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Why are so many British politicians resigning?

Julien Mercille looks at the decisions of Nigel Farage, David Cameron and Boris Johnson to move out of the spotlight.

Julien Mercille Associate professor, UCD

NIGEL FARAGE, THE UKIP leader, announced yesterday that he is stepping down, claiming he “wants his life back” and that his “political ambition has been achieved” now that the UK has voted to leave the EU.

This comes on the heels of Boris Johnson’s decision not to take part in the race for leadership of the Conservative Party. This followed David Cameron himself announcing that he was standing down as Prime Minister.

So, what’s going on with British politics? The details are murky and rapidly evolving, but let me attempt to provide an explanation for this week’s events.

Cameron resigns

David Cameron launched the referendum on whether the UK should leave the EU. The reason why he did that has to do with internal Conservative Party politics.

Indeed, there has always been a Eurosceptic current in the party, and it became rather strong. With the rise of Nigel Farage’s UKIP, the Conservatives worried about being out-flanked on the right on immigration and Europe. In order to clamp down on that threat, Cameron said that if elected he would hold a referendum. He hoped that Remain would win, thus neutralising the Eurosceptic challenge.

But people voted for Brexit. Having lost his gamble, Cameron was virtually forced to resign, because the referendum was such a huge issue that it became a vote of confidence in the Prime Minister.

EU referendum David Cameron resigns as Prime Minister Source: Daniel Leal-Olivas

Leavers jump ship

In the wake of their victory, the Leave camp’s lack of planning for an EU exit quickly came to light.

Few of those who had inflamed the campaign trail with alarmist speeches about immigration and the evil nature of the EU seemed to have thought about what to do in the event that people would actually be convinced by their declarations.

The Brexit referendum has let the genie of far-right forces out of the bottle. Both the UK and EU, by implementing austerity that led to job losses, economic recession and cuts to public services, have set the stage for extremist elements to emerge feeding on popular resentment. This is best represented by Nigel Farage in the UK, but the same applies to Marine Le Pen in France and Donal Trump in the US.

The problem is that once out of the bottle, those forces are somewhat uncontrollable. The individuals who led the Leave camp made sensationalist speeches without much rational thinking about the likely consequences, leading into the current unpredictable environment.

Conservative Real Politik

Boris Johnson was set to lead the new Conservative government, teaming up with his pal Michael Gove. But Gove decided to go it alone and betrayed Boris. Boris then assessed the situation and concluded that without Gove, he didn’t have enough support to lead the Party and so dropped out of the race.

Britain EU Politics Boris Johnson announces he's not running for leader of the Conservative Party Source: Matt Dunham/Press Association

Almost immediately after Gove triumphantly launched his own candidacy, he lost support from the Conservative Party MPs because he was seen as unreliable and inclined to backstabbing.

This leaves two main contenders: Theresa May and Andrea Leadsom. Their candidacy helps to explain much of what’s at stake in the leadership race.

In a nutshell, the party must balance two factors: On one hand, the British political and business establishment is opposed to Brexit and so they want a candidate who is favorable to maintaining links with Europe – that’s Theresa May.

On the other hand, given the outcome of the referendum can’t be ignored, they need to present a candidate that’s also open to cutting links with Europe – that’s Andrea Leadsom. It remains to be seen which one will be victorious.

pjimage (10) Five candidates for Conservative Leader: Andrea Leadsom, Michael Gove, Theresa May, Liam Fox and Stephen Crabb Source: Press Association

Farage’s farewell

This leaves us with Farage, which is a trickier case. Why did he resign, having won his referendum and now seemingly in a position of strength?

Here is a possibility: He concluded that leading UKIP was no longer useful to further his ambitions.

Nevertheless, Farage’s political capital has increased thanks to the referendum. Therefore, he may want a new vehicle to exert his influence. For example, he could have eyes on joining a Tory Party led by Andrea Leadsom.

Maybe he wants to join the efforts of his multi-millionnaire friend Arron Banks, who has bankrolled UKIP but now wants to start a new party, which would be an improved version of UKIP, fixing its many problems. Farage could play an important role there, in particular, to mobilise members and voters through a grassroots effort nicknamed a “right-wing momentum”, in reference to the left-wing activist group supporting Jeremy Corbyn.

Or maybe Farage just threw everything up in the air in an emotional outburst, unable to deal with the unexpected Brexit vote. But I very much doubt it. Some politicians are depicted as irrational fools, but they could never have made it very far without a plan.

Julien Mercille is a lecturer at University College Dublin.

Read: Voting to pick a new Prime Minister of the UK starts today

Read: Nigel Farage resigns as leader of UKIP

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About the author:

Julien Mercille  / Associate professor, UCD

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