Post-Brexit, Both Of Great Britain’s Major Parties Are In Crisis Mode

One week after the Brexit vote, both the Conservative and Labour parties find themselves in chaos.

Brexit Puzzle Pieces

The turmoil in British politics in the wake of last week’s Brexit vote continues, with the latest development being that Conservative firebrand and leader of the ‘Leave’ campaign Boris Johnson surprising everyone with the announcement that he will not be a candidate to replace David Camerson as Conservative Party leader and Prime Minister:

The question of who will lead Britain into its future outside the European Union — a muddled mess for nearly a week — was further scrambled Thursday, with the camp that had favored an exit splintering into warring tribes and forcing former London mayor Boris Johnson to drop from the contest to become prime minister.

The latest whiplash in British politics pushes the flamboyant Johnson to the margins and sets up a showdown within the governing Conservatives to replace Prime Minister David Cameron, who is stepping down in the wake of the E.U. snub by British voters.

The choice cuts across the lines of the referendum: Go with a party insider who broke with Cameron and championed the anti-E.U. side, or stick with a Cameron loyalist and pick Britain’s first female leader since Margaret Thatcher.

Until Thursday morning, the race had been shaping up as a likely standoff between Johnson, the mop-headed rogue who favored “leave,” and Theresa May, the no-nonsense domestic security chief who had backed “remain.”

But Michael Gove, the bookish justice secretary who was regarded as the intellectual architect of the “leave” campaign, shocked the country’s political establishment Thursday by announcing that he, too, would enter the fray.

Later — and just minutes before the deadline to formally join the pack to occupy 10 Downing Street — Johnson bowed out.

Gove had been expected to serve as Johnson’s campaign manager, uniting the two men who had been the most prominent Conservative backers for Brexit, as a British departure from the European Union is popularly known.

But he apparently had a last-minute change of heart, saying he had come “to the conclusion that Boris cannot provide the leadership or build the team for the task ahead.”

Gove, who has been nearly invisible since last Thursday’s referendum to exit the European Union, did not release any detailed vision for the country’s future. He said his “plan for the United Kingdom which I hope can provide unity and change” would be unveiled “in the coming days.”

Johnson, who had widely been considered the favorite to take the keys to Downing Street, has also made himself scarce since the vote, largely avoiding the media.

But in a speech Thursday, Johnson delivered an extensive defense of his record as London mayor and said the country needed someone to lead the country to a fairer and more prosperous future outside the European Union.

It appeared that he was preparing to announce his entry into the race to be prime minister, and several British media outlets reported that was exactly what it was. As the speech came to a close, however, Johnson delivered a stunner, saying that “in view of the circumstances in Parliament, I have concluded that person cannot be me.”

Johnson’s choice to opt out was an extraordinary development for a man who has made little secret that he covets the top job in British politics.

Gove’s decision was equally astonishing.

His announcement that he will stand for prime minister, despite earlier support for Johnson, is just the latest in a Shakespearean string of betrayals at the highest reaches of British politics. First Johnson and Gove turned their backs on Cameron, their friend and sparring partner since their days at Oxford. Then Gove, who campaigned for Brexit beside Johnson for months, turned the knife on the former London mayor.

“You couldn’t make it up,” Tory member of Parliament Nigel Evans told the BBC. “It makes the ‘House of Cards’ look like ‘Teletubbies.’ ”

More from The Guardian:

Boris Johnson has unexpectedly ruled himself out of the Conservative leadership race hours after his key ally Michael Gove announced a challenge for the top job, on a turbulent morning.

Speaking at a hotel in central London, where he had been expected to launch his candidacy, Johnson gave an upbeat speech, saying the agenda for the next prime minister was for the UK to become a more outward-looking nation that resets its relationship with Europe.

But he went on to say: “Having consulted colleagues and in view of the circumstances in parliament, I have concluded that person cannot be me.”

Despite having been the leading public face in the victorious Vote Leave campaign, Johnson appeared to have concluded that he could not command enough support from his party, after a series of key MPs, including business minister Nick Boles, and pro-Brexit Dominic Raab, defected to the Gove camp.

“My role will be to give every possible support to the next Conservative administration to make sure that we properly fulfil the mandate of the people that was delivered at the referendum and to champion the agenda that I believe in, to stick up for the forgotten people of this country,” he said.

And, if we do so, if we invest in our children and improve their life chances, if we continue to fuel the engines of social mobility, if we build on the great reforming legacy of David Cameron, if we invest in our infrastructure and we follow a sensible, one-nation Conservative approach that is simultaneously tax-cutting and pro-enterprise, then I believe that this country can win and be better and more wonderful and, yes, greater than ever before.”

Gove announced his candidacy shortly after 9am, after calling a handful of Conservative MPs to his office in Westminster to tell them of his last-minute decision to stand.

