British Conservatives in Chaos Over Brexit, but Labour Party’s in No Position to Pounce

Under normal circumstances, the disarray over Brexit in the U.K.’s Conservative Party should help the opposition, but the Labour Party is also in turmoil.

A man holds up a banner outside the home of former London Mayor, Boris Johnson, in London on June 30, 2016. Brexit campaigner Michael Gove announced a surprise bid Thursday to become Britain's next prime minister, in a blow for his close ally Boris Johnson's chances, as turmoil gripped both the country's main political parties after the shock vote to leave the EU. / AFP / CHRIS J RATCLIFFE (Photo credit should read CHRIS J RATCLIFFE/AFP/Getty Images)
A man holds up a banner outside the home of former London Mayor, Boris Johnson, in London on June 30, 2016. Brexit campaigner Michael Gove announced a surprise bid Thursday to become Britain's next prime minister, in a blow for his close ally Boris Johnson's chances, as turmoil gripped both the country's main political parties after the shock vote to leave the EU. / AFP / CHRIS J RATCLIFFE (Photo credit should read CHRIS J RATCLIFFE/AFP/Getty Images) Photo: Chris J. Ratcliffe/AFP/Getty Images

Until Thursday, the political wrangling in Britain over how, or whether, to withdraw from the European Union — a move supported by a narrow majority of the voters in last week’s referendum, but opposed by 75 percent of the members of Parliament elected just last year — seemed likely to trigger a new general election.

Although the ruling Conservative Party is not required to call an election until 2020, most political observers expected Prime Minister David Cameron to be replaced by the leader of the campaign for a British exit from the EU, Boris Johnson, who would then want a fresh mandate from the public.

That was the thinking, anyway, until an extraordinary sequence of events unfolded, starting with an announcement from Michael Gove, the Leave campaign’s ideologue, who was expected to run Johnson’s campaign to become the new leader of the Conservatives, and hence prime minister. Gove, the justice secretary, released a statement on Thursday saying that he did not think Johnson, his ally in the Leave campaign, was up for the job of running the country, and he wanted to be prime minister himself.

Gove’s surprise move undermined Johnson’s chances of winning the internal party vote to be leader, but also seemed to make it unlikely that he could succeed either, given how many bitter accusations of betrayal it prompted from fellow Conservatives.

With the anti-EU faction of his party suddenly split, and rumors that his candidacy was opposed by the men who run Britain’s most influential right-wing tabloids, Rupert Murdoch and Paul Dacre, Johnson turned up late for the speech in which he was expected to announce his leadership bid and revealed that he would not take part in the race.

Given that it was widely believed that Johnson had only joined the Leave campaign as a way to increase his popularity and make it more likely that he could become prime minister, this shocking turn of events earned him widespread derision online from Britons who see departure from the EU as a disaster for the country.

By Friday morning, Johnson was being heckled on the street, accused of plunging the country into chaos for his own advancement and then dropping out of the contest to be in charge of cleaning up the mess.

This somewhat farcical series of events was made all the more absurd by how strenuously Gove had previously denied having any ambition to be prime minister in interviews that instantly resurfaced on social networks.

Under normal circumstances, this kind of disarray inside the Conservative Party — with the resignation of a prime minister and a deep divide between the factions opposed to and in favor of EU membership — should present an opportunity for the opposition Labour Party. That party, however, has been busy with a civil war of its own.

In the aftermath of the referendum, and driven partly by speculation that there might be an election soon, about 80 percent of the party’s members of Parliament have called for their leader, Jeremy Corbyn, to step down. Corbyn, who was accused of being lukewarm about the EU, has refused — pointing out that he was chosen not by his fellow MPs, but by a clear majority of the party’s members and paying supporters in a direct election held just 10 months ago.

A poll of Labour members released on Thursday suggested that he would easily win a new vote.

The attempt to topple Corbyn, whose left-wing politics are popular with young voters and trade unions but frighten pro-business centrists, has led to bitter recriminations and public feuding. That, in turn, has drawn attention away from the fact that the Conservative government has divided the country over the EU, plunging the economy into uncertainty and fostering anti-immigrant hysteria — all without any apparent plan for how to manage the transition out of the EU.

That infighting continued on Thursday, as Labour released a report on confronting anti-Semitism in its ranks. News coverage of the report, however, was devoted not to its recommendations but to the outraged reaction from some members of the party to remarks by Corbyn that they called anti-Semitic. “Our Jewish friends are no more responsible for the actions of Israel or the Netanyahu government,” Corbyn said, “than our Muslim friends are for those of various self-styled Islamic states or organizations.”

