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Brexit has thrown the UK’s two major parties into civil war

Anti-Brexit Protestors Gather At Parliament (Matt Cardy/Getty Images)
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

In the past two days, both major political parties in the UK have fallen into complete and total chaos. You can blame Brexit.

On Tuesday, members of Parliament for the center-left Labour Party held a vote of no-confidence against their party leader, Jeremy Corbyn. The vote passed by an overwhelming 172-40 margin. While the vote doesn’t topple Corbyn automatically, it shows that the Labour Party is currently in a state of civil war — the anti-Corbyn faction is staging a coup, and Corbyn is fighting desperately to fend them off.

Then, on Thursday morning, Conservative Party firebrand and chief Brexit supporter Boris Johnson announced that he wouldn’t be running for leadership of the party. The Conservatives currently have a majority in Parliament and run the UK government, so the party leader is also the prime minister.

The Conservatives need someone to replace incumbent Prime Minister David Cameron, a Brexit opponent who tendered his resignation after the vote. Johnson was the overwhelming favorite to take over. Now that he’s withdrawn his name from contention, no one is quite sure who’s going to lead Britain in the near future.

Why are both parties in such omnishambles? The answer in both cases is strikingly similar: The Brexit vote was a shattering event that brought out deep ideological fissures in both parties. Divisions that were previously papered over are now coming to the fore.

Now, nobody knows who’s going to run Britain, or either of its two leading parties, at perhaps the most critical juncture in the country’s modern history.

The Conservative Party is stuck in a trap of its own making

Boris Johnson MP Announces He Will Not Run For Conservative Party Leader
Boris Johnson sees no evil.
(Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

The Conservative Party has been at odds with itself over Europe since the 1980s largely due to Margaret Thatcher, who was prime minister of the UK from 1979 to 1990. The changes ushered in by Thatcher are crucial for understanding why Brexit has collapsed the Conservative Party today.

Prior to Thatcher, the Tories (as members of the Conservative Party are often called) had been the more Euro-positive of the UK’s two major parties. Conservatives saw greater European unity as a way to strengthen the UK’s political influence vis-à-vis the rest of Europe. Most skepticism came from the Labour Party’s left flank, which saw the move toward supranationalism as an international capitalist effort to weaken the welfare state (more on that in a minute).

Thatcher, by contrast, became a vocal critic of European integration while in office. She saw Europe’s drive for unity as exactly the kind of big-government initiative she so famously opposed at home.

"We have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain, only to see them re-imposed at a European level, with a European super-state exercising a new dominance from Brussels," Thatcher said in a famous 1988 speech in Bruges.

Her vocal criticism of European unity infuriated members of her own party, contributing to an uprising that ended her premiership in 1990. But her influence was lasting: After Thatcher, the Euroskeptic wing of the Tories has grown in strength considerably.

Increased European integration as well as higher rates of immigration to the UK have created a sort of nativist, isolationist backlash among British conservatives, fueling both Tory Euroskepticism and the rise of the hard-right third party the UK Independence Party (UKIP).

But despite the growing prominence of the Euroskeptics, they’ve never gotten a chance to actually lead the country. Cameron, who sounded sympathetic to the Euroskeptics during his campaign for party leadership in 2005, actually ended up governing as something of a Europhile. He famously told his party to "stop banging on about Europe," and led the Tory campaign against Brexit.

The Brexit referendum’s victory, however, is a clear mandate for the Euroskeptics. The only viable candidate for party leadership, and thus leadership of the country, is someone who at least publicly supports Brexit.

This has produced some vicious backstabbing amongst Euroskeptics. Johnson, for instance, had expected to be supported by Michael Gove, a Conservative MP and the party’s second-most prominent advocate for Brexit. But Gove betrayed him. My colleague Libby Nelson explains:

Gove’s wife, a Daily Mail columnist, leaked an email to the public in which she advised Gove not to support Johnson without getting specific promises from him. Gove announced Thursday that he’d run for prime minister and immediately began siphoning away Johnson’s support.

According to the Guardian’s Jessica Elgot, this is why Johnson dropped out. "Johnson appeared to have concluded that he could not command enough support from his party, after a series of key MPs, including business minister Nick Boles, and pro-Brexit Dominic Raab, defected to the Gove camp," she writes.

Gove isn’t alone: Home secretary and bitter immigration opponent Theresa May is also running for party leadership, as are three other Conservatives.

This is a structural result of the leadership vacuum created by Cameron’s resignation. The pro-Europe establishment that has traditionally led the party has been discredited, and now nobody is quite sure who’s supposed to be leading the party. It’s anarchy in the UK Conservative Party, a war of all Euroskeptics against all for power.

There’s another twist, though: Even after Gove, May, or someone else wins, their situation will be precarious at best. For one thing, Cameron is refusing to submit the Article 50 notice to EU, the irreversible step required for Brexit. Until that’s filed, Britain is still fully in the EU.

That means it will fall to Cameron’s successor, whoever it is, to actually enact the "Brexit." That person will then own the consequences, which are widely predicted to include a UK recession. That would tank their popularity and the party’s.

To make matters worse, they won’t even be able to follow through on the "Leave" campaign’s promises to UK voters. Leave promised that exiting the UK would net about £350 million for Britain’s health care system and would result in a severe clampdown on immigration from the EU. Now, key Leave backers have admitted that neither of those things will happen, a point that was obvious to most observers beforehand, if not the British public.

That means the next Conservative prime minister will likely face a backlash both from the general public, for the recession, and from the Euroskeptics, for failing to accomplish the things Brexit was supposed to.

It’s quite possible that attaining the premiership now is political suicide — not only for Gove or May, but also the entire Conservative Party.

