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Britain: A fortnight of turmoil

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In three weeks, Britain witnessed a shocking churning, leading to the appointment of a PM whom no one had elected or expected 

By Sajeda Momin in London

 DISPENSATION Prime Minister Theresa May meeting First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon at Bute House, Edinburgh
THE NEW DISPENSATION Prime Minister Theresa May meeting First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon at Bute House, Edinburgh

BRITISH Prime Minister Harold Wilson famously said “a week is a long time in politics”. More than half-a-century after he coined the phrase, the United Kingdom has found out how true it really is. Within three weeks, Britain has gone from being a stable nation under a democratically elected prime minister—albeit with a slim majority—to a deeply divided country with a new prime minister who no one elected, neither the public nor the ruling Conservative Party.

If the Brexit vote was considered to be a seismic surprise, then the country was certainly not ready for the aftershocks which continued daily. Even before all the votes of the referendum were counted, David Cameron announced he was resigning from the prime ministership as he was not the man who could successfully steer his country out of the EU. Ironically, Cameron, who led the “Remain” campaign, will now be branded by history as the prime minister who took Britain out of the EU.

As predicted by the Remainers, the British economy went into freefall. The pound tumbled to a 31-year low against the dollar and 40 years’ worth of UK contributions into the EU were wiped off the London stock exchange in 24 hours. Nearly a month later, the pound has still not recovered and the economy is bracing itself for a recession in the next couple of years as Britain negotiates itself out of the EU.

BORIS BECOMES FAVORITE            

As expected, Boris Johnson, former mayor and leader of the Brexit campaign, immediately became the bookies’ favorite to replace old buddy Cameron. But just a couple of days later came a shock even greater than the Brexit win—Michael Gove, the Go in the BoGo (Bo for Boris) dream team, told Bo to go! Stabbed in the back by Gove who all along kept insisting that he (Gove) didn’t have what it takes to become prime minister, Johnson was forced to announce to a shocked audience that he would not be standing for the leadership race, leaving his career in tatters. Within less than a week, a remarkable victory ended in an ignominious defeat. The Cameron camp quietly rejoiced in the “just retribution” for what Johnson had done to their leader.

MARCHING OUT Britain’s outgoing prime minister, David Cameron, accompanied by his wife Samantha, daughters Nancy (2nd L) and Florence and son Arthur, leaves 10, Downing Street on his last day in office
MARCHING OUT Britain’s outgoing prime minister, David Cameron, accompanied by his wife Samantha, daughters Nancy (2nd L) and Florence and son Arthur, leaves 10, Downing Street on his last day in office

Seeing the worst bloodletting since the fall of Maggie Thatcher, it was one of her ministers who came out with the blunt truth about Johnson’s behavior. “He has ripped the Tory party apart, created the greatest constitutional crisis in peacetime. He has knocked billions off the value of the savings of the British people,” said Michael Heseltine, Conservative peer. Lord Heseltine compared Johnson to “a general who marches his army to the sound of the guns and the moment he sees the battleground he abandons it … The pain of it will be felt by all of us and, if it doesn’t get resolved shortly, by a generation to come yet.”

The Tory party was left with a battle for its leadership with “the man who would be king” not even in the fray. The Machiavellian Gove promptly threw his hat in the ring. So did Theresa May, the 59-year-old, media-shy home secretary. who was in the Remain camp. She suddenly became the favorite to replace her boss. Apart from Gove, two more Brexiters—Andrea Leadsom and Liam Fox—decided they could become PM, to lead Britain out of the EU. Then came another surprise candidate, Stephen Crabb, one of the government’s young and rising stars and the Works and Pensions Secretary.

ELECTION PROCESS

The ballot papers were complete and so started the long-drawn election process of the new Tory leader laid out by the oddly-named 1922 committee under the chairmanship of Graham Brady. The parliamentary party would vote in successive rounds to eliminate the weakest candidates until two contenders remained who would then battle it out during a two-month campaign. Fox was the first to exit the contest, getting only 16 votes out of 329 cast in the first round of voting. Crabb suddenly announced his withdrawal from the contest—as inexplicably as his entry, citing no reasons, hence leaving only three in the fray. In the second round, Gove, the Brexit master strategist and backstabber, was defeated leaving May and Leadsom to fight it out to become Britain’s second female prime minister.  

