Friday 30 September 2016

Britain leaving, Cameron going - and the ramifications of this have only just begun

Andrew Hammond

Published 25/06/2016 | 02:30

Prime Minister David Cameron walks into 10 Downing Street with wife Samantha after he announced his resignation. Photo: Daniel Leal-Olivas/PA Wire
Prime Minister David Cameron walks into 10 Downing Street with wife Samantha after he announced his resignation. Photo: Daniel Leal-Olivas/PA Wire

UK prime minister David Cameron has resigned following the UK's Leave vote. Political and economic shockwaves are already rippling out across the globe from the referendum result following a campaign which was amongst the most divisive ever in modern British politics.

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Despite pre-referendum polls this week generally indicating that momentum was with Remain, the Leave camp won through with around 52pc of the vote. The result saw England (London heavily excepted) and Wales voting to leave, while Scotland and Northern Ireland voted for Remain.

The vote has rattled financial markets and the UK political establishment and Cameron's decision to resign, only a year after his landmark success last May in winning the first majority Conservative government for over two decades, will only add to the uncertainty.

A major reassurance effort is now under way to respond to the political trauma and financial uncertainty, with the European Central Bank, Bank of England and other central banks preparing to make potentially further significant interventions.

Brussels will be centre-stage on Tuesday and Wednesday with a previously planned EU summit. The EU elite will be shellshocked, not least given fears about contagion to other countries potentially looking to leave the union in future years, and political leaders will now seek a strong, co-ordinated front to emphasise the continuing resilience and integrity of the EU.

In this turbulent context, Cameron has decided to resign, despite the fact that there have been significant shows of support for him from within the Tory party, with around two thirds of its MPs who backed a Leave vote, including former London Mayor Boris Johnson and Justice Secretary Michael Gove, having signed a letter, saying that he should stay in office.

A key reason Cameron decided to go is that the Tory backbenches would have become significantly more ungovernable post-referendum if he had stayed.

And an internal leadership challenge against him, which requires 50 Conservative MPs to trigger, could not have been ruled out.

He will also have recognised that the government's small parliamentary majority could have meant a more embattled administration as intra-Conservative tensions festered. Such political troubles would have undermined key elements of domestic policy, including the government's plans to try to secure some £30bn of spending cuts in the first years of this parliament.

Favourites to replace Cameron in the leadership election in coming weeks will be Johnson and other key exit supporters, including Gove, although the prospects of some who favoured Remain, including the home secretary Theresa May and possibly the Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson, could not be dismissed. However, the leadership ambitions of chancellor George Osborne, a close ally of Cameron, could now be sunk.

Cameron will not trigger Article 50 of the EU Treaties, the formal mechanism for bringing about the UK's withdrawal process, at the Brussels summit or in coming weeks. Given the massive stakes in play, he has chosen to defer this momentous decision to his successor.

One other possibility, suggested by some Leave campaigners, would be for the UK to leave the EU by deploying alternative legal/ legislative procedures, including by repealing the 1972 EU Communities Act.

However, some lawyers and constitutional scholars have dismissed the feasibility of this and indicated that Article 50 is the most politically and legally viable route.

One further option in the coming months, which cannot be completely ruled out under a new prime minister, is a second EU referendum if better terms can be secured from Brussels.

Even some exit campaigners such as Johnson have advocated this in the past, despite the fact that it would infuriate many of those who voted leave on Thursday.

In this context, Cameron's successor as prime minister may well seek to engineer a general election if it is believed that the outcome will be favourable to the Conservatives to try to secure a strong electoral mandate.

While the current Parliament theoretically runs to 2020 under the terms of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, the new Conservative leader would be in a good position to challenge opposition parties to support him or her in calling an early ballot, given the change of prime minister and the potential gravity of the situation facing the country.

Thursday's vote will have potentially massive implications for the longer-term future of the EU and the United Kingdom. On the latter front, for instance, British exit of the EU would increase the likelihood of a second Scottish independence referendum vote. Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, the Scottish Nationalist Party Leader, has previously argued that the United Kingdom should only exit the EU if all four constituency countries (England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) individually voted to leave, which is an exceptionally unlikely scenario.

Turning to the EU at large, the Brussels-based club now faces the biggest potential reversal in its more than half-century history. As one of the more influential EU states, an UK exit would disrupt the balance of power, inner workings and policy orientations of the EU in a way that could ultimately consolidate the influence of other large states, especially Germany.

Taken overall, the historic decision will set the political weather in both Britain and Brussels for months to come as political leaders scramble to come to terms with it.

Decisions taken in the coming weeks will define the longer-term political and economic character of the EU and United Kingdom, with both unions now facing major stress as the implications of the referendum bed in.

Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS (the Centre for International Affairs, Diplomacy and Strategy) at the London School of Economics

Irish Independent

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