Johnson has been noticeably absent from the chamber of the House of Commons since last Thursday’s shock referendum result, and had given little idea of the kind of deal he hoped to do with the other EU member states.

The final showdown is now likely to be between the home secretary, Theresa May, and Gove, who said in a statement on Thursday morning that Johnson “cannot provide the leadership or build the team for the task ahead”.

Nominations formally closed at noon, and the chair of the 1922 Committee, Graham Brady, announced that there were five candidates, including the work and pensions secretary, Stephen Crabb, the pro-Brexit energy minister Andrea Leadsom and former defence secretary Liam Fox, as well as May and Gove.

Johnson’s decision not to run is surprising simply because it has been apparent since he sought to return to Parliament as part of the slate of candidates put up by the Tories during last year’s General Election and the victory by the ‘Leave’ forces that he stepped up to lead was widely seen as the perfect opportunity for him to step into the role quickly, although I don’t think that anyone anticipated that the opportunity would come this quickly given that David Cameron’s post-Brexit resignation was not something that many people seemed to anticipate. Once it materialized, though, the consensus seemed to be that Johnson would take the chance to run for the position since it was arguably an ideal time for him given his role in the ‘Leave’ campaign and the fact that the next Prime Minister would seemingly need to be someone with credibility on the ‘Leave’ side of the Brexit debate and there were few people in the Conservative Party more active in that debate than Boris Johnson, What motivated him to change his mind is unclear, but the most likely answer is that he concluded that he was not going to have sufficient support inside the party to win and that staying out of the race was his best option at this point. Additionally, the fact that the man who was supposed to be Johnson’s chief lieutenant in a bid for party leadership ended up stabbing him in the back and launching his own bid likely took the wind out of Johnson’s sails for the time being. Perhaps he’ll be back in the future, but for now Johnson will have to put his ambition to be Prime Minister on hold.

As it stands, it appears that the race for Conservative Party leader will end up coming down to Home Secretary Theresa May and Gove, who serves as Lord Chancellor and Justice Minister in David Cameron’s candidate. May was, at least nominally, a supporter of ‘Remain’ during the Brexit campaign but has said that she will honor the outcome of the vote as party leader and is widely considered to be the front-runner in the race to replace Cameron. Contrary to some suggestions that it would be necessary to call elections in the wake of the Brexit vote and the selection of a new Conservative Party leader, May has said that is she were party leader there would be no elections before the one required by law in 2020. May has also rejected the idea of a do-over vote on EU membership. Gove, of course, was a campaigner for ‘Leave’ but it’s not at all clear that this would aid him in a bid to overtake May to become party leader. Indeed, his entry into the race appears to be a surprise to everyone that further throws the situation into chaos to the point that party members could see uniting quickly behind May as the best option. If successful, May would become the second female leader of the Conservative Party, and second female Prime Minister, in British history.

Thing aren’t much calmer over in the Labour Party. It’s been several days now since Labour Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn lost a no-confidence vote among Labour MPs and he still shows no sign of leaving even as more and more of his support slips away and other MPs appear to be preparing for a bid to challenge him for party leader. In the latest controversy, Corbyn is being accused of equating Israel with the Islamic State in public remarks, an accusation that bolsters past charges of anti-Semitism on the part of him and his more hard-core supporters. At the very least, this is hardly the kind of controversy needs given the fact that he seems certain to face a leadership challenge in the near future and many of the leaders of his own party do not believe he is the right person to lead the party heading into a possible General Election, or even going forward generally. Given the fact that Corbyn is holding his ground, it’s likely that things will get messy inside Labour in the coming weeks at the very least. Where British politics ends up after all this has sorted itself out is anybody’s guess.

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Scott says:

    Although may be turmoil among the leadership of both parties, it is clear that the inertia of the bureaucracy has it saving graces. It is also good that the Brexit vote was not operationally immediate or even binding. A long period of introspection would be good for the UK to truly has things out.

    BTW, does anyone know if the liberal democratic party (down to 8 MPs) have any influence anymore? They were against Brexit.

  2. grumpy realist says:

    Yup, the dog caught the car and discovered he didn’t have the foggiest idea what to do with it.

    What really sunk Boris was two things: 1) his column the other day where he seemed to backtrack on the free movement issue, and 2) the fact that he remained incommunicado after Cameron suddenly said he would step down immediately. Great leaders always have ideas in the back of their minds as to what to do when emergencies happen. Boris just stood there like the reader of My Pet Goat did on 9/11. Frozen. Terrified. Not a clue as to what to do.

  3. Pch101 says:

    @grumpy realist:

    Boris was backstabbed by Michael Gove: This is akin to Dick Cheney throwing George W. Bush under the bus.

