Given the enormity of the UK’s decision to leave the EU, many people have barely begun to contemplate the full extent of changes now ahead of us as a country. Yet there has already been some indication today of just how fragmented our party political system could soon become – to the extent that we may end up with no party commanding enough authority and respect in Westminster to lead us into a post-Brexit world.
This is most obvious in the Conservative Party. Speculation as to the Prime Minister’s future was quelled by 8:20 this morning: he intends to have a new Conservative leader and PM in place by the party conference season, but not before then. The pending leadership contest will inevitably feature Brexit heavyweights such as Boris Johnson and Priti Patel, but it will take unbelievable skill for the winner to successfully reunite the parliamentary party. Too many Conservative MPs supported Remain; too many will be worried about what comes next for Britain. Europe will taunt the Conservatives for years to come, and the electorate will punish them for this as John Major was in the 1990s.
Elsewhere, Jeremy Corbyn has been accused by many of his MPs – the majority of whom passionately campaigned to remain – of making a lacklustre contribution to the EU debate. Many will see this as the last straw in a long string of difficulties with his leadership, and by lunchtime it was pretty certain this will trigger a leadership challenge against him. This will force Labour’s internal soul-searching, and the contradiction between the PLP and grassroots members, back to the surface when it could be slotting itself back into government. The likelihood that this will be another wasted opportunity for Labour to challenge and provide a workable alternative to the Conservatives is high, which will not be lost on many of its supporters.
Now technically, these arguments within the two main parties should benefit UKIP. The party dominated the campaign to leave the EU, successfully converting nearly 52% of the population to its cause and polling as much as 19% in terms of national voting intentions. But what role remains for UKIP now it has achieved its driving purpose? Unlike the Greens, who also began life as a single-issue party, UKIP has not established a wider political agenda building on its ideological underpinnings. It may look to do so now, seeking to further this success and fill the power vacuum emerging in Westminster – but it will be a tall order to become electable to the mainstream so quickly. My bet is that this triumph will also be dented by public anger around the terms and conditions of Brexit.
And finally, to consider the Liberal Democrats and the Greens – I only ignore the SNP as Nicola Sturgeon started the countdown to another independence referendum this morning – a combined voting intention of 10% does not promise much. There is a fair chance these two parties will gain from the growing anger among young people that they are being removed from the EU against their will, but beyond that will not match the public mood. Both parties campaigned fiercely to remain, and will be kept from significant influence at Westminster because of this.
This all points to a conclusion that politicos rarely like to make: the situation at Westminster is unpredictable for the time being. The irony in all of this is that while those voting to leave have succeeded in their quest to return power to our national government in Westminster, there is little reason to suggest that any party will be in a shape to take advantage of this.