World·Analysis

Brexit chaos leaves behind 'a leaderless state'

With the head Brexit campaigners backing off, the PM stepping down and the opposition leader facing mutiny, Britain is a state without a leader.

British politicians avoid mopping up their own mess

Nigel Farage announces his resignation as leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party in London on Monday. Farage was instrumental in the campaign to have Britain leave the EU trading bloc, championing the issue of immigration. (Stefan Rousseau/PA/Associated Press)

Politics is a lot like sports: points are scored, winners emerge from a race, losers leave the field.

The EU referendum was Britain's biggest match in a generation — an all-star game that saw players from competing teams join forces temporarily to campaign for Leave or Remain.

The Leave side scored a come-from-behind win — but that's where the analogy ends because, so far, this result has only produced losers.

No leadership left

U.K. Independence Party Leader Nigel Farage was the first to declare victory after the vote. Yet even he, who had campaigned for Brexit before "Brexit" was a word, has now tapped out.

Stepping down as UKIP leader on Monday, Farage proudly declared he had "done his bit" and "couldn't possibly achieve more" after Britain voted to quit the EU.

He's just the latest prominent politician to tiptoe around the mess left behind and fob off the cleanup to others.

David Cameron was the first and least surprising departure, announcing plans to resign as prime minister within hours of the vote.

"I do not think it would be right for me to try to be the captain that steers our country to its next destination," Cameron declared outside 10 Downing Street, abandoning ship after veering into the storm.

He may have led the Remain squad but the referendum was his own doing — an ill-conceived ploy to silence the Euroskeptics in his own Conservative Party. Now the Tories have emerged even more deeply divided and bloodied by all the backstabbing.

Brexit campaigner and former London mayor Boris Johnson said he will not stand to succeed Prime Minister David Cameron, as had been widely expected after Britain's vote to leave the European Union. (Leon Neal/AFP/Getty)

Boris Johnson felt it when his ally Michael Gove stuck it to him. Then jaws dropped when Johnson dropped his plans to run to replace Cameron. As the Leave leader, no one bears more responsibility for stoking British Euroskepticism this past spring.

Opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn could very well be the next political casualty, facing an internal revolt and spectacularly losing a confidence vote by his own Labour MPs.

It's yet to be seen whether any of them will be able to wash the stain off their political legacy.

Collective shock and drama

"We are in a leaderless state in Britain at the moment," said Ben Page, chief executive of the Ipsos MORI polling firm.

Having a lame-duck prime minister and a rudderless opposition would be enough to throw the country into political chaos. But the Brexit shockwaves go much deeper.

Page predicts "political [career] assassinations, resignations and general turmoil."

The vote has plunged the country into economic uncertainty unseen since the 2008 financial crisis.

Add to that the enduring shock apparent among the half of the country that voted Remain — what Johnson, in a column published in the Daily Telegraph, called "a kind of hysteria, a contagious mourning" like that he witnessed in 1997 after the death of Princess Diana.

The Economist columnist Jeremy Cliffe told me he hadn't seen any other period when Britain had been "facing so many different crises and political and social dramas, all at the same time."

The shock has been the biggest since the death of a princess. The impact, like that of the financial crisis with as many twists and turns as a hard-fought Euro soccer final loss. And the game's not over. 

More turmoil ahead

"British politics is being remade," Cliffe said.

He expects the ruling Tories to become "more Euroskeptic and more illiberal."

The rifts in Labour perhaps run even deeper. Corbyn may have only a few fans left within his caucus, but he feels he still has the support of the party's base. Cliffe predicts Labour will soon split into two, with "one moderate, more pro-European party and [one] more far-left party."

A man takes a copy of the London Evening Standard with the front page reporting the resignation of British Prime Minister David Cameron and the vote to leave the EU. (Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images)

Compounding the political confusion, no one knows exactly when the U.K. will begin to negotiate its exit from the EU and what it might obtain from the talks.

"What the population really wants is something they may not be able to have," said pollster Page. "They quite like free trade, but they also want to be able to limit the number of immigrants."

Voting to "take back control," Britons hoped to gain the best of both worlds. What they got is a deepening multifaceted crisis.

One team won, the key players left, the arena is crumbling.

And yet there's still overtime to be played.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Thomas Daigle

Senior Reporter

Thomas is a reporter for a variety of CBC News programs, currently based in Toronto. Previously at CBC's London, U.K. bureau, he reported on everything from the Royal Family and European politics to terrorism. Thomas filed stories from Quebec for several years and reported for Radio-Canada in his native New Brunswick.

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