Brexit: not just a political crisis but a crisis for politics

15 Jul 2016 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 22 Jul 2016

The Brexit crisis is rapidly mutating from a grave political crisis into a crisis about politics itself. 

In contrast the Northern Ireland Assembly, its parties, politicians and structures are looking uncharacteristically  stable.

When the UK voted in the biggest poll in its history to leave the European Union this was in so many respects a triumph for democracy. The people, after all, had spoken.

Yet it was almost immediately clear that there was no plan in place as to how and when that would happen and what the relationship would be with Europe, and indeed the rest of the world once that had happened. Leave campaigners all wanted to Leave but had no common position as to what should come next.

The Prime Minister resigned. He had campaigned to remain and his position had become untenable.

A leadership contest was called. Boris Johnson who led the Leave campaign and favourite to replace Cameron became the victim of a midnight coup hatched by his erstwhile friend Michael Gove which prevented him from being able to stand. Gove stood in his place but was eliminated from the race.

Ultimately it came down to two candidates Andrea Leadsom and Theresa May. Leadsom dropped out after being accused of bigging up her CV and then going on to make some comments about motherhood which many found offensive. The UK, facing the most seismic and potentially threatening event in a generation is now being led by a Prime Minister who got the position by default and voted for Remain. She has no mandate from the public or even members of her own party. Many Tories believe that she would have lost to Leadsom had the matter gone to a vote.

This is a difficult position for her to be in, especially given that the Conservative Party is a sometimes uneasy coalition between traditional nationalist Conservatives, one nation Tories, neo liberals and libertarians. The parliamentary party has a justified reputation for ruthlessness. At times the leadership contest looked like a rejected script for House of Cards.

Meanwhile Labour rebels engineered a coup against their leader Jeremy Corbyn. Corbyn is a leftist who was elected by a landslide of members last year. His first crime was an apparent lack of engagement in the Remain campaign, then he was deemed to be a poor leader.

His fellow MPs passed a motion of no confidence in him and there were mass resignations from the Shadow Cabinet.

Angela Eagle, a lacklustre media performer, who came fourth in the contest for deputy leader last time round challenged him. She was later joined by a Welsh MP called Owen Smith who few outside the Westminster bubble had heard of.

There was a failed attempt to exclude Corbyn from the ballot altogether. This would have ended his leadership but at the price of subverting the democratic process by which Labour members elect their leader.

Corbyn is odds on to win the contest. If he does the Labour Party will either stagger on with a leader opposed by the vast majority of his own MPs, making parliamentary opposition all but impossible or else there will be a split. In either event it is hard to see how the party can gain regain credibility in the short, medium or even long term.  A whole swathe of the electorate risks not being represented at all.

We are therefore left at Westminster with a government which does not have a clear mandate for what should happen next and a dysfunctional opposition on the verge of falling apart.

Sadly it gets worse. One of May’s biggest priorities will be to preserve the Union.

Scotland voted to remain. The Scottish National Party is already preparing the ground for a new referendum on its potential exit from the UK. Its leader at Westminster Angus Robertson broke with the parliamentary conventions when David Cameron took his last Prime Minister’s Questions at Westminster. There was no joshing or praise. Instead he said: “the Prime Minister's legacy will undoubtedly be that he's taken us to the brink of being taken out of the EU, so we will not be applauding his premiership on these benches." He and his colleagues duly sat in stony silence as the rest of the House rose to give Cameron a standing ovation.

If the SNP concludes that it can win, a new referendum is inevitable and Scotland will attempt to remain in the EU and leave the UK.

This brings us to the Leave voters. Analysis demonstrates that many of those who voted to leave the European Union are working class people from towns and cities outside London. People who have borne the brunt of austerity cuts made in response to the banking crisis. People who are concerned about immigrants undercutting their wages in already low paid jobs. People who have lost trust in the political establishment and no longer believe what politicians tell them. People who see themselves as having nothing left to lose.

his section of the electorate is unlikely to be satisfied if it transpires that a free trade agreement with Europe is won at the price of free movement.

Reconciling this English constituency with the concerns of Scottish voters looks impossible.

As much as anything the Referendum has exposed a deep discontent with the political establishment amongst many voters. Expert views were rejected, authority figures ignored. Everyone seems to acknowledge that.

 Yet Westminster politicians have reacted to the need to regain trust with a spectacular and collective lack of self-awareness. Some have called for a re-run of the vote. Others want a new referendum on the terms of the exit, without explaining how a complex multi-clause agreement could be put to the people in this way. The Tories have indulged in back stabbing and intrigue. Labour MPs are seeking to subvert the democratic wishes of their members and have all but destroyed their party in the process. .

 Fault lines have been exposed within political parties. In the case of Labour these run so deep it is hard to see how it can survive.  it leaves the UK uncertain of its future role in the world, with all the uncertainties that flow from that and it could very well lead to Scotland breaking away. The credibility of those we elect to office is in tatters.

In contrast to the tumult at Westminster our affairs suddenly seem comparatively serene. There is a coalition government, an organised opposition and a Programme for Government is being pulled together built around long term principles.

We voted to remain as well. Sinn Fein has demanded a border poll. It will not get one for the moment and there will be business as usual.

Yet questions remain.  Does this mean the end for inward investment? How else will our fragile economy be protected? What will happen to the border? Will EU funding be replaced by Westminster? What will happen if Scotland cedes?

In times of seismic change, everything changes. All is quiet and calm here right now and yet the storm clouds are slowly rolling across the Irish Sea. Who can say what will happen when they reach these shores? 

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