Labour is having an identity crisis over just how left-wing it wants to be

Jeremy Corbyn Speaks On Labour's Anti-Semitism Inquiry Findings
Jeremy Corbyn.
(Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

You’d think that the complete and total collapse of the Conservative leadership would be an opportunity for Labour, the leading opposition party. But Brexit has brought out Labour’s own historical divisions, so it’s in the midst of an internal crisis every bit as severe as the Conservatives’.

To understand this division, you once again need to go back in time, this time to the 1970s. Back then, Labour was far more left-wing politically than it is now. We’re talking actual socialism, way beyond Bernie Sanders: The state controlling major parts of the British economy.

The old Labour Party was also way more skeptical of European integration. They saw it as a right-wing, capitalist project. As my colleague Dylan Matthews explains:

They complained that European integration was, especially then, largely a process of economic liberalization. Barriers to trade between members were eliminated. Much freer migration was allowed. And, crucially, regulatory policies were harmonized between members. In the European communities, many British leftists saw the EU as an international capitalist scheme to defang the welfare state, erode pro-labor regulations, and more.

In the 1980s, Labour was repeatedly trounced by Thatcher and the Conservatives. Two Labour Party leaders — Tony Blair and Gordon Brown — blamed their party's left-wing platform for its losses, and became the leaders of a movement called New Labour. Think of it like a British equivalent of Bill Clinton and the Democratic Leadership Council: a force that pulled the party to the political center, particularly on economic issues, in the name of electability.

New Labour initially succeeded. It took over the party in 1994, when Blair was elected leader, and controlled the premiership from 1997 to 2010. But in 2010, the brand was retired after the Great Recession led to electoral defeat.

However, New Labour's ideological influence is far from gone: Labour's mainstream and its leadership is still far more free market-oriented than it was in 1983, the year a landslide electoral defeat began the shift toward New Labour. New Labour pushed the Labour Party toward a pro-EU consensus: Instead of seeing the EU as a neoliberal plot, Labour leaders saw it as a vehicle for building a more tolerant and peaceful Europe.

Given these shifts in Labour politics, Jeremy Corbyn’s victory in the September 2015 party leadership election was a complete and total shock.

Corbyn is an unapologetic throwback to Old Labour, as the BBC’s excellent rundown of his policy platform shows. It includes, among other things, re-nationalizing Britain's railroad system and energy companies, abolishing tuition for British universities, and imposing rent controls to deal with Britain's affordable-housing problem. He's even open to reopening the coal mines that used to be a big part of Britain's economy.

Corbyn won the leadership election despite being opposed by most of the Labour establishment. Blair — whom Corbyn has suggested should be investigated for war crimes, due to his role in the Iraq War — warned that Corbyn’s election meant "the party won’t just face defeat but annihilation" in the next election.

At first, the party had to resign itself to Corbyn’s victory. There wasn’t very much appetite for a coup, despite Corbyn having limited-at-best support among the leadership.

Brexit changed everything.

Momentum Members Rally In Support Of Jeremy Corbyn
A recent pro-Corbyn demonstration.
(Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

You see, Corbyn has long shared the old-school Labour Euroskepticism. When Britain held a referendum on joining the European Economic Community, Europe’s common market that would eventually become the EU, in 1975, Corbyn voted against joining.

He opposed signing the 1993 Maastricht Treaty, which turned the EEC into the EU. At the time, he gave a speech warning that the creation of the EU would be an "imposition of a bankers' Europe on the people of this continent [that] will endanger the cause of socialism in the United Kingdom and in any other country."

There’s strong evidence nothing has changed. Last year, he refused to rule out supporting the Leave side in the 2016 referendum. While he eventually came out in favor of "Remain," he hardly campaigned for it at all.

He refused to appear with Cameron to send a message of bipartisan opposition. In one public appearance just before the vote, he said that he was "not a lover of the European Union." The BBC published emails that show that Corbyn’s office intentionally sabotaged the Labour Remain campaign.

After the results came in, the Labour leadership was furious. Leave won big victories among traditional Labour voters in Northeast England. Arguably, a serious Corbyn campaign in those areas would have been able to sway enough people on the basis of pure political partisanship to flip the results. Brexit, many argued, was Corbyn’s fault.

Now the Labour establishment finally had something concrete on Corbyn. His antiquated ideology and poor leadership, in their view, had brought Britain to the brink of disaster. The Brexit result became a catalyst for the Labour rebellion that had been brewing since Corbyn’s election in September 2015 — hence the 172-40 vote of no confidence among Labour MPs.

Corbyn and his supporters are not backing down. "I was democratically elected leader of our party for a new kind of politics by 60% of Labour members and supporters, and I will not betray them by resigning," he said in a statement. "Today’s vote by MPs has no constitutional legitimacy."

This fight is far from over. Labour has a party conference slated this September. At that conference, an MP can challenge Corbyn for leadership if he or she has support from 20 percent of MPs and MEPs (members of the European Parliament). Angela Eagle, a leading Labour MP, has already announced her intentions to mount a challenge — though she’s thinking about delaying it, the BBC reports, "to give Corbyn time to quit."

A challenge in September seems likely. The current brouhaha isn’t just about Brexit, a controversy that might subside. Rather, the Brexit controversy is about Labour’s much bigger issues with Corbyn: the fact that many party leaders simply don’t want his vision for Labour to triumph. They’ll do everything they can feasibly do to defeat him — even if it means igniting civil war in the party at the same time that the Conservatives are supremely vulnerable.

And that’s the big takeaway here: Both Labour and the Tories are consumed with their own internecine battles, at a time when the country requires united and strong leadership. If you thought Brexit couldn’t get any worse, just imagine what it will be like with domestic UK politics in complete shambles.

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