Brexit poised to turn UK politics and society on its head

British Prime Minister Theresa May triggered Article 50 this week, beginning Britain’s formal exit from the European Union. Exit negotiations with the EU will now commence and the centre of gravity of the Brexit debate will shift from the United Kingdom to the rest of Europe.

It is already clear that May’s government will be defined by Brexit. The result of last year’s referendum is having profound implications for the nation, including charging the debate around Scottish independence.
It also revealed stark contradictions within the UK, with Northern Ireland and major English and Welsh cities such as London and Cardiff recording sizeable majorities to remain in the EU.

Amid the storm of discussion about England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland leaving the EU, there have also been a number of discussions underway domestically.

The prime minister (who was a reluctant Remainer) has made clear her view that immigration and sovereignty were the primary drivers behind the Leave campaign’s victory.

From this perspective, it follows that controlling migration flows from the EU and ending the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice in the UK should be key objectives for the Brexit negotiations. Given the EU’s commitment to the free movement of goods, people, services and capital, this has pushed May towards a “hard Brexit” negotiating stance.

This will see the UK, in her words, discarding “bits of the EU”, including membership of the 500‑million-strong European Single Market.

However, although May is riding high in the opinion polls, her narrative about Brexit is far from the entire picture. There were diverse views expressed by people voting to exit the EU last year. Some Leave voters, for instance, focused on the perceived costs and constraints of EU membership, including the UK’s financial contributions to its budget.

Others voted for a vision of a buccaneering global UK that could, post-Brexit, allow the nation to secure new ties with countries outside the EU. Meanwhile, a significant slice of the electorate voted Leave as a protest against non-EU issues such as domestic austerity measures.

The Leave vote therefore encapsulated a range of sentiments. Indeed, the continuing divisions among the electorate are still underlined in polls that tend to show the country split over whether maintaining access to the European Single Market, or being able to limit migration, should be the focus of negotiations.

In this context, Brexit is driving clearer positioning, and potentially even significant new electoral cleavages, by the UK’s main political parties. At one pole, the ruling Conservatives are now unifying around the government’s hard Brexit stance. Like the prime minister, this includes many former Remainers who have switched sides.

The other major party with a pro-Brexit message is the United Kingdom Independence Party (Ukip). Yet its vote could now be squeezed by the significant shift in the positioning of the Conservatives.

The threat Ukip poses to the Conservatives has distracted attention, in the eyes of many in the party, from the potential danger it poses to Labour. Ukip is therefore hoping it may now have more opportunities in Labour seats, given that roughly two-thirds of constituencies with Labour MPs voted to leave.

Nonetheless, Labour has potentially the biggest positioning challenge of all the parties, given that the party’s MPs represent both the top 20 Leave voting constituencies and the top 20 Remain constituencies from the referendum. Much of the party faithful remains instinctively pro-EU, and some 65% of Labour voters backed Remain last June.

But the party’s leadership in Parliament voted to trigger article 50, given the referendum result and potential risks of losing support in many of its heartland seats if Labour was perceived to thwart the democratic will of the populace.

Conversely, the Liberal Democrats are seeking to make political capital through steadfast opposition to Brexit. This stance has given the party clearer differentiation and led it in December to win a by-election victory in Richmond Park in London against the Conservatives when Brexit was the defining issue.

Taken overall, Brexit is already having a big impact on UK politics and this may only grow in coming years as the negotiations with Brussels and the 27 other states proceed. Indeed, it is likely that this issue will frame the nation’s politics for several years and could yet prove the defining battleground in the 2020 general election.

Andrew Hammond is an associate at the Centre for International Affairs, Diplomacy and Strategy at the London School of Economics

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