“Brexit means Brexit,” Theresa May has said repeatedly since becoming British Prime Minister more than two months ago. Now we know what that almost nonsensical phrase actually means – a tougher and much more complete extraction from the European Union than even many “leave” campaigners wanted.
In her speech to the Conservative Party annual conference this week, May outlined a very “hard” Brexit, prioritizing barriers on migration over retaining access to the single market. At the same time – and perhaps in expectation of the judders of alarm passing through some financial markets – her administration has also junked much of its predecessor’s drive to relentless austerity in the hope of retaining economic growth.
It’s a unique moment in British politics. The May government already bears little resemblance to that led by David Cameron and George Osborne, elected by British voters barely 16 months ago. Its mandate, if it has one, is a bizarre mix of the legacy of that election victory and the June 23 referendum, now tied together to justify a range of almost entirely new policies.
In most countries, that would usher in a new election. What’s happening instead in the UK, however, is a very British compromise. Having found itself in such a messy place, the electorate has little appetite to return to the polls – even if May’s mandate for pushing through such a harsh EU exit remains limited at best.
Not having another election until the scheduled date of 2020 may well suit both the Conservatives and main opposition Labour Party. Both have some heavy lifting to do in the four years to come, the former to deliver on the referendum outcome and the latter to shape a genuine alternative. However the relationship develops with the EU, the UK faces real and growing challenges – and it needs both major political parties to have credible, but perhaps also radical, strategies to manage it.
It’s too soon to say if that will happen for sure. But while May’s conservatives are attempting to redefine relations with Europe, the Labour Party too is thinking new thoughts and trying new directions. The era of bland technocrat rule seems to be over – at least for now.
The Conservatives’ longstanding divisions over Europe are likely to be exacerbated by the current exit process. Their best case scenario is that May and her team make Brexit work and that the British people reward them with another term in office.
That won’t be easy. Negotiations with Europe will be difficult; achieving all the promises of the “leave” campaign all but impossible. Indeed, May’s negotiators have made such uninspiring progress that some pundits are speculating the prime minister secretly intended the negotiations to fail so she could avoid Brexit altogether.
The opposition Labour Party is even more divided. Earlier this month, embattled leader Jeremy Corbyn beat off an attempt to oust him by centrist parliamentarians and their supporters. The party must now resolve its own potentially catastrophic internal divisions to have any chance of winning the next election.
Many of the party’s most senior members are still considering whether to rejoin its front bench – some have explicitly ruled it out, saying they lack confidence in Corbyn’s ability to win an election. That may yet prove a self-fulfilling prophecy – but the spike in new membership has also brought with it much-needed new blood and ideas.
Britain is a relatively conservative country, and the opinion polls suggest it will be an uphill struggle for Labour. The platform it unveiled at the end of its own conference last week needs further definition and is arguably well to the left of what the electorate might want. The party looks unlikely to win without regaining its reputation for economic competence, and a proposed 500 billion pound national investment strategy still looks ill-defined.
Immigration is now perhaps the defining issue in British politics. Corbyn has made it clear he will not be following May down the path of pushing for tighter controls. Still, the Labour Party will need to refine where it stands – its welfare state program has benefited from migrant workers, but new arrivals have also seriously stretched its resources.
In reality, the Labour Party may be at the beginning rather than the end of the next stage of its change. Corbyn might have done more than any other recent opposition leader to shift the center ground of British politics, but he is also 67. Even if he does contest the next election, ambitious politicians are already jostling to be his replacement.
Many are more centrist. Even one of the most prominent potential challengers from the party’s left-wing, shadow Defense Secretary Clive Lewis, is a different and much more potentially electable prospect – a mixed-race former Army Reserve officer. A rebuilt Labour Party could pose a real challenge – particularly if the Conservatives make a hash of Brexit.
Even without Brexit, Britain has a lot that needs fixing. Economic inequality has risen dramatically, particularly since David Cameron took power in 2010. North of the border, enthusiasm for Scottish independence remains significant – although probably still too limited to win another referendum. In England, the third-party Liberal Democrats are hoping to attract diehard EU supporters to their cause while the Green Party is doing what it can to differentiate itself from the now more left-wing Labour.
Then there is the UK Independence Party, a powerful force in the referendum campaign which must redefine whether it serves any purpose at all. If Brexit is a disaster, it may well take the blame.
What is striking, though, is just how healthy British politics actually look compared to so many of its counterparts. While the far right rises in Europe and Trump and Clinton face-off in the most depressing U.S. election in years, Britain may yet be seeing a resurgence of a potentially vibrant form of politics.