  4. john430 says:

    The U.S. will survive Obama and Trump and the U.K. survived Chamberlain and will also survive Brexit.

  5. grumpy realist says:

    @john430: Yes, platitudes are always the best way to approach a situation.

  6. grumpy realist says:

    @Pch101: I don’t think that Gove would have made his move had he not thought Boris vulnerable to the charge he made. And he certainly wouldn’t have received the stampede of support from other members of the Tory party had not they believed similarly: that Boris was a limp noodle who couldn’t hack it. (One of the British journals nicknamed Boris “a Gentleman Hack.”

  7. Pch101 says:

    @grumpy realist:

    It would seem that Gove helped to steer Johnson into serving as a highly visible voice for Leave that could avoid the racist taint of the likes of the UKIP, only to pull the rug out from under him when Gove felt it was time to make a move for his own personal political gain. Johnson was an asset to him.

    The cynicism of the Leave leadership effort is quite something to behold.

  8. stonetools says:

    Ffor most of this year, the British have had a great fun pointing out how awful and dysfunctional the US political system is, what with Ben Carson, Ted Cruz, and the Donald lumbering about the landscape, spewing nonsense in all directions. Well now the boot is on the other foot
    What a dumpster fire Brexit and its aftermath has been. Things have well and truly fallen apart, with no best in sight and the only the worst on offer, still full of passionate intensity. And no one has any idea of how it will all turn out.

    I’m hoping Fraser wins the Conservative top spot and Angela Eagle wins for Labor. Then maybe Fraser, Eagle , and Nicola Sturgeon( Scottish National Party leader) can work to clean up the mess left by the men. They sure as h3ll can’t do worse.

  9. stonetools says:

    Woops, by Fraser I mean Theresa May. Need more coffee…

  10. grumpy realist says:

    @stonetools: It’s rather amazing how both the Tories and Labour have basically imploded. The Tories are recreating bits of the Italian Renaissance among their public-school prats, while the head of Labour is pulling a Bernie and refuses to leave the stage even though everyone else is pushing him and saying “just GO!”

    And here I thought the Brits were more intelligent than us over here on our side of the pond. What HAVE they been smoking?!

  11. Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    @Pch101: That may well have been the most fortuitous throwing under the bus in the history of British politics. In much the same way as Cameron is, Johnson is detached from the consequences of whatever happens related to Brexit. If Gove had been thinking at all, he would have let Johnson gain the party leadership and then run against him in a vote of no confidence after Article 50’s details are worked out. This way, Gove is the one in the crosshairs (potentially).

  12. Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    @stonetools: I don’t see how May can “clean up the mess” considering that she has announced that she will proceed with Article 50 if elected. In essence, she is running as the best qualified to “Leave” since she supported “Remain.” Counterintuitive to my view, but if you’re going to run, you have to use what you have, I suppose.

  13. stonetools says:

    She certainly seems resigned to go through with Brexit- for now. She has to be seen to be strong on Brexit and immigration controls as long as she is worried about Conservative voters and legislators defecting to UKIP. But her heart isn’t in it, IMO, and things could change , especially if Brexit looks like becoming a complete cockup. I agree with this LGM commenter:

    I wouldn’t be entirely surprised to see her put off Brexit until there was enough of a movement in favour of quietly forgetting it altogether to let her calmly and efficiently screw Nigel Farage over without mercy.

  14. Grumpy Realist says:

    @stonetools: if she could do that I suspect she would find herself PM for life.

  15. Pch101 says:

    @Just ‘nutha ig’rant cracker:

    Brexit requires approval of parliament, and it won’t make it through the Commons or through Lords.

    At present, there is not a majority for Britain to leave the EU in either the House of Commons or the House of Lords. Indeed, given a free vote, the unelected Lords would probably reject Brexit by a margin of six to one.

    One issue that will arise for the next prime minister – be it Theresa May, Boris Johnson or another – will be what happens when they try to push Brexit through a parliament that can delay the process at every turn. This has been described as a “reverse Maastricht”, a reference to the way in which Eurosceptics caused hell for John Major by blocking passage of the Maastricht treaty into UK law.

    There may be some face saving going on here, and the gamesmanship could be get interesting. One scenario: Article 50 gets invoked, which starts the clock while allowing the new Tory PM to save face. But then the whole Brexit then gets killed by parliament, the two-year clock runs out, and it’s dead and gone. The PM is then somewhat off the hook, since (s)he did what was promised but isn’t to blame for Brexit dying on the vine.

  16. Barry says:

    @Scott: “A long period of introspection would be good for the UK to truly has things out.”

    UKIP ain’t gonna give the Tories that, IMHO. Nor will the EU leadership.

  17. Barry says:

    @john430: “The U.S. will survive Obama and Trump and the U.K. survived Chamberlain and will also survive Brexit.”