That comment was widely misreported as Corbyn comparing Israel to “the Islamic State,” which he denied. But when video of his statement on the report was posted on his own Twitter account later, that part of his remarks was omitted.

A second spat between Labour members also marred the same news conference. That confrontation began when Marc Wadsworth, a black Labour activist who supports Corbyn, distributed a press release that accused those plotting against the leader of cooperating with the “right-wing, corporate media” to smear him. Wadsworth then complained of what he called an example of such collusion at the news conference, saying that a reporter for The Telegraph, Kate McCann, had handed a copy of his statement to a Labour MP, Ruth Smeeth.

Smeeth, who is Jewish, was outraged by the accusation and stormed out of the event. In a statement she released later, Smeeth said that Wadsworth had “used traditional anti-Semitic slurs to attack me for being part of a ‘media conspiracy.’” She added that it was “beyond belief that someone could come to the launch of a report on anti-Semitism in the Labour Party and espouse such vile conspiracy theories about Jewish people, which were ironically highlighted as such in Ms. Chakrabarti’s report, while the leader of my own party stood by and did absolutely nothing.”

Wadsworth wrote later that he “had no idea that Smeeth was Jewish,” had not intended to endorse any conspiracy theory about Jewish control of the media, and had “a life-long record of fighting against racism and anti-Semitism.”

The leadership of the Labour Party is perhaps a sideshow, however, distracting attention from the worrying implications of the fact that voters in many of its traditional strongholds supported British withdrawal from the EU. Although just 10 of Labour’s 229 MPs supported the Leave campaign, one study suggested that majorities in 70 percent of the areas represented by Labour in Parliament voted for withdrawal.

Writing in The Guardian this week, John Harris argued that the referendum revealed signs of “a longstanding and possibly terminal malaise” for Labour, from which the party might never recover.

As with the centre-left parties across Europe in the same predicament, Labour is a 20th-century party adrift in a new reality. Its social foundations — the unions, heavy industry, the nonconformist church, a deference to the big state that has long evaporated — are either in deep retreat or have vanished completely. Its name embodies an attachment to the supposed glories of work that no longer chimes with insecure employment and insurgent automation.

Given that level of disarray, it appears unlikely that Labour will be able to capitalize on the Conservative split over leaving the EU anytime soon. An early general election is also looking less likely, as the Conservative leadership contest coalesces.

While several Conservatives have put themselves forward to compete with Gove in the party’s internal contest, which will conclude in early September, the clear frontrunner for the job is now Home Secretary Theresa May, even though she supported the campaign for Britain to remain in the EU. As a senior figure in the government elected last year, May made it clear in a speech announcing her candidacy that she would not feel the need to call a new election before 2020.

In her declaration, May pledged to respect the referendum result, saying, “Brexit means Brexit: the campaign was fought, the vote was held, turnout was high and the public gave their verdict.”

She did not, however, specify what sort of arrangement Britain would seek with the remaining 27 members of the union, although it is widely expected to be something like membership of the European Economic Area, along with countries like Norway, that are not in the EU but can trade freely with the bloc in exchange for paying dues and agreeing to allow citizens from EU nations to live and work freely in their country.

May also said that Britain would not give formal notification of its departure from the EU, triggering a two-year time limit on negotiations over a new trade deal, until some unspecified time next year.

Although May publicly opposed leaving the EU before the referendum, she has previously worked to restrict immigration into Britain, which many voters said was their main objection to membership in the economic bloc.

As Rebecca Glover observed in The Independent, May is far from a champion of progressive values, as her harsh rhetoric on asylum seekers and economic migrants at last year’s Conservative Party conference made plain.

“There are people who need our help, and there are people who are abusing our good will,” May said then. “When immigration is too high, when the pace of change is too fast, it’s impossible to build a cohesive society. It’s difficult for schools and hospitals and core infrastructure like housing and transport to cope, and we know that for people in low-paid jobs, wages are forced down even further while some people are forced out of work altogether.”

Statements like those, and a promise to restrict immigration in any new deal with the EU, might reassure voters who support the formal British exit, but troubled many of those on the left of the political spectrum who see May as partly to blame for the increasing anxiety over immigration.

Stoking anti-immigrant hysteria was a central part of the Leave campaign, and in the aftermath of the referendum vote, there has been a sharp increase in incidents of racist abuse aimed at ethnic and racial minorities across Britain.

On Thursday, a radio journalist for the BBC, Trish Adudu, gave an emotional account of how a man on a street in Coventry had used racist slurs against her and a student of South Asian ancestry the day before, telling them that they vote meant they should “go home.”

Adudu, who was born in England to parents who emigrated from Ghana, eventually reported the incident to the West Midlands Police force, which is investigating the incident as a hate crime.

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