The Brexit referendum result was not legally binding in any way: is Theresa May just looking for a political excuse to ignore it?
Today marks three months since Britain’s contentious and divisive Brexit referendum. The latest news on the subject seems to imply an acceleration of ongoing UK/EU talks, which would make a change from 3 months of stalemate since June.
Despite the resounding consequences of the less than resounding vote, the UK seems in many ways to have not gone very far. Certainly, Article 50 has not been triggered at least; any date for leaving the EU remains just an estimate.
What has changed since 23rd June then?
New Party Leaders
The leadership of almost every major party has changed since the referendum – like it or not, the direction of every UK political grouping has been altered by the Brexit vote. I won’t get into the changes in Stormont politics here – they need a few articles and a lot of head-scratching to try and comprehend.
Nicola Sturgeon and Leanne Wood have kept Holyrood and Cardiff Bay relatively stable, retaining their respective SNP/Plaid Cymru leaderships through regional elections earlier this year. Whereas the SNP secured a hard-won re-election to the Scottish Parliament just before the referendum, Plaid Cymru’s role has still remained second to Labour in Wales.
UKIP are now led by Diane James, an MEP whose most notable moments include praising Putin as a strong leader. The Green Party had a thoroughly amiable election where Caroline Lucas and Jonathan Bartley were elected as joint leaders.
Tim Farron is the new Lib Dem chief, and recently made a lot of pro-European noise when introducing new party policy/direction for the first time at his first party conference (in Brighton) since becoming LD leader. Farron’s aim is to set the Lib Dems up once more as an opposition to the Conservatives, as Labour could hardly be in worse shape with their own suicide pact of an election. Corbyn, Smith, Blairites, Trots, it doesn’t matter for the present. Without an unprecedented change, no-one is going to discuss Labour with anything but a sigh and shake of head for some time.
Theresa May: I’ll take it from here, Dave
Of course, Brexit marked the end of David Cameron’s 6 year stint as the UK’s Prime Minister and champion of austerity/cuts, who failed to heal the Eurosceptic divide within the Tories.
The politically brutal process of replacing him is thankfully over, having included backstabbings by Gove and a heated campaign by Lansbury. Instead, the honour fell to Theresa May, the second un-elected British PM in a decade.
So far, it is still too soon to tell what May’s real game is. She smartly made Boris Johnson Foreign Secretary, keeping him close but simultaneously setting him up for a fall if he does not keep on his toes. She campaigned Remain but threw out a wave of Brexit soundbites to secure No. 10 and heal the Leave/Remain rift.
In my view, May is playing the delaying game, playing Eurosceptics and the EU off each other to tread the Leave/Remain line. Even many of the strongest Leave voters recognised the error of the decision soon after 23rd June – if not for policy reasons, then at least because they saw how Johnson/Gove/Farage etc. had absolutely no plan to win.
Hopefully May can end up drawing out the process, squeezing Eurosceptics out of the Tory leadership and securing some kind of extra concessions from the EU (secured by quietly giving up some older deals, e.g. Cameron’s ‘migrants benefits’ deal) to let her say that Brexit is no longer necessary. After all, the referendum was not legally binding in any way: May may just need a political excuse to ignore it.