    Do you have anything to say with actual thought behind it?

  18. Barry says:

    @Pch101: “The PM is then somewhat off the hook, since (s)he did what was promised but isn’t to blame for Brexit dying on the vine.”

    Ordinarily I’d agree, but Farage is still there, leading UKIP, in a perfect position to point out what the Tories are doing.

    It’s like back-stabbing Trump at the convention – it *might* be doable, but the backlash would hurt.

  19. PJ says:


    Article 50 gets invoked, which starts the clock while allowing the new Tory PM to save face. But then the whole Brexit then gets killed by parliament, the two-year clock runs out, and it’s dead and gone.

    The two-year clock is to have time renegotiate treaties etc. Two years after Article 50 got invoked, unless the other countries in the EU agree to extend the period, the UK gets expelled from the EU. Well, unless it hasn’t already left.

  20. Pch101 says:


    The Lisbon Treaty requires the withdrawal to be negotiated. There won’t be anyone to negotiate the withdrawal for Britain if parliament objects to it.

  21. Pch101 says:


    Farage is still there, leading UKIP, in a perfect position to point out what the Tories are doing.

    Of course, the UKIP is going to complain about it, but there is nothing that it can do about it if a Brexit vote fails to make it through the Commons or if Lords quashes it. Individual MPs are free to vote as they see fit, and the Lords are unelected. Representative government at work.

    The voters were provided with a non-binding referendum. If Farage wanted something more than that, then he should have said something sometime prior to the vote being scheduled.

  22. Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    @Pch101: I’m not sure that’s actually the case. Quoting from the article Dr. Taylor linked to in his first Brexit article

    4. Article 50 skews the balance of power in the negotiations in favour of the continuing member states. That is because of the two-year rule and the unanimity requirement for extensions to that period. If we find ourselves outside the EU with no deal, we automatically revert to World Trade Organization (WTO) rules on trade. That means that tariffs have to be imposed on trade between the UK and the EU. This would be bad for everyone, but especially for the UK. Strenuous – and probably successful – efforts would be made to avoid it. But, as we explore in our briefing paper on the impact of Brexit on other member states, some countries would strike a very hard bargain. We can presume that the UK would not get its way on everything.

    9. Parliament has no formal say over whether or when Article 50 is invoked, as this lies within the royal prerogative powers that are exercised by government. Government’s powers in matters of foreign policy are very extensive, and parliament has veto rights only in respect of treaties. If parliament were to pass a motion calling on the Prime Minister not to invoke Article 50, we might nevertheless expect him (or perhaps, by then, her) to respect that. But the Prime Minister could claim the authority of the popular vote to justify ignoring such pressure.

    10. Parliament would, however, be able to vote on the withdrawal deal, as that would be a treaty. Indeed, as we examined in our briefing paper on Brexit’s effects on Westminster and Whitehall, parliament would expect to be updated regularly on the negotiations and to have its views heard, perhaps through votes on specific issues. The large majority of MPs currently favour staying in the EU. If they wanted a post-Brexit deal involving substantial ongoing integration with the EU – perhaps akin to Norway’s arrangements ­– they could potentially have the power to reject any deal that did not provide that. Whether they would do so would depend in part on the political situation and the state of public opinion at the time, both of which are highly unpredictable. It would depend also on the withdrawal timetable: if the two-year window were near to closing, rejecting the deal on the table could be very risky.

    It appears as though Parliament can reject the leaving treaty, but that such a rejection would not affect the actual leaving itself; it would only result in leaving with no deal in place at all.

  23. Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    @Just ‘nutha ig’rant cracker: Key recap from above:

    If we find ourselves outside the EU with no deal [i.e. Parliament rejects the treaty], we revert to World Trade Organization (WTO) rules on trade.

    If parliament were to pass a motion calling on the Prime Minister not to invoke Article 50, we might nevertheless expect him (or perhaps, by then, her) to respect that. But the Prime Minister could claim the authority of the popular vote to justify ignoring such pressure. [Which it appears that all candidates left standing are inclined to do.]

    …if the two-year window were near to closing, [Parliament] rejecting the deal on the table could be very risky.

  24. Pch101 says:

    @Just ‘nutha ig’rant cracker:

    Article 50 states that “Any Member State may decide to withdraw from the Union in accordance with its own constitutional requirements.”

    In the UK, Parliament would have to approve termination of the European Communities Act 1972 in order to exit the treaty.

    If I was arguing on behalf of Remain, then I would say that the prime minister lacks the unilateral authority to terminate a treaty. Accordingly, the EU isn’t free to act since the member state’s constitutional requirements were not met.

    At the very least, it’s a big mess that creates a legal controversy over the withdrawal process for which there are no precedents, which leaves room for disputes.