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Brexit shatters British political order

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Brexit shatters British political order

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The immediate effects of the Brexit vote are that there will be a change at the top of the governing Conservative party and a change of prime minister. David Cameron decided to hold the referendum to seal his two-term prime ministerial legacy and snuff out the eurosceptics within his own party who had already ensured sticky ends for both Margaret Thatcher and John Major previously.

Instead his referendum proved to be the crowbar that levered him out of office, and the victory of the “leave” camp now means it is likely the Conservatives will elect a leader from within the rebel ranks. At the moment the favourite to succeed Cameron is former London Mayor Boris Johnson.

But he is quite a divisive figure and his naked personal ambition, (he was pro-European as recently as February), drove him to betray former friend David Cameron.

The possibility does remain that the party will split, with moderate pro-Europeans or anyone who loathes (because not many are indifferent to him) Johnson and his cronies going their own way.

That leaves UKip as the party that has done more than any other to bring this result about, but which currently gains little from the victory. It has only one sitting MP, virtually ostracised from his own party, and its leader Nigel Farage is unelected.

As Farage said in London this morning, “What Britain needs now is a Brexit government”, so UKip will be hoping for an early general election so it can maximise its momentum and enter parliament in strength.

But if it does, who will suffer? Ukip can rightly claim that on the British right it was almost single-handedly responsible for this historic change of course, and so the electorate should reward it.

However Conservative voters may feel they have the result they wanted already and that UKip has served its purpose, gingering up the Tories to take the plunge on leaving Europe. They may return to voting Conservative as the only serious party of government.

But UKip will have realised that this referendum was won with hundreds of thousands of votes from the Labour heartlands; the poor, ill-educated and elderly who have seen their share of housing, health and social services diminish at the expense, they have been told, of foreigners who have never paid a day’s tax in their lives.

This claim was believed and Labour’s entreaties that the plight of the working class was more about Conservative indifference and a lack of public investment fell on deaf ears.

Labour, and the political class in general have been given a stinging rebuke from people who feel neglected, on the sidelines, and who are convinced they have seen none of the benefits of EU membership.

The disconnect between the political class and UK politicians has rarely seemed as wide, and even Labour’s new supposedly “man of the people” leader Jeremy Corbyn’s contributions to the “Remain” campaign seemed low-key and theoretical rather than delivering emotional appeals that could capture electors’ hearts and minds. There are pressures on his leadership, too, with MPs calling openly for his replacement.

The likely departure of Scotland will also change the landscape in ways unfavourable to Labour.

So what is the likeliest scenario in the short term? Britain is now divided as it has rarely been in the recent past, and the fractious referendum campaign has revealed ugly social fault lines on race, on age, on education, and on geography that few could have dreamed were running so strongly below the typical placid, imperturbable British surface.

An early general election is more likely than not, but with both major parties in considerable disarray the result would be very unpredictable. A period of political chaos looks the most likely outcome, with no clear winner in sight, and no clear plan on which direction to take for Britain.

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