The referendum regarding the UK’s membership in the European Union is scheduled to occur on the 23rd of June, 2016 with the result set to have huge consequences for the UK and the EU no matter what the people choose. However, the Brexit campaign itself has revealed that the UK’s political situation has already changed dramatically before a vote has even been cast.
The campaign has already divided the governing Conservative party, effectively finished Prime Minister David Cameron’s career and put into question the role of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). Whatever the outcome is on June 23rd, it is clear that there is no going back to the state of affairs which reigned prior to the announcement of the referendum.
Brexit the result of Tory civil war
This Brexit referendum has frequently been referred to as a Tory civil war playing out on the national stage, largely because the entire debate over the UK’s role in the EU has been a long running battle within the Conservative party for years. From Edward Heath to Margaret Thatcher to John Major the issue has always hung over the party.
There is a strong argument that the only reason the referendum is being held is so that Cameron can appeal to Tory Eurosceptics – a point which was notably raised by Nick Clegg in Parliament shortly after the referendum date was announced. This has been confirmed to be at least partly true by the way Conservatives are now trading insults and barbs with each other. Whether it is Boris Johnson accusing the Remain camp of using the “scare tactics of Project Fear;” or Lord Heseltine accusing Johnson of “losing his judgement”, it is clear that the Conservative party has thrown away the perception of unity that won them the 2015 general election.
The campaign has also had a negative effect on the government’s performance as a whole. The resignation of Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith in March 2016 was clearly related to the referendum, given that it came about a month into the campaign. Moreover, Smith’s stated reason for leaving (regarding disability benefits cuts) is ludicrous as he has been overseeing similar cuts without issue since 2010.
Furthermore, the Queen’s Speech lacked substance and any meaningful new policies, indicating how distracted the government is by Brexit. The fact of the matter is that seeing prominent Cabinet members, both existing and former, such as Smith, Chris Grayling, Michael Gove, and Priti Patel campaigning directly against the government is a clear sign just how a once strong and victorious Tory party has faltered.
Cameron in the crosshairs
It is not only the party whose position is under threat: Cameron clearly has limited time left. It was already clear shortly before the May 2015 election that Cameron was soon to leave his post after he announced that he would not stand for a third term if elected. This effectively means that Cameron is going to leave his position some time before the 2020 general election. However, theoretically his last five years in power have been significantly reduced due to the effects of the referendum; so much so that there is growing conversation of Cameron being finished after June 23rd.
Specifically, comments of how he needs a Remain vote with a huge margin to save his authority are not far off the mark. After all, there were similar comments during the 2014 Scottish independence referendum. Divisions within his own cabinet and party, attacks on his once close allies, and outlandish claims that leaving the EU would cause World War III have significantly damaged Cameron’s reputation. With the rise in prominence of ‘Brexiteers’ such as Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, there are now plenty of alternatives to Cameron.
A vote to leave the EU would drag the UK out of a huge regional community, near on permanently split the Conservative party, and place the government in a weak position. This is a position the Tories really should not have been in, what with a majority in the House of Commons and a divided opposition in the Labour party. Therefore, an ‘Out’ vote would almost certainly result in Cameron’s position being challenged, while a narrow ‘In’ vote has to raise serious questions at least.
Ultimately the Brexit referendum is likely to lead in a change in Prime Minister depending on the vote.
Exit UKIP, stage right
UKIP as a party was founded in 1991 as the Anti-Federalist League; a party focused on the single issue of leaving the EU. It was renamed as the United Kingdom Independence Party in 1993. Now, around 25 years later, they have finally achieved their goal of a referendum. Whatever the result, there is a sense that on June 24th there will no longer be any need for UKIP given they have developed an identity solely on that goal.
Although UKIP has evolved into a more rounded national party and gained more votes in recent years, there is a sense that UKIP only really existed to campaign against the EU. Once that campaign is over, UKIP do not have anything unique about them. As a more right wing Tory-esque party, many of their interests are already served by the Conservatives.
Furthermore, there are now many groups campaigning to leave the EU, whereas a few years ago it was only UKIP running on that platform. So in effect their one key policy has been adopted by others, while UKIP’s other policies have been taken from elsewhere.
It is clear that Brexit has already caused seismic shifts within the UK political landscape. Whatever the result, things are not going to be the same again within the UK.