Feeling left out of all the political machinations, the Labour Party decided to commit hara-kiri. Within a couple of days of the referendum, instead of sitting back and watching the turmoil in the Tory camp, Labour MPs organized a coup against party leader Jeremy Corbyn—which failed miserably! Despite mass resignations from his shadow cabinet and losing a no-confidence vote of the Labour Parliamentary Party, Corbyn refused to go, insisting that he had grassroots party support. Worried that he was right, considering he was elected leader only last year with a 60 percent mandate—the largest received by any Labour leader—the rebel MPs plucked up courage to launch an official challenge against Corbyn.

LEAD CAMPAIGNER Boris Johnson, who was made foreign secretary by the new PM, attends an EU meet in Brussels
LEAD CAMPAIGNER Boris Johnson, who was made foreign secretary by the new PM, attends an EU meet in Brussels

First off the mark was Angela Eagle, secretary of state in the Corbyn shadow cabinet, who had previously fought and lost the deputy leadership election last year. However, every time she tried to launch her campaign over the last 10 days, some major shock in the ongoing Tory soap opera would make sure she was interrupted. Yet another candidate has emerged out of the woodwork for the Labour leadership in the shape of Owen Smith, former shadow works and pensions secretary. The divisions in Labour seem to be even deeper than among the Conservatives with murmurings of a split in the party being inevitable. Eagle and Smith both claim they are taking on Corbyn in a bid to unite the Labour Party.

Brexiter Liam Fox was a contender for the top post after David Cameron quit
Brexiter Liam Fox was a contender for the top post after David Cameron quit

On June 24, when Cameron announced that he would be stepping down, he promised that the Conservative Party would have a new leader by the time they went to their annual conference in October, giving the party three months to find his replacement. But another surprise was waiting in the wings. Leadsom, after having to apologise to May for calling her unfit to be the prime minister as she was not a mother, suddenly withdrew from the leadership contest, allowing May a walkover. Seeing the unexpected development on July 11, Cameron announced that instead of waiting till October, he would resign on July 13 and end the uncertainty that had dogged the government.

WOMAN POWER

In a ceremony that was choreographed with split-second timing by Downing Street and Buckingham Palace, Cameron, Britain’s youngest prime minister in 200 years, left office and May, the second woman after Thatcher in 1979, became prime minister. She becomes the 13th prime minister to serve under Queen Elizabeth II, who is now officially the longest serving monarch Britain has ever seen, surpassing Queen Victoria’s record.

As May entered Downing Street on the evening of July 13, people breathed a collective sigh of relief, expecting that finally the aftershocks had ended. But, no, that was not to be! Before the day ended, May announced that she was sacking George Osborne and replacing him with Brexiter Phillip Hammond as Chancellor of the Exchequer. And then, to most commentators’ shock and horror, she revived Johnson’s dead career by making him the new foreign secretary.

MAKING A POINT Andrea Leadsom, who also decided to become PM, speaks at a news conferencein central London
MAKING A POINT Andrea Leadsom, who also decided to become PM, speaks at a news conferencein central London

The next day was dubbed the “Day of the Long Knives” as May virtually decimated the entire Cameron cabinet. After breakfast, May ruthlessly sacked five cabinet ministers, including Gove, before coming to Downing Street. She then called in MPs to be appointed or promoted and by evening, the cabinet had a completely new look with the stamp of authority of the prime minister.

The most interesting appointments were the portfolios given to Leave supporters. Cleverly, she gave Brexiters, including Johnson, Fox and Leadsom, full responsibility to deliver on the promises they had made during the referendum and to steer the country out of the EU—and ensure that they would get the rap if all the fears of the Remain campaign came true. Ironically, Priti Patel, the only Indian-origin minister and a Brexit campaigner, became the International Development Secretary—running a department she once suggested should be abolished.

And so ended the most turbulent three weeks of British politics in recent history!

Lead picture: Britain’s outgoing Prime Minister, David Cameron with his wife Samantha, waves in front of number 10 Downing Street, on his last day in office

All photos: UNI      

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