Could Brexit Lead to a Political Realignment in the United Kingdom? By Joshua Turner
For much of the past two years, the conversation surrounding Brexit has focused on how the United Kingdom will be able to manage its relationship with the European Union as it seeks to retain the economic benefits of of membership while simultaneously losing all or most of the responsibilities, most notably in regards to free movement of people. Some in the British government (and many of the British voting public) have remained obstinate in their belief that the European Union will accede to their demands and that a ‘no-deal’ Brexit will be just as bad for the EU as it would them (this has been widely disputed.)
While all of this remains unresolved as the 29 March deadline approaches, domestic political concerns have arisen around this increasingly contentious issue. Prime Minister Theresa May survived a no confidence vote among conservatives in parliament earlier this month but still lost 117 of her members (she needed 159 to continue serving and got 200). Just this week she has survived a devastating defeat on her Brexit plan and a no confidence vote on the Conservative government she leads. It’s seems that, at least for now, even the most hard line Brexit supporters that voted against her plan are content with May as prime minister; not surprising given that a new election would almost certainly see the Tories ousted.
Perhaps the most interesting of Brexit’s myriad effects on British politics is the extent to which it has cut across traditional party lines. Given that Tory Prime Minister David Cameron was the originator of the referendum, done so in the hopes of winning a remain vote and strengthening his political position only to be undone by members of his own party pushing to leave, it should come as little surprise that Brexit has induced a split among the conservatives. Theresa May was against Brexit during the lead up to the vote (then as Home Secretary) but in power has resigned herself to following thorough on referendums results. Boris Johnson, who was one of the main proponents of Brexit, even served in her cabinet for a time as foreign minister before resigning over his displeasure with the direction of the Brexit negotiations.
One might expect that, given the conservative leanings of most of the Brexitiers, the opposition Labour Party would be vociferous in its condemnation of the mess surrounding the negotiations with Brussels. However, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has long been a Euro-Skeptic himself, albeit for somewhat different reasons. Corbyn has been a polarizing figure in the Labour Party, with much of the ‘Blairite’ center-left wing openly hostile to him. This has manifested in an almost dual position from Labour on the Brexit issue and complicated relationships within it. Seventy one Labour MP’s have declared support for a second referendum while those closer to Corbyn are more concerned with removing the Conservative government in an election and then attempting to find their own solution, which may be referendum or a new Brexit deal similar to what Norway has.
While the youth vote has played a large role in propelling Corbyn to power (there are now as many Young Labour members as there are in many other whole political parties) that same youth vote was overwhelming it its desire to stay in the European Union. It remains unclear if Corbyn will be able to unify all of Labour under a single banner in regards to Brexit (or to a number of other issues for that matter).
Could Brexit lead to a political realignment in the United Kingdom? It is possible that some moderate Conservative and Labour members could leave the party but there is no natural landing spot for them. The Liberal Democrats would be the most obvious, given their strident position against Brexit and their place near the ideological center of British politics. However, the party remains unpopular after their time in coalition government with David Cameron’s conservatives. The reality is that we may not know the effects of Brexit on British politics for a number of years; but if there is to be a political realignment, Brexit will likely have been the catalyst and it will likely involve the more populist elements of both parties being separated from their more liberal and moderate wings. One way or another it is very likely that Brexit will change the nature of British politics and their political parties.
Joshua Turner is a Masters of International Relations candidate at American University