Political vacuum

Perhaps the dismal performance of the England national football team against Iceland was an apt metaphor for what is happening in UK politics: leaderless, disconnected, disorganized, and shooting off target from distance. In a period of great national uncertainty with enormous constitutional, economic, social, and political ramifications, the UK needs a calming and unifying political leadership, yet there seems to be none – except Nicola Sturgeon in Scotland – as the Conservatives look for a new leader and Labour self-immolates in a fractious civil war.

David Cameron is reduced to a lame-duck prime minister who is performing caretaking duties, and the attention of the party and the country has shifted on his replacement. Whoever becomes the next leader of the Conservatives will have issues unifying the party that will remain divided. It is not only Europhilism in the party that will be the issue, but the different shades of Euroscepticism: for some Tories the EU is an anathema, indeed a modern-day Carthage that must be destroyed, but for others, the EU was a constitutional issue and in some cases perhaps just a popular oppositional position to take. Can the Conservatives come up with a common position on what exactly Brexit should mean, as far as the UK’s relations with the EU are concerned?

It is astounding that the Leader of the Opposition could lose more than half his shadow cabinet yet seems to think he is able to continue: imagine what would happen to a prime minister who had lost more than half of his or her cabinet? The government can be defeated in the House of Commons by a confidence vote, but nothing similar exists for the Opposition, and as such it has to be done from within the party. If the shadow cabinet is meant to be a replacement for the real thing, ready to govern the country, then this one certainly does not inspire any confidence. Labour as a political party is fast losing credibility.

The next prime minister – whoever it may be – may decide to engineer an early election: the House of Commons can be dissolved by a motion passed with two thirds or more of the number of the seats in the House, i.e. with the agreement of other parties, alternatively by submitting a motion of no confidence against the government where the Conservatives abstain and allow the opposition parties to win, and allow 14 days to elapse without a new government that commands the confidence of the House thus triggering a new election. The House can also repeal the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 and return to the system where the prime minister can essentially use the royal prerogative to dissolve the Parliament. Given the enormity of the repercussions of the EU referendum and its outcome, there is an argument for the incoming government to have a clear mandate, and in that respect an early general election does make sense.

An early dissolution and election will force many sitting MPs seeking re-election to clarify their position, as many of them have supported the remain cause. So what do they believe now post-referendum? What do they think should be the British position in the negotiations with the EU? They will have to explain their views to their local constituency party members who choose the candidates as well as to the constituents more generally.

Could pro-European Tory MPs be vulnerable to deselection by a deeply Eurosceptic local party, in a way that the factions that support Jeremy Corbyn threaten to deselect MPs who have been against his leadership? Political wisdom often dictates that parties need to occupy the centre ground to appeal to a broad spectrum of the electorate: both the Conesrvatives and Labour claimed to be a one-nation party not long ago. It seems as if the opposite is happening at the moment. The Conservatives might end up being cannibalized by the right and UKIP, and Labour by the elements of the hard left which continue to support Mr Corbyn come what may. The UK is set to remain a divided country for some time, and the two main political parties might possibly be taken hostage by the fringes of their respective spectrum.