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The Quick Read About… the U.K. after Theresa May

5 minute read

What Happened This Week:

Theresa May has finally stepped down as head of the Conservative Party—Britain’s long national nightmare is finally over. Well, one of them anyways.

Why It Matters:

It’s been clear for some time now that Theresa May would be unable to get her Brexit deal over the finish line. Some of that had to do with the particulars of the deal itself (like that endlessly confounding Irish “backstop”), but much more of it had to do with the fact that no politician aside from May was invested in seeing her particular deal succeed. Every “Leave” parliamentarian had a different vision for what their ideal Brexit would look like, and there was little political incentive for any of them to throw their support behind a deal that just 13 percent of Brits supported back in March. Politicians tend to do things that are popular, and May’s deal… just wasn’t.

May might have been able to push her deal through British Parliament if voting down said deal came with consequences, like a crash out “no deal”, but that was never an option so long as EU extensions were on the table.

But as Europe’s patience begins to wear thin—along with the patience of the British public—the political calculations have started to shift. And with May’s departure, the Brexit proceedings enter their next phase.

What Happens Next:

Despite her resignation as head of the Conservative Party, May will stay on as a caretaker Prime Minister until her successor has been decided (currently slated for the week of July 22). But she’s given up the reins on the Brexit process, ushering in a new political drama for Britain to focus on these next few months. The next Conservative leader will be selected in two stages: first, Conservative members who currently hold seats in Parliament will whittle down the list of possible contenders to two individuals (out of the current 11 who have announced their candidacies). That will be followed by a mail-in vote from the rest of the country’s registered Conservative members (numbering somewhere around 124,000) to determine the ultimate winner and next British prime minister.

The frontrunner at moment is Boris Johnson, former London mayor and former Foreign Secretary who was one of the “Leave” campaign’s most visible spokespeople. Johnson has a few things going for him—he is a staunch Brexiteer (unlike May, who technically wanted the UK to “Remain” ahead of the Brexit referendum, though she didn’t campaign strongly for that side since she had her eyes on 10 Downing Street), he is popular among Conservative party members generally, and he has vowed a “no deal” exit should it come to that. Just as importantly, the resurgence of Nigel Farage and his Brexit Party (which dominated in the UK’s European elections a couple weeks ago) has renewed fears that the Tories will lose a significant part of their voter base if they don’t take a hardline stance on Brexit. Johnson’s rhetoric suggests he’s willing to provide that hardline stance.

Of course, with a man as prone to political gaffes as Boris Johnson, nothing is for certain—Dominic Raab, the former Brexit Secretary who resigned upon the announcement of May’s deal in November 2018, is also a leading contender to succeed May. He has vowed to reopen the trade deal agreed between Theresa May and the EU (though the EU maintains that renegotiation is not an option), but goes further by saying he’s willing to bypass the UK parliament and trigger a no-deal Brexit to make sure the UK leaves the EU by the extension deadline. There are multiple other contenders for the post, most of whom range from grudgingly supporting a no-deal Brexit to enthusiastically pushing for one. Just one of the Conservative candidates supports a second Brexit referendum.

But no matter who wins the leadership contest, time is running short; the EU extension is only till October 31, and it’s unlikely a new deal can be negotiated in such a short period, even if the EU agrees to re-enter those talks. Complicating matters even further is the presence of a large contingent of British euro-skeptics sitting in EU parliament following the strong showing of Farage’s Brexit party in European elections. All of which is to say—the EU will give the UK one more deadline to figure out what it wants, and that’s probably it. By the time that deadline expires, the UK will have to decide whether it wants a deal on offer from the EU, revoking Brexit altogether or taking the leap with a no-deal Brexit.

The Key Fact That Explains It

124,000 Tory members (out of a country of 66 million people total) will get to decide who the next Prime Minister is. That means that just 0.19 percent of the population will have a say in what shape Brexit will ultimately take. And you thought the US electoral college was bad.

The One Thing to Read About It:

The Conservative Party may be able to deliver Brexit, but it’s increasingly looking likely it will be a pyrrhic victory if it does—read this blistering takedown of the current state of the Tory party by The Guardian’s editorial team.

The One Thing to Avoid Saying About It:

Nigel Farage seems to be the single most important player in today’s Conservative party. Maybe they should just make him the next party leader and be done with it.

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