this gigantic mess.
But then Michael Gove, Johnson’s biggest political ally, announced that he didn’t think Johnson was up to the job, and he, Gove, should have it instead. So Johnson bowed out of the race. As did Gove, a couple of days later, when he realised that no-one in his party could stand him after he stabbed Johnson in the back. Over the next few days, everyone else dropped out except Theresa May.
May, who will be the Prime Minister from Wednesday, has been Home Secretary for several years. During that time she has, among other things, criminalised literally everything that isn’t explicitly legal, deported LGBT people to countries where they face imprisonment or death, stated that she wants an end to the very concept of human rights, and had a van driven round London with a message telling immigrants to “go home” painted on the side. She was the most moderate candidate in the race, as the Conservative right has been so emboldened.
Cameron announced today that May would be replacing him as Prime Minister. When journalists tried to ask him questions, he just sang a little tune as he walked away.
Nigel Farage, the leader of UKIP, also stepped down, as has his deputy, Paul Nuttalls of the UKIPs. Their leader in Wales, disgraced former Tory MP and well-known lying scumbag Neil Hamilton, has suggested that if the government don’t invoke article 50, there should be an armed revolution.
This is, you would think, a golden opportunity for the Labour party, and so they’ve taken that opportunity — to fight among themselves. Labour MPs blamed the loss on Jeremy Corbyn, who they suspect of being secretly anti-EU, and so they’ve spent the last two weeks trying to persuade him to step down and let someone more centrist be leader. He’s refused, despite only forty of Labour’s MPs supporting him and 172 opposing. An anti-Corbyn MP, Angela Eagle, is now standing for election as leader against him, and the other MPs are looking for legal ways they can keep Corbyn off the ballot this time. Labour party members in Eagle’s own constituency are looking for ways of keeping *her* off the ballot in the next general election.
However, Labour’s MPs are all agreed on one thing — despite the fact that the party campaigned to remain in the EU, despite the fact that just the possibility of leaving is causing huge turmoil, and despite the fact that two thirds of Labour voters wanted to stay in the EU, they’re going to push the government to leave.
If Corbyn is on the leadership ballot, he will win again. At which point it is quite likely that the bulk of the parliamentary Labour Party will form a new centrist party, possibly with some moderate Tories. That party will have almost no members, but a lot of MPs. The Labour party, meanwhile, will have almost no MPs but a lot of members.
The Liberal Democrats, now left as the only pro-EU UK-wide party even though 48.1% of voters support the EU, have almost no MPs *or* members, though over 16000 new ones have joined since the referendum. Tim Farron, the party’s leader, is now the longest-serving party leader of a national party in the UK. He will have been in the post a year as of Saturday.
So that’s where we were up to at the time I started writing this blog post. That was, however, nearly three hours ago. Given that we have, pretty much every hour for the last two and a half weeks, had some sort of new political news that as recently as last month would have sounded like a very bad piece of over-exaggerated satire, I can’t guarantee that this isn’t completely out of date, and that by the time you read this we won’t be looking back on that halcyon time of 10:28PM on the 11th July from the terrible dystopian future of 11PM on the 11th July, and thinking how naive we were not to predict the horrors between now and then…
This blog post was brought to you by the generous people who back me on Patreon. They pay me in US dollars, which means that the $62 I get for this post will, by the time it reaches me at the end of this month, be worth enough to buy the UK several times over. If you want me to look generously on you, my vassals, when I am lording it over you with my hard currency, you might